3 alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with your kids


Writer Cindy Brandt recently shared three very good reasons why she hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer with her kids. For those of us who grew up evangelical, praying the sinner’s prayer was a Very Big Deal. In my church, when someone was assessing your spiritual state, one of the first things they wanted to know was, “How old were you when you asked Jesus into your heart?” It was almost a competition: the younger you were at the time, the better.

The sinner’s prayer was supposed to give assurance of salvation, an easy way of knowing if you were in or out. But the pitfalls Cindy identified are real—which is why I’m not praying the sinner’s prayer with my kids, either.

So what can you do instead? Here are three ideas for parents who want to nurture their kids’ faith without relying on the sinner’s prayer:

1. Enchant your kids with the goodness of God’s world.

The premise of the sinner’s prayer is that your identity is chiefly and overwhelmingly characterized by sin. You’re not a person. You’re not an image-bearer. You’re not someone who struggles with sin or who’s affected by sin. You’re a SINNER.

It’s the very first line of the prayer, the very first thing you say to God—at least according to the script proposed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is arguably the closest thing evangelicalism has to an official form of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.

When we lead our kids in the sinner’s prayer, the first thing they say to God is the opposite of what God first said to us.







Very good.

That’s the Cliff Notes version of Genesis 1.

That’s the first thing God said to his creation.

God’s very first words to us were not a curse but a blessing.

Yes, a lot happens after Genesis 1, but it does not erase the first part of the story. It does not change where the story began—or where we should begin with our kids.

The first thing our kids should know is that the world is good because it’s made and loved by God.

That’s the other thing the sinner’s prayer gets wrong: not only does it start with a faulty notion of our identity; it completely sidesteps the rest of the world. It makes sin and salvation about me and myself.

Growing up, I was taught that “saving souls” mattered more than nurturing life. The prize of salvation was escape—liberation from this body, evacuation from this world…which is just going to burn anyway.

This is not the story Scripture tells. And it’s not the story we should tell our kids, either.

All things hold together” in Christ. “All things” will be reconciled to God—yes, even “things on earth.”

We should help our kids fall in love with a world that God thinks is worth saving. We should nurture their sense of wonder, imagination, and inquisitiveness.

The other day, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk in the woods near our house so we could experience the colors of fall together. This is one of the holiest, most sacred things she’s ever asked to do.

Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. But that is not the whole story. Instead of teaching our kids that they’re utterly evil, or that the world is utterly worthless, let’s help them see themselves—and the world—as God does.

2. Assure your kids of the constancy of God’s love—by demonstrating the constancy of yours.

Fear-based tactics, like the sinner’s prayer, might deliver a short-term result. (Really, how hard is it to scare a five-year-old into saying a prayer they think will keep them out of hell?) But the long-term results are rarely as satisfying.

That’s why many kids end up praying the sinner’s prayer over and over. As Cindy writes:

I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God hears and receives it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.

When you introduce fear as a motivator, that fear never goes away. The solution offered—in this case, a loosely scripted prayer—might provide temporary relief. But that fear will come creeping (or storming) back eventually. A God who is willing to throw five-year-olds into hell for lack of saying a few magic words might just as easily throw you into hell for doing something bad after you said them, or for not saying them fervently enough, or not being able to remember exactly when you said the prayer.

The sinner’s prayer becomes a talisman—and not a very good one—a cheap substitute for the real basis of our assurance: the character and nature of God.

The best way to show our kids who God is and what he’s like is to love them the way God does. Most of us do this intuitively—even though we are far from being perfect parents. We tell our kids, “There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.” We tell them we love them because they are, not because of what they do.

And when we show it, day in and day out, they get a glimpse of what God is like.

If God is the author of love, and if this is the best way to love our kids, then why would we expect God’s love to be any different? The best way to assure our kids of the constancy of God’s love is to love them with the same constancy. As Cindy writes, “Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.”

3. Treat your kids as full members of the community of faith.

A third problem with the sinner’s prayer, as identified by Cindy, is that it elevates belief—often a cheap, unformed belief—over belonging. It disrupts the natural timeline of a child’s spiritual journey, forcing a decision on kids before they’ve even had a chance to “count the cost” of being a disciple. (After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do before following him?)

The answer, of course, is not to impose an even heavier burden on our children. It’s not to raise the threshold of belief even higher. The answer, I believe, is to give kids a place to belong as they work out their faith.

