Reshaping the language used to talk about salvation can lead to a deeper understanding of who Christ is.
“If you want to ask Jesus into your heart tonight, please come forward. Just come forward, and kneel right here in the aisle.”
I was watching the children’s evangelist land the proverbial plane at the end of a camp service.
“If you want to be sure you’re going to heaven, come kneel. I’m going to teach you a simple prayer called “ABC.” We ask Jesus into our hearts, we believe He is Lord, and we confess our sins to Him. That’s all it takes, friends!”
This verbiage is not uncommon. You might hear a similar altar call at church camps around the world. Often, this takes place on the last night of camp.
I am in support of church camp altar calls. I speak at camps every summer and open up the altar often. I was significantly impacted at the altar of a church camp when I was a child. But perhaps what is lacking in the simple “ABC” approach of church camp altar calls is a robust Christology.
When speaking to children, adults often try to make things as simple as possible. If we come up with a rhyme, a phrase, an acronym, or some other pneumonic help, then maybe what we are teaching will actually stick! However, this can be problematic when attempts at simplicity weaken the overall message. Learning tools like pneumonic devices, while helpful, cannot replace solid theology and often fall short of telling the whole story.
Being Christian is not just about what Christ did for us on the cross. The gospel does not begin in Matthew 27 (or Mark 15, etc.). Sharing the good news involves telling the whole story of God’s people that begins with God establishing a new kingdom and continues to this day with an invitation to participate. The Gospel story is a salvific one, to be sure, but it is so much more than just a plan of salvation.
There’s a lot to the Jesus story that happens well before His death.
So, why do we invite kids to kneel at a camp altar (or a Sunday morning altar) without telling the whole story? I have heard lots of preachers promise kids the hope of heaven. For most kids, though, heaven is a long way away. What about the present? What aspects of my life change now, the moment I become a Christian? Who is Jesus to me now that I’ve decided to follow Him? The “ABC” approach does not tell me this part of the story.
I have been guilty of missing pieces of the story. In my early days in ministry, the ABC’s seemed the universal standard in talking with children about salvation. A deeper meaning –a more biblical meaning—regarding salvation was often missing. It is in an ongoing relationship with Jesus that real joy and kingdom living happen. Our salvation is not just about heaven. It begins now!
In many classic forms of the “sinner’s prayer,” including the “ABCs” version, little time is spent on entering into a deep relationship with Jesus. Very little is said about love. These methods of invitation often fail to invite people to engage in a deep and dynamic relationship with a living God.
Some trusted colleagues and I went back to the drawing board in regard to the “ABCs” approach. We wanted to focus more on who Jesus is (Christology), instead of only on our soteriology (what Jesus did). We wanted language that is relational, dynamic, and contextual, and not just a static approach that invites children (and others) simply to check things off a list.
Savior, King, and Friend
Instead of inviting kids to ask, believe, and confess, what if we invited them into a relationship with a Savior, King, and Friend?
Jesus is our Savior. He forgives us. He sacrificed for us. Nothing we do wrong can ever turn away or outgrow His love for us. Jesus is our King. He protects us. He leads us. He provides for us. He frees us from sin that would hold us down and keep us from being who we were created to be. Jesus is our Friend. He never leaves us. He listens to us. He cares deeply for us.
Not only does Jesus love us as Savior, King, and Friend, but we also can love Him as all three. We can give our whole selves to Him like He did for us as Savior. We can live in obedience because we trust our wise King. We can have a close, personal friendship with Him because of the way Jesus offers His friendship to us.
Using the language of Savior, King, and Friend offers a way to understand Jesus’ love for us and a way to love Him back.
With something like the ABCs or sinner’s prayer, the words are said and the moment is past. These “plans of salvation” can lack the language of perpetuity. Inviting people into a living relationship with Jesus calls them into an ongoing partnership.
A Revised Language
Inviting kids to “ask Jesus into their hearts” can be a very confusing metaphor. Kids are literal learners. Metaphors like this can direct their attention onto the method of communicating an idea, rather than the actual idea. Framing our understanding about our relationship with Jesus by using the language of Savior, King, and Friend, takes the confusing metaphors out and puts their focus where it needs to be.
Leading up to summer church camp season this year, I trained camp counselors in preparation for going to the altar with kids. I offered them the language of Savior, King, and Friend. It’s not as simple as the ABCs of salvation. When we are at an altar with a child, it is easy to say, “All you have to do is ABC!” However, the truth is, that is only part of the story. A plan of salvation is not the whole gospel.
It may take a few more words to explain, but the extra time is worth it, because we can offer a more complete picture of following Jesus.
Any incomplete teaching will require re-teaching as adults, requiring their spiritual mentors and shepherds to do double the work. Instead, why not embrace a more robust approach even in our earliest conversations. Rather than salvation plans that move us in a moment from unsaved to saved but fail to tell the whole story, perhaps we could put our efforts into stories of a loving God who saves, frees, and abides: Our Savior, our King, and our Friend.
Kyle Tyler is family pastor at Lawrence First Church of the Nazarene in Lawrence, Kansas, USA, and oversees curriculum and children’s ministry training at The Foundry Publishing.