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Jim Elliff and Steve Burchett on Children’s Ministry, part one

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by Jason Smathers on September 10, 2009

I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Jim Elliff and Steve Burchett on children’s ministry. Brothers Jim and Steve are both elders at Christ Fellowship of Kansas City. Jim is founder and president of Christian Communicators Worldwide (CCW) and Steve is a seminar leader, writer, and editorial assistant for CCW. Since 2007, Steve has traveled to churches around the country teaching a seminar on childhood conversion. Jim Elliff is the author of the children’s book and DVD, the Eaglet, which I recently reviewed.

I asked Jim and Steve some challenging questions and received well explained challenging answers which I will share here in a three part series.
Do you tell young children that Jesus loves them? Can you explain scripturally why or why not?
Children are gifts from the Lord who should regularly experience the loving words and actions of their parents. They should also routinely hear about the love of God in Christ. From the beginning chapters of the Bible all the way to the end, the story-line of Scripture points to a Savior who would, and did, come and accomplish the redemption of His people.
We don’t think, however, that the Bible gives us freedom to tell all people, including our young children, that Jesus loves them. We have come to this conclusion after considering not only what the Bible teaches about the love of God, but also by studying the way believers in the New Testament spoke to unbelievers about Jesus. In the New Testament, there seems to be no references to God’s love for individual unbelievers except for Mark 10:21 (where the meaning is debated). Clearly God is good to all, “For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45) but we believe that the New Testament nowhere would allow every single person who has ever lived to freely sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Believers are free to sing that song because it was about believers that Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
One immediate objection from people when hearing this view is to respond with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Some think that this is a clear statement about God’s love for everyone who has ever and will ever live. Space keeps us from dealing with all of the intricacies of John 3:16 (see Daryl Wingerd, Thinking and Speaking Biblically About the Death of Christ: Appendix 3), but since this verse falls either within the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (a Jewish Pharisee who believed His heritage was his ticket to heaven) or just after it (there is debate as to where the dialogue ends and John’s commentary begins), it seems best to understand the phrase “the world” not as a reference to everyone who has ever or will ever live, but as a way to say the gospel is not just for Jews, but for all nations! In other words, John 3:16 is a verse that says Christ is not only a Savior of Jews, but also of Gentiles; God’s redeeming love is not just national, but international.
Along with how the Bible speaks about the love of God for humanity, we are also helped when we think about how believers spoke to unbelievers in the New Testament. Consider the evangelism in the book of Acts—Not one time does any believer tell an unbeliever, “Jesus loves you.” The evangelism in Acts centers on the resurrected Christ as Lord and the call to repent and believe in Him. The early believers knew that to tell a person, “Jesus loves you,” might give a person false comfort (“Since He loves me, why should I repent?”). And they knew that to start with the idea of God’s universal love for everyone was not only unbiblical, but it would make the task of explaining the depravity of man and the concept of repentance extremely difficult if not impossible.
Therefore, we believe that the most loving thing we can do for our children, and any unbeliever, is not to tell them that Jesus loves them, but to tell them the good news of Christ crucified and resurrected. They will be most helped if we speak to them the truth as the Bible presents it, and if, by God’s grace, they turn from their sins and trust in Christ, the Spirit will testify with their spirits that they are children of God, loved by Jesus.

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