One crucial issue we face in making disciples relates to children and their developmental readiness to made decisions that reflect a mature understanding of discipleship. In the “Making Disciples” Chart I have tried to provide a progressive understanding of how a person moves from the beginning conception of faith to a mature understanding of discipleship. That progression is in the bottom row of the chart that deals with the human need for integrity.
I view discipleship as an integrating factor related to our understanding of who we are and why we are. Every disciple will find each aspect of that progression relevant, but the rate at which a new believer progresses in “Integrity” will depend on many individual factors. From my perspective, those who work with children need to focus on “God’s Initiative of Grace” (columns 2 and 3 in the chart) for the foundational concepts, experiences, age-appropriate perspectives, and emerging self-understandings that are relevant to children. While many will disagree with me, I think that making a response to God’s grace is an experience for which adolescents are ready but children are not. Thus I would hold off on an emphasis on repentance, making a profession of faith, becoming part of the covenant community (church membership), and identifying oneself as a disciple until the person is mature enough to commit “one’s life and gifts to God’s service in the church and the world” (quoting column 4, row 6). While maturity is not solely a matter of age, I would think that ages 16-18 reflect the level of maturity that makes “commitment of one’s life and gifts” a realistic and reasonable response to grace.
Many will argue that the church will lose its prime opportunity to “convert” people if we wait that late. Ages 16-18 are the very years when youth begin to pull away from their childhood commitments; and if we haven’t sealed their eternal fate by that time (these folks will say), we will face enormous hurdles in getting them engaged at this or any later stage. My contention is that we must lay the foundation for discipleship with all people (including children) with a focus on grace. If we do that well, the prospective disciples will come to recognize that they are members of the “Family of God” ( that is, they are “part of a separate and distinct people serving God in the world”—see last row of column 2) and that each of them is a “Child of God” whom God has called into a personal relationship with God and to committed service to God (last row of column 3). These are grace-gifts from God that inform us of who we are and what God intends for us, but these are foundations for calling for a response to that grace.
The call for a response requires a level of maturity that possesses the ability to make commitments that are realistic and actual. A profession of faith and the decision to become a disciple of Jesus are not foundational matters—they are life-surrender matters. My contention is that children and even early adolescents generally do not have the sense of self-determination required to make a commitment that is mature, genuine, and realistic for the remainder of their lives.