January 19, 2021

Question: Is Evangelism Child Abuse?

chrishill_pointministeringMy last post has stirred up some, uh….”interesting” commentary and email. To the point: in the view of some people, evangelism of teenagers is abusive and unethical. Since I’m a preacher who preaches the Gospel to teenagers with an appeal for their conversion, I’m engaged in abusive behavior.

This especially seems to to apply, to some, to the cases of those who are stated unbelievers or atheists. If I know that is their position, then to evangelize at all is to be disrespectful and manipulative. These young people should not have to hear Christian appeals for conversion and it is entirely appropriate to see this kind of activity as unethical pressure tactics on those least able to resist.

These claims hit close to home. I’ve devoted most of my life to evangelizing students, and I am not bashful about it. That said, I am just as passionate to reject all unethical methods, pressure tactics and manipulation. Scripture, in fact, commands me to abandon and oppose any underhanded or unethical use of the Gospel. I am told to serve and love others in Jesus’ name, and to proclaim/teach the Gospel with faith and submission to Christ at the center. I am given specific instructions to honor God in evangelism by leaving matters of the heart and conscience to him. My calling is to love, communicate and relate. I am an incarnational proclaimer of the Good News. I can’t manipulate and represent Jesus. I also can’t equivocate and represent Jesus.

When I deal with students, I am straight up about evangelism. If they take my class, I will occasionally explain the Gospel to them. I stress that their beliefs are welcome to be shared as well. I use no decisional tactics and I have no personal interest as a teacher in what a student does with the claims of Christ. I pray for these students, and would find it impossible to pray for them without praying that they come to know Christ.

I am just as honest about preaching. I give full permission to ignore or reject whatever I say, but I am straightforward that my calling and vocation is to proclaim, explain and apply the Gospel. I use no altar call. I use no tactics or manipulations of any kind. It’s the Gospel, an appeal to believe, a prayer and I leave it with them and the Holy Spirit.

I tell my students that I am completely open to being evangelized by them. I invite questions and I ask questions. Because I am in a Christian school with a missions focus, I have many non-Christians in my Bible classes and preaching services. We have dialog constantly. It’s a natural outgrowth of the diversity of our school.

I can see that the handwriting is on the wall. Those who speak of Christ, even in a private school, are going to be labeled abusive. Those who seek for decisions from anyone uner 18 is going to be called a child abuser. Ministries to young people will come under increased scrutiny for everything they do if there stated goal is to bring about conversion.

Do the ethical issues associated with conversion mean evangelism with anyone under 18 is immoral and unethical? What do you think?


  1. The unbelievers have a point. I’m thirty years old and I became a Christian when I was fourteen. As I think back to the time of my conversion, I now clearly see the manipulation. Although I am grateful for being told of the saving faith that can only come through Christ, I wish it would have happened another way. It’s as if I were 100 pounds over weight and had a emotionally abusive parent guilt me into to shedding the pounds. Losing the weight is great (life saving), but the tactics used to get me there was not.

  2. I could understand if someone mistook you for a proto-Catholic, Spence, but a Branch Davidian? No way.

  3. josh s blake wrote:

    >That’s an interesting question. How did these >children/teens become atheists? Did they just >wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’m an atheist?” >Sure, they could have grown up with a disbelief >in God at home, but otherwise, wasn’t there some >sort of evangelism (or anti-evangelism) to bring >these people to their disbelief?

    Hey, atheist lurker here.

    I realize that anecdote is not the singular of data, but in my experience, no, no evangelism required. I grew up with Christian* parents; they didn’t make a big deal of it, but they believed. When I was young, I tried to convince myself I believed too, but inside I was pretty much always going: you’re kidding me with this, right?

    I wasn’t ever proselytized by an atheist, and I certainly didn’t read any particularly atheist books – in fact I was a little surprised when I did an internal inventory and realized that was the label that described my religious beliefs the best.

    Anyway, back on track. It doesn’t sound like what our host is doing is improper or manipulative. I’ve met a number of Christians (and Jews and Muslims and Baha’i) who have been very open about their faith, and my life has been enriched by knowing them.


    *for values of Christian that include Catholics.

