When I got to her home, she was already waiting for me. Her parents had approached our Senior Pastor and told him that their daughter, Rose, wanted to be baptized. As the Youth Pastor of our church, I was excited and jumped at the opportunity to help one more youth give her life to Jesus. I had made an appointment, just to follow up, offer some Bible studies, and support her in her big decision. There was only one problem.
As I sat down with Rose, who was 12 years old, and congratulated her on the decision to publicly give her life to Jesus through baptism, she gave me a very strange look and said, “Who told you I wanted to be baptized?” She added, “I don’t want to be baptized!” As I sat there disappointed and not knowing what to say, she continued: “I wanted to be baptized since I was little. I begged my parents when I was eight and even before that. Every time they had baptisms at church, I went forward during the appeals, filled out over a dozen decision cards, and often came home crying because each time I asked, I was told by my parents and others “You are too young, you are not ready…”' She stood up, looked at me, and said: “This is nothing against you Pastor Jose, you just got to our church, but if I was too young to be baptized then, I am too old to be baptized now, and I don’t want to." And she walked away.
The Great Commission is for All
When I read The Great Commission, I wonder if somehow, we have misinterpreted Jesus’ words. He said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20). This is a pretty general and inclusive commission. There are no age limits here.
It should be relevant that Jesus did not say, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, except children under 12 or 16, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” It is also interesting that in another instance Jesus had to tell His own disciples, the very people closest to Him, the following: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:13-14).
The 0/14 Window
As a North American church, we have for years talked about the 10/40 window and have sent missionaries to evangelize the unreached peoplesgroups far away from home. This is admirable and needs to continue, yet I believe that in our zeal to reach the unreached we have somehow neglected and at times ignored the 0/14 window right in our very own homes and neighborhoods. The 0/14 window are the children between birth and age 14, the most important and formative years in the life of a human being.
According to the International Bible Society, 80% of all who accept Christ do so before the age of 14. Barna Research shows that adults 19 and over have a 6% probability of becoming Christians. I am not saying that we abandon our efforts to help adults come to Jesus. What I am clearly saying is that neglecting the 0/14 window should no longer be an option for parents, pastors, and churches in our Division. Churches that do well with children and youth, generally do well with all generations. Churches that neglect children and youth will not grow young and eventually die. I can only wonder what would happen if our evangelism methods were seriously inclusive of younger generations and intentionally aimed at reaching children, youth, and their families in our communities. I also wonder what would happen if we took each decision, made by our own Adventist children, seriously, and followed up to baptism and intentional discipleship?
Our church in North America has undertaken an initiative called Growing Young. It has been well received across our division because we have realized that our churches are growing gray and old. Our older generations are very important and valuable, they are vital to the life of the church, yet as I travel our division time after time, I hear from parents and grandparents who miss their children in church and are worried that the generations they brought into earthly life may all together miss eternal life. I hear the regrets, “I wish we had allowed him to be baptized when he first requested it. We delayed his decision, and he never asked again.” I hear similar comments over and over, one too many times.
Parents, pastors, and churches, let’s not neglect the 0/14 window. These are the years when character is formed, lives are influenced, memories are created, and important decisions are made. Please:
1. Follow up each decision made by a child and youth. Children are people too! When a child is baptized, there should be lots of celebration, the baptism of a child is not a “light baptism”. This baptism is as important as the baptism of an adult. Don’t force them to take the plunge simply because you need to baptize somebody at the end of an evangelistic series, forcing someone who has not made a decision to be baptized is wrong. But when a child or youth is impressed by the Holy Spirit and makes a decision for Jesus, don’t put roadblocks, don’t delay, follow up and baptize them.
2. Model the unconditional love of the God we preach while they struggle. I was baptized 35 years ago and still struggle at times. If I struggle (and perhaps you do too), what makes you think that our children need to be perfect before or right after baptism? Please don’t use behavior as a discouragement tool to keep them from baptism. They will make mistakes, just like we do, and that will create perfect opportunities to demonstrate the love of God to them.
3. Disciple them. Teach them our beliefs, listen to their doubts, don’t chastise them for having questions, study their questions with them, don’t make up stuff that is not true, they can use Google and see what is true and what is a myth. And don’t teach traditions as if they were Biblical truth. Empower them to serve, even if they mess up. I have been around this church since birth for 46 years and I still mess up, why can’t they? Discipleship is not just knowing our 28 fundamental beliefs but having the priorities of Jesus and actually being the eyes, heart, hands, and feet of Jesus in the church and outside the walls of the church in the community. Sitting down every Sabbath and listening to an adult talk at them or to them is not being a disciple. Disciples learn and do!
If we want our church to grow young, mingle with them, identify their talents and passions, mentor them, serve with them outside the walls of the church, give them a platform, a mic, an instrument, a post of relevance, a seat around the decision-making table and trust them to serve in their own armor, with their own methods, not yours. They are equipped for these times, and after all, we want them to stay and reach their friends, so it would probably be wise to listen to them.
Please, take time to talk with your congregation about the most practical ways to help your church grow young by keeping the children born within the church family and reaching the children and youth in your community.
Pastor Jose Cortes Jr. is an Associate Director of the Ministerial Association and leads Evangelism, Church Planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.