“Thank you so much!” the mom cried as she stood before me in the hallway of the church. “You’ll always have a special place in my daughter’s story. You’re the pastor who led her to Jesus!”

I was caught up in the moment and excited to have been part of another child committing her life to Christ. After all, as a children’s pastor, this is what it was all about, right? We had an altar call at the end of a service and I asked the kids, “Who wants to make Jesus their best friend and Savior?” and hands went up. What a thrilling feeling when the hands go up!

Each year, on a report that I was required to send in to maintain my credentials in our denomination, I had to fill out a box that asked how many people had committed their lives to Christ in my ministry over the past year. Every year I wanted to be able to put a bigger number in that box. Seven! Seventy! Seven hundred! All of them! We’re blowing the doors off this place!

It was such a spiritual and emotional high to hear, “My child gave her heart to Jesus. She’s a Christian now!” But something struck me a few years ago that shook up my theology: “She’s a Christian now!” Well…what was she before?

Speaking as the child, grandchild, and great-grandchild of Christians, I would like to testify to the pressure I have always felt to have a compelling conversion story. Both of my parents have incredible stories filled with provocative decisions and near self-destruction that brought them to a place where they finally laid it all out before the Lord. My story is not nearly as inspirational. I’ve been told that I prayed to “receive Jesus” when I was around five. Is this when I became a Christian? I was raised in the church, in a Christian home, and I never remember not being a Christian.

This is where my theology of conversion in the children of Christians began to change shape. In his book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greear writes of kids like me, “Perhaps they were raised in a Christian home, and their awareness of Jesus’s Lordship grew over time. For them, it was more like they came to a point where they realized they believed rather than one in which they decided to believe.” This is a more accurate depiction of my own conversion story.

Gordon T. Smith, in his book about the theology of conversion called Beginning Well, defines conversion as the “act of believing in Jesus, choosing to follow Jesus and being united with Jesus as Lord and Savior.” We can probably all get behind that definition. He continues later, “We do not need to insist on defining the clear and undebatable boundary one would presumably cross and thus be defined as a Christian . . . conversion to Christianity might not be a decisive event. It could also be a gradual movement from outside to in, based on a series of small decisions.”

My ears are perking up! That’s starting to sound more like my own story.

Remember, I’m not talking about all kids and all people. I’m talking about the ones who are like me. They were raised in Christian homes as Christians and have only ever known a faith in God. Some of these kids may never have prayed a special prayer (a “sinner’s prayer,” if you grew up where I did), or experienced a crisis moment that brought them to their knees before God to say the words we’ve all been trained to listen for. Instead, perhaps they have postured themselves in the way of faith and repentance their whole lives, slowly understanding on deeper and deeper levels what this means.

Perhaps we should put less emphasis on the moment of conversion for second-generation Christians and allow kids to experience conversion over a series of small decisions that could span many years if that’s what they need. 

Returning to Greear’s book, he writes, “The point is not whether we remember making the decision to get into the posture but whether we are in it now. The postures of repentance and faith are in themselves a cry for salvation. He hears the cry of your posture even if you don’t voice the prayer. Nowhere does the Bible say we have to voice a prayer to be saved. The posture of repentance and belief saves.”

I am advocating, then, that we don’t keep the name “Christian” from kids who haven’t experienced or can’t recall a crisis moment. Perhaps we should put less emphasis on the moment of conversion for second-generation Christians and allow kids to experience conversion over a series of small decisions that could span many years if that’s what they need. Don’t guide them away from a decisive moment, as there are certainly kids who will have a discernible beginning point of their faith. Rather, give space for both. Celebrate both. Offer words of value for both.

I’m so glad the little girl had a moment when she decided she wanted to know God on a deeper level. I just wish I had had the language at the time to reassure her that it wasn’t necessarily that moment that made her a Christian. It was what God had been doing in her for years, and would continue to do in her for many more. I wish I had had the language to tell her mom that I didn’t lead her to Jesus. That mom had been leading her daughter to Jesus since she was a baby. The prayer was absolutely significant. The prayer was a profession of faith and a confession of need. But perhaps it was said by an already-Christian little girl, who was on an already-journey toward Christlikeness.