  4. Michael, could you give more details about exactly what the neo-Nazi couple are alleged to have done? Was it only a matter of their beliefs, or were they conspiring to commit actual crimes? Antipathy for other races is actually fairly common–and not only among whites. Whatever course you advocate for the neo-Nazis, you should also agree to apply it to the Jews who follow right-wing Israeli politics, blacks who belong to the Nation of Islam, etc.

    We have to expect children to be exposed to evangelism (which will not always be tastefully carried out), just as they will be exposed to people trying to cultivate sexual relationships with them, or sell them something. Of course there is a great difference in ages–young children need to be monitored at all times, not so older children.

    That said, a van hanging around a school lot definitely ought to be stopped by the police, and its occupants checked against the computer. If they seem to be legit, they should still be warned away, as they have no business being there. Inside the school, I expect children occasionally to evangelize one another, but of course their teachers (if the school is state-run) must restrain themselves. Really, this is only common courtesy–surely a value common to both sides, if not always practiced as well as it might be.

    On the subject of “hell house” (which I know only from cartoons)–do these people not realize that this is at least as likely to inspire amusement or disgust, as terror for their souls? When I read in school the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards (who is the subject of the other thread), I laughed at the garish imagery–as well as the notion of congregation members leaping out the window in despair!–and suspect my reaction to be a common one.

  5. This is one reason why we converted from a credo-Baptist to a paedo-Baptist tradition. Not to say you don’t have some of the same problems, but Evangelization, Enculturation and basic Child-Rearing are much easier to unite in my own experience.

  6. Post Christian asked:

    Doesn’t it enrage you that some in your faith are harming children in the name of spreading that faith?

    Sure, but it enrages me much more that some are only too eager to shut down ANY evangelism to this age group because of the excesses of a minority. That’s like telling Jesus to take the day off because Simon Bar-Jesus has his freak show in town. The alarmists have only succeeded here in showing us that very good things can be perverted.

    Any other revelations ??

  7. I grew up in indie fundie churches. We actually got together and burned records, or which records were still left at that time (late 80’s). But I always thought Hell House and Judgement House were junk and cheesey. About as bad as the ten minutes I made myself sit thru some new video of “Pilgrims Progress” that Hagee was selling on TV about two weeks ago. It was horrible. What normal person would want to watch it?

    Too cheesey.

  8. Scott Miller says

    iMonk it impresses me that you are talking to these kids and essentially discipling them instead of trying to get them to do an altar call. I think that your method would make “counting the cost” more real and conversion more real as well. Like Spurgeon supposedly told people to go home and search the scriptures and come back on Monday or Tuesday if you were still interested.

  9. Debbie says:

    “If one actively evangelizes w/o parental consent, Alfred, one is manipulating. Just from a simple developmental standpoint, kids believe what authority figures tell them until their thinking matures to a more rhetorical stage.”

    Debbie this is an interesting position to take as this would make expressing a point of view to a child (I will not split hairs here about age – I know 20 year old who are more impressionable than some 6 year olds) without the explicit consent of the child’s parent unethical.

    By what moral principle (not legal – moral) do you assign absolute intellectual authority of a parent over a child – to the absolute exclusion of other influences.

    Your point of view is very strange to me in that we know that we are all influenced by hundreds of opposing pooints of view – most of which, in our culture, are very different from the Christian world view. For Christians to exit from the market place of ideas and let the world hold sway (without an answer from Christians) over the next generation is a formula for disaster.

    Now you are correct that I made a seemingly contradictory statement to Verne by asserting that
    parent should have free LEGAL rein to indoctrinate their children as they see fit. I also said that parents should have the LEGAL right to protect their children from ’sales pitches’ or undesirable outside influences.

    But Verne was asking a LEGAL question not a question about ethics (at least that is how I interpreted his questions)…those are very different things.

    If I am in a position where I can influence a child (in what I believe is a positive way), and I do so, that is both my legal right and is ethical (in my opinion – if done appropriately). The parent of that child also has a legal right to prevent that child from being in a position where I can influence her. Removing those legal right of the parent would lead to a great harm to society and to children in general.

  10. I am hearing a lot of outrage on this board over the harm of child evangelism. It sounds like a lot of you were brought up in legalistic fundamentalist homes. Fine, I am sorry to here that life was not perfect for you.

    Now get over it.

    Compare your poor pathetic upbringing with a single mother home where the daughter raises herself because her mom is too busy getting on with her own life. The daughter is taking drugs and having sex by the time she is 14. By the time she 16 she has already had 3 sex partners and perhaps an abortion and is considering suicide.

