The other day I visited the website for Christian social service agency Compassion International. And when I did I was confronted, right on the home page, with a list of things that make Compassion distinct:
What caught my attention was the statistic on the right. Over the last year, 125,042 women and children had “invited Jesus to be their Savior”. This statistic is invoked on the home page for the clear purpose of fundraising. And this concerns me for two reasons. I can communicate both concerns by way of a “child evangelist” I heard speak some years ago in a seminary chapel.
During his talk this evangelist touting the “thousands” of children converted to Christianity through his ministry. Listening to him, I thought back to the many times I “converted” my friends on the school playground. They’d bow their head, pray the sinner’s prayer as directed, and then we’d go back to playing soccer. I discovered at that young age how easy it is to get kids to do things like pray a sinner’s prayer. And I also discovered how such a confession, solemnly prayed at morning recess, is often forgotten by noon. If a ten year old kid could be adept at making (temporary) “pedo-converts” of his school yard friends, how much more could a trained forty year old evangelist? But what evidence is there that the evangelist’s young converts wouldn’t have forgotten their solemn confessions by noon?
This leads me to my first ethical qualm and it concerns the ethics of child conversion itself. Children are easily manipulated and can readily be cajoled into confessing just about anything to anybody. Place a charismatic speaker in a room with a few dozen children and within an hour you can have a few dozen converts to the Sierra Club or the Hitler Youth Movement or the Democratic National Convention, or just about whatever you like.
Last year I did a podcast interview with theologian Gordon Smith on Christian conversion. Dr. Smith is skeptical of the entire idea of childhood conversions. In his view, conversion is a gradual process, a transformation of life and belief which can take years, particularly when the convert in question is in a critical time of physical, mental and emotional development. I agree with Dr. Smith. For goodness sake, if the state does not recognize a child as mentally or emotionally prepared to cast a vote in a civic election, what makes Christians think he/she is ready to cast a vote on eternal destiny?
According to David Bebbington, one of the four classic hallmarks of historic evangelicalism is “conversionism”, the emphasis upon a decisive point of turning from one life to another. The problem here is not with conversion per se. Rather it is that conversion is a complicated gradual process, and one that I would submit can only properly be completed in early adulthood. It cannot be reduced to a barebones decision made by a pliable young mind who is anxious to please the evangelist, influenced by the decisions of those around him, and finally persuaded by the promise of being forever in heaven with family and friends. That is not an informed decision.
Now back to the child evangelist and on to my second point. His claims of thousands of child converts suggested to me a troubling reductionism about the nature of evangelical conversion and manipulation of young minds. But it also suggested to me the exploitation of these dubious statistics for financial gain. Given all the practical and ethical problems with his statistics of child evangelism, it was doubly questionable that he use these statistics as fundraising tools for his ministry. And that’s my second ethical concern: the exploitation of child evangelism statistics for the financial gain of a ministry.
Generally speaking, I think very highly of Compassion International. After all, they do have a four star rating from Charitynavigator.org and their track-record of the social betterment of children is well established. Nonetheless, the centrality they give on their home page to child conversion statistics presents an important ethical concern with their evangelism techniques.