The problem is that in many of our churches, we inadvertently marginalize our kids instead. It’s just easier to send them off to “children’s church” than to find ways to make the main worship time meaningful for all ages, together. A certain amount of age-appropriate programming is a good thing. But if we wait till our kids are fully grown to welcome them into the “real” church or to upgrade their membership to full status, then we’ve waited too long.

As Methodist pastor Tom Fuerst writes:

From the time my generation was born, we were thrown in the nursery with other babies. Then we went to children’s ministries with other children to be entertained while our parents when to “big church.”

Then we had middle school ministry. Then we had youth group. Then we went away to college and we found a church with a stellar college ministry.

It wasn’t until we graduated college that we were actually expected to be a part of the intergenerational community called “church.” We’d been segregated by age for the first 22 years. And you not only allowed this, you encouraged it.

And now you’re wondering why we don’t want to go to church. Now you’re wondering how to reach us to make us a part of the church?

I’m sorry, but you never really valued us being part of a church before.

We need to show our kids they matter, that their presence matters, that our communities are not quite whole without them. This means creating new ways of “doing church” together. It means welcoming their participation as equals, alongside the adults. At the altar, at the table, at the baptismal font. In the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall. When we pray and when we wrestle with the Scriptures. And, above all, when we serve.

This is, after all, the way it was always done. Children of the first covenant (well, the boys anyway) were marked by circumcision—a sign of their full belonging—before their brains could formulate a single thought about God. The sign of belonging changed with the arrival of a new covenant. It was no longer limited by your gender or your identification with a certain group. But the sign is still a gift that is given before it can be grasped.

Our children need to belong before they believe. There will, of course, be more to their journey than this. The path they take might be more circuitous than we’d like—or take them places we didn’t expect they’d go. But the best thing we can do is not try to rig the outcome in advance by coaxing them into praying the sinner’s prayer. It’s giving them a place to belong, to be loved, and to experience the goodness of God.

Photo by Jake Guild on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

20 thoughts on “3 alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with your kids

  1. I never told my children or grandchildren they were sinners. We find that out soon enough on our own. I appreciate what you wrote here; speak about God’s love for us and show children the beautiful things of nature, they will grow up appreciating who God is.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Praying with Your Children | First Presbyterian in Argenta

  3. But we are a sinner. And the reason we need to accept Jesus is because he covered our sins.
    I’ll go back and read your article again, but unless I missed it, you don’t address that we need to ask for forgiveness in order to be saved. That is really a big thing to leave out.
    I think we obviously need to show children of God’s love and goodness, but if this article is related to leading children to salvation, you must not leave out that we are sinful. We are and we must understand and confess so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I say in the post, yes there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. We are all both victims of sin and complicit in it. But that is not all there is to be said about us, nor is it where the biblical story begins. If we’re going to tell the story well, we must tell the whole story—not just the part where it all goes wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      • But as it pertains to our salvation, we absolutely must be aware that we are sinners. Supposedly this article would be about becoming a Christian. How shall we be saved if we do not recognize we are sinners in need of our Lord as Savior? It is misleading to children (and also adults) to say that admitting our sin isn’t necessary in the process. It is crucial.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Kel, where do the Gospels say we have to ask for forgiveness to be saved? Both John the Baptist and Jesus said ‘repent’, which means to change your mind and direction and identify with the message of the kingdom of God.

      The Father already offers ‘forgiveness’. We don’t have to ask for it; we just accept it.


  4. Thank you so much for this post. As one who was “saved” in a baptist church I have struggled with how to present “the gospel” to my young daughters in a more formal way (without using the inaccurate gospel that the sinner’s prayer communicates). However, I think there is a missing component here. I agree that much of the message of scripture is best demonstrated by the way we live. However, that is a life-long process. Since the question the sinner’s prayer begs is that of commitment, how do you recommend rightly teaching the commitment part? For better or worse, the most compelling aspect of the sinner’s prayer is the “moment” that occurs upon completion. Almost like a sign of “salvation”. Do you think baptism can be a legitimate substitute?