    That scenario (and far worse) is becoming far too typical of a child’s life in America today.

    Now remind me again why you are concerned with MANIPULATING a child at the age of 5 or 6 or 9 or whatever by teaching them about the love of Christ because of the HARM that will cause.

    God help us!

  11. Verne,

    Here is a fairly good summary of the Neo-Nazi story published today. Note: It excludes some of the more graphic stuff that the little girl said to interviewers.

    Neo-Nazi mother may get custody back

  12. I’m certainly not opposed to evangelistic efforts aimed at youth — but I do fear that evangelicals often over-evangelize young people. By that, I mean that a lot of effort seems to be directed toward getting kids to answer an alter call during an officially church-sponsored service or program — so much so that kids eventually develope a sort of immunity to it. Heck, I can remember my own teenage years in a Baptist youth group, and I can’t count the number of times that I and my fellow youth went down front to get saved or rededicate or whatever. Sometimes we did it just to keep our youth pastor happy and give the adult church members the impression that their church’s youth ministry was effective — basically, so they would keep the trips and pizza parties flowing. I know it sounds aweful, but we intentionally humored the adults for our own purposes while trying to keep things pretty shallow and social. To us, answering alter calls was nothing more than playing a part that was expected of us.
    I’m thinking that maybe evangelicals would do well to look beyond the alter call as both the means and goal of evangelism. Maybe it would be good if we gave young people very specific training in how to seek God for themselves (private prayer, listening for God’s voice and direction, personal Bible study), rather than insisting that they come to a decision about Christ due to a 30 to 45 minute sermon and several heart-tugging stanzas of “Just As I Am.” And maybe we could give them opportunities to speak freely about their own doubts and struggles — actually open up honest and fear-free dialogue between youth and their adult leaders — rather than just insisting that they believe what they’re told to believe.
    If we want more of our youth to geniunely receive Christ within themselves and dedicate their lives to following and obeying Him, then we really need to create more freedom and space for that to happen in a real, nonmanufactured way and stop requiring that both the Holy Spirit and our youth keep conversion confined to the appointed place in the church program.

  13. Alfred,

    Most of us commentors are over it. We just want to make the distinction between good evangelism and bad evangelism. That goes for both adult level and child level work.

    Bad-scaring a child about the rapture, so that they think that they have been left behind everytime they come home to an empty house (been there-done that as a victim myself.)

    Good- Modeling a Godly lifestyle backed up with Gospel teaching. A book table left by the Gideons in a high school.

  14. Memphis Aggie says

    Wow Verne equating Nazis and Jews in parallel phrases in the same sentence is quintessential moral equivalence. It would be actively difficult for anyone to be more offensive. I expect you did not intend to give offense so you might reconsider you’re analogies. As for the substance of what you’re saying, I happen to agree.

  15. Anna A says:

    “Most of us commentors are over it. We just want to make the distinction between good evangelism and bad evangelism. That goes for both adult level and child level work.”

    Really? Well, by some of the comments I read all evangelism is bad evangelism.

    My point is that the worst evangelism is no evangelism at all…that is the most damaging kind.

  16. iMonk:

    You don’t have to own them all, but evangelicals do have to own Haggard, being that he was president of the national evangelical association. You can’t be more officially evangelical than that. And I’m afraid you’re on your way to the True Scotsman fallacy. One advantage evangelicals have over Catholics is that it’s much easier for them to disown their crazies. If a Catholic priest hurts a kid, no one doubts his Catholicism. But if an evangelical minister does, people can claim, rightly or wrongly, that he wasn’t a “real” evangelical or not “our kind” of evangelical.

    A positive example of what I’d like to see is all the Catholic leaders who stood up and hollered when the priestly abuse scandals came to light, the ones who demanded reform, resignations, and arrests. I’m mindful that I’m way beyond evangelism of kids now, but it was a good example of people standing up, both in public and inside their religious circle, demanding that a wrong be righted.

  17. Alfred

    “Compare your poor pathetic upbringing with a single mother home where the daughter raises herself because her mom is too busy getting on with her own life. The daughter is taking drugs and having sex by the time she is 14. By the time she 16 she has already had 3 sex partners and perhaps an abortion and is considering suicide.”

