I recall attending a Sunday evening fellowship time once when I was in college. We ended the night praying for a young man who had left our church. His sister spent nearly an hour telling us a long story of how he backslid into sin. He became a womanizer and drinker, and no longer wanted anything to do with church. Through her weepy tears, she remembered how he walked the aisle when he was six. He was baptized a short time later. During his junior high and high school years, he actively attended the youth group, participating in a number of church sponsored programs. Now, he no longer cared about the Lord as a 20-something guy away from home.
Since that one Sunday evening many years ago now, I have heard countless similar stories. A kid who is no more than seven or eight year old prays to receive Jesus and is baptized. The young person then faithfully attends church with his or her family. When he or she moves from home, the newly liberated young person leaves church altogether. Some even become hostile Youtube atheists.
Justin Peters addresses this ecclesiastical problem in his book, Do Not Hinder Them: A Biblical Examination of Childhood Conversion. Peters is well-known for his popular lectures exposing the fraud found within charismatic circles and among Health and Wealth grifters. With this book, he shifts his attention to addressing the subject of childhood false conversion.
So-called youth ministry experts in recent years have produced a number of alarmist articles, books, and visual media lamenting the departure of young people from church. Those experts typically offer the solution to their exodus as more exposure to apologetics or the implementation of certain programs supposedly connecting young people to their Christian faith. While there certainly is a place for learning apologetic arguments and utilizing programs for young people, Peters aims straight at a clearer cause of why young people are leaving church: pastors and parents are manipulating them to make a hasty decision for Christ and baptizing them at an early age. That in turn leads to numerous false conversions. Those young people are essentially the collateral damage left from the wake of churches pursing high attendance numbers.
Peters opens his book by laying out that all too common situation in the average church. Parents and pastors leading a young child in a prayer of salvation, and then swiftly moving him through the waters of baptism. A child in the majority of those situations rarely understands the Gospel message, let alone the decision he is making. As Peters explains, his decision regrettably leads him into a lifetime of affirming a false conversion. His departure from the faith is really a result of a general ignorance of the Gospel message, and his parents prompting him in a quickly rehearsed prayer.
The second chapter unpacks the nature of children and salvation. Peters explores what Scripture tells us about children who die young. He then turns to the doctrine of salvation. He dives into topics like the age of accountability and whether or not children have the mental capacity at a young age to understand the Gospel. Chapter three takes aim at the family’s spiritual home life. False conversions begins there, with parents, particularly fathers, failing to set the spiritual tone for their families.
Peters spends a considerable amount of time in chapter four discussing that nature of spiritual fruit. What exactly does true conversion look like contrasted with false conversion? Finally, chapter five dives into answering common objections and considering the key Scriptural passages concerning childhood conversions. For example, Mark 9:42, Matthew 18:1-5, and the early chapters of 1 Samuel.
Do Not Hinder Them is brief, but it is concise; confronting what I believe to be the most vitally important matter in the American church. It is a book youth pastors, pastors, and even parents need to read. If parents and ministers are truly alarmed by the departure of their young people from church, it will do them well to heed Peters’s analysis. The youth experts want the reason why young people drop out of church to be a lack of training in apologetics or failing to connect with the church. There are a myriad of excuses why they leave church. Fundamentally, however, the main reason is because churches and parents have raised a generation of false converts from an early age. I believe Justin Peters demonstrates that truth beyond all doubt.
UPDATE: Read a brief follow-up addendum to this review that interacts with specific criticisms.