    • That’s a great question! I think for many people, the “moment” might be a more gradual experience, while others can point to a single, definitive moment when they decided to become a follower of Jesus. Either way, I think making a conscious choice of some sort is important. Some people might express that choice in the form of a prayer—and that’s great. For others, that choice or “moment” might be expressed by going through the process of confirmation in their church. For me, one key is that people need to know what they’re signing up for when the moment comes. We need to do a better job presenting the gospel in all its fulness—not the “ask Jesus into your hear so you can go to heaven when you die” gospel.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I personally am not a big fan of the 123 repeat after me (all most magical) prayer. The article has a few good points; but much of the Theology is not accurate. For example; the fear of God is the beginning of many good things according to the Provers. Here are a few examples:

    Proverbs 1:7 (ESV)
    7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction.

    Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)
    10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

    Proverbs 14:27 (ESV)
    27 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
    that one may turn away from the snares of death.

    In your first point you mention the following, “You’re not a person.” (due to your/our sin condition). Umm- this is not what the Bible teaches! Scripture teaches that we are sinners in need of God’s amazing grace through the shed blood of the Lamb (a.k.a. Jesus the Christ our Savior and Lord). We have to know that we are sinners in need of a Savior in order to be saved in the first place.

    And no one I associate with would tell you that a five year old will go to hell if… The age of accountability may not be solidly established in scripture; but the teaching is Biblical. Please understand that I am not trying to be critical here! It is just that when an article is written along these lines it MUST be Theologically sound. Without solid Theology (the study of God) we are left to trust our feelings on matters, and feelings can mislead us. For example,

    Genesis 3:1-5 (ESV) (The Fall)
    1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
    He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You[a] shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    Blessings to you from one very zealous pastor!


    • There’s a big problem inherent to your comment, dear very zealous pastor – all the verses you quote aren’t about kids! What about considering first and foremost what Jesus Christ (because hey, we’re Christians, not Proverbers) tells us about kids? Did Jesus say “Let the little children say their sinner’s prayer and then let them come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”?
      You write “And no one I associate with would tell you that a five year old will go to hell if… ” – OK, but have you ever thought about how children interpret, how they read between the lines?
      Sorry, your comment makes me really angry, because I suffered from this kind of theology that first has to crush the self-esteem of a child in order to have a (youth-)pastor who can tell himself (and others) “I helped God save that young soul”.
      I was extremely hurt because as a child I absolutely never wanted NOT to follow Jesus! I “gave my life to Jesus” I don’t know how many times but had the impression that it didn’t work because I kept sinning (= I didn’t always behave like my parents wanted me to, that is to say I probably behaved like a normal kid).
      Your theology can be poisonous to little children’s minds and souls…


  6. Pingback: Continuing The War Against the Sinner’s Prayer: Is It A Heresy? | Cruciform Theology

  7. Pingback: Life Changers 10/31/15

  8. Great article! I don’t think children need to pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’. What they need is to learn to love and trust Jesus. I agree that following Jesus is a process–not an event, though there are likely to be a number of transitional events in the life-long process.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in November-December | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: The Jesus Movement: A Look Back | TLG Christian News

  11. I stumbled on this blog while I was writing something to advise a friend who asked me about this. The parent is in the midst of a turbulent time in their own faith and while leaning ever more deeply on God’s grace they are not abandoning the practices of the Church they were raised in even though they are in a better Gospel-focused place now.

    So while I agree with Mr. WithoutBaggage as to the salvific act itself. I acknowledge the need to have something outward the little Christian can point to. I also acknowledge that the child will face some social pressure as will the parents. And of course, at some point, they will desire baptism. They aren’t Anglican so there was no infant baptism. They aren’t in a church that catechizes so there’s no ceremony there.

    It seems deeply Anglican to me – not to mention Pauline – to cover some action in grace and allow it recognizing that we are social and those things do matter.

    So I suggested this prayer. “Lord Jesus thank you for loving me and dying for me on the cross. I’m sorry that I have sinned but I’m grateful that you covered up my sins so that I can see your love for me. Thank you for coming into my heart. Even though I will sin again I promise to always return to you and your love for me so that we will always be friends.”

    Now, obviously, I’m still more reformed than you are so I suggested acknowledging the person’s sin without explicitly confessing the whole sin nature. But outside of that do you think this prayer is non-transactional enough to give a child a moment where they express some desire to trust Jesus without falling into the trap of promising to be good in order to get into heaven?

    Thanks for the feedback. Jim


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s