    Setting up hypotheticals in an attempt to downplay whatever abuse someone may have suffered at the hands of a group you approve of is the worst sort of straw man. I may as well provide a “scenario” of a child’s life akin to what Stephen King’s “Carrie” suffered at the hands of her psychotic evangelical mother as a counterpoint to yours.

    If people have suffered at the hands of less than ethical evangelical authority figures, it may be a better testament to the superiority of your position to examine when and where the methodology of “believe or burn” has failed and seek to correct it, than fall back on apologetics like “Well, at least you won’t be in HELL” or “The other side abuses worse than we do, and here’s a worst-case hypothetical to prove it!”

    Note: Let it be known I am NOT lumping all evangelicals into the sort of “hell house” or “roaming van” methods of converting youth, but rather those who specifically practice and/or defend it.

  18. Alfred, if it takes ‘manipulation’, it isn’t the Gospel; it isn’t Christ.

  19. Thank you, Michael. It appears that there are several important factors under consideration, other than neo-Nazi beliefs.

    Memphis Aggie, yes–Jews and neo-Nazis ought to be treated equally under the law. This has nothing to do with WW2 or Palestine. If the law says that children of xenophobic parents are to be seized, then it cannot be selectively applied. I think you will find that there do exist Jewish groups which are as extremist as any white supremacist.

  20. Verne,

    Yes there other factors, but it was the Swastikas in permanent marker that caused Children’s aid to sweep in in the first place.

  21. Memphis Aggie says


    I agree with one law for everyone; that’s a strawman. You completely missed or willfully ignored my point about insensitivity and the failure to make important distinctions. The question is not directly relevant to this thread except that equating evangelization with child abuse is another example of a distorted sense of proportion.

  22. Cindy says:

    “Alfred, if it takes ‘manipulation’, it isn’t the Gospel; it isn’t Christ.”

    Cindy – Thank you for stating the obvious. And when I start to defend manipulative evangelical practices please call me on it. However, I didn’t so please don’t. Unless your position is the same as some on this board (that ALL evangelical efforts aimed at children is ipso facto manipulation and therefore unethical) then I have no beef with you.

    Ty M. says:

    “Setting up hypotheticals in an attempt to downplay whatever abuse someone may have suffered at the hands of a group you approve of is the worst sort of straw man. I may as well provide a “scenario” of a child’s life akin to what Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ suffered…”

    Ty M. – You would have a point if what I said was in fact a hypothetical — but it isn’t. It is a very real situation which plays itself out with thousands of children every year.

    Your comparison with Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ is purely fiction and has no resemblance to real life. Ironically, you are guilty of the very rhetoric you accuse me of.

  23. Alfred

    NO KIDDING – I used the example of Carrie to demonstrate the weakness of your argument!

  24. two points I’ve taken away from this thread

    1) as followers of Christ, we MUST keep preaching the gospel, to as many as can understand our message; that includes children.

    2)we must be vigilant to present the gospel in ways , and in words, that accurately reflect who Jesus is, and what HE said.

    that’s my take: being careful about #2 does not mean we stop #1

    somebody said: the worst preaching is no preaching at all…reminds me of something D.Moody (allegedly) told his critics: “I like the way I’m doing it better than the way you’re not doing it…” Wonder if he really said that…

    Greg R

  25. ATChaffee says

    If evangelism means leading someone into a stable and loving relationship with Jesus, then by definition it is pretty hard to pull off by hit-and-run, manipulative techniques.

    If “evangelism” means “doing whatever it takes to get converts to utter the magic words that will make them forever safe even if they later become totally disillusioned with manipulative Christians,” then I can see why believers in this kind of evangelism think anything goes.

    We have similar issues with vulnerable patients in our faith-based hospital; in a power imbalance, the person in charge has to be really careful that the patient doesn’t somehow interpret it as, “No pain meds unless you agree to Bible study.”

  26. Memphis Aggie, I gather you deem it “insensitive” to discuss Jews and Nazis in the same breath, as if their collective crimes were similar. In that case, yes–I am insensitive. I simply do not care about your pet causes and distinctions. No doubt this is because I am a wicked person, completely out of step with the cultural mainstream.

  27. Memphis Aggie says

    Actually Verne that makes you completely in step with the cultural mainstream.

  28. Memphis Aggie, +1.

  29. Ty M.

    “NO KIDDING – I used the example of Carrie to demonstrate the weakness of your argument!”

    I realize that, but in so doing you only demonstrated your inability to distinguish between fact and fiction.

  30. the way you present the Gospel helps on this one. as you’ve said, you present without asking for a raised hand and trust that God will stir hearts. we present, God calls, people respond. the manipulation of students bothers me. i’ve been at young life camps where hundreds of kids come forward, many of whom have come forward the year before, because they have been manipulated into thinking if they don’t make this decision right now they are going to hell and their leaders will be disappointed.

    youth ministry cohorts are the worse in the area of manipulation. the pressure on camps, retreats, etc to make converts is ridiculous. but the role of presenting the Gospel and expecting a response cannot be diminished.

    the culture presents all sorts of “good news” approaches, but we don’t consider them abuse. try this product, it will fix you. now that’s abuse!

  31. Evangelism is the nugget of truth (good news) all wrapped up in a package of love. Without the love, what possible truth can there be?

    Perhaps the problem begins when we start to see “conversion” as something that can or should be mass produced, outside of personal relationship. When we want to count those hands, and are not walking alongside the pilgrims, young or old, who own the hands, and for whom metanoia is a process that may take seconds, hours, weeks, months, years or decades…

    It’s not abusive for children or teenagers to hear the Good News that Jesus is alive and loves them, but children are so terribly vulnerable to fear and to social rejection. They want to belong and they lack the judgement that is available to adults (or most adults anyway) to reflect more objectively on what it is they want to belong to, and why.

    I’m sure that when abusive tactics are used, this sets up the young person to fall into disillusion, disappointment and anger as he or she matures and thinks back on what was done and why. Where will the preacher be when that happens? Probably somewhere else, counting a few more hands.

    I notice that no one has responded to the question about infant baptism, Monk, perhaps because most respondents here are not part of churches that practice this. I don’t have an answer, but have recently been part of a discussion elsewhere about whether baptisms should take place against the wishes of a parent. The conundrum involves the extent to which baptism is viewed as a sacrament and an occasion of grace. At the one extreme it would be seen as some kind of ‘magic’ (and it sounds as if the Sinners’ Prayer, for some Fundies, is also a form of that same magic). At the other extreme, some hold that baptism can only be “believers’ baptism” in which it doesn’t really matter if God shows up because it’s only symbolic and all about us making our stand.

    Baptism is clearly another topic altogether but the issue of abuse or riding roughshod over people’s feelings and preferences, in pursuit of what’s seen as a more important goal by those who believe they know better – well, that’s pretty much the same old story. Thanks for a great topic and blessings on you for trying to be both truthful and loving with the young people in your care.

  32. By the logic of some, infant baptism would be child abuse. It’s a worthy topic.

  33. “My point is that the worst evangelism is no evangelism at all…that is the most damaging kind.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. This is the classic fear-based argument for evangelizing that I heard over and over as a child. Since it’s based in fear, it really is self-concerned, instead of being truly concerned for the other. I’ve been told that sharing the Gospel is always an act of love. But I think I Cor. 13 shows that it’s possible to do the right things without love. The fact that one is evangelizing does not trump I Cor. 13 in any way.

  34. Well Phil, no offense, but don’t you find it just a little bit arrogant that you would presume to tell me what emotion is driving my argument.

    My own opinion is that evangelism must always be motivated by love. So, tell me, is it love NOT to share the Good News? Is it love NOT to tell someone about God’s love for them? What motivates YOU when you fail to share the Gospel message. Is it fear of rejection? Fear of being offensive? Shame? Shelfishness?

    If I play your game I can simply accuse you of self-justifying your disobedience to Jesus’ commandment to share the Gospel. Incidently, it is also possible to do the wrong thing out of love.

  35. iMonk says:

    “By the logic of some, infant baptism would be child abuse. It’s a worthy topic.”

    I am not sure how worthy a topic it is but I am sure that this is an unfortunate case of defining the term “child abuse” down.

    In an age when parently authority is under attack and in an age when children can be taken from parents at the mear hint of abuse – real abuse – I would suggest that throwing terms like child abuse around carelessly is not a wise thing to do.

    Putting that aside it also serves the unintended purpose of desensitizing us to REAL abuse. If a parent baptizing an infant is abuse then what do we call it when a parent beats a child so badly that he/she is left crippled for life? Words are important and when we misuse words there are important cultural implications.

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