By Aaron Wilson
School may be out for the summer, but many kids will still be learning their ABCs over the break.
The ABCs of salvation, that is.
This popular children’s ministry acronym stands for admit, believe, and confess. It’s a simple way churches teach parents and volunteers to share the gospel with kids—especially during the week of Vacation Bible School.
A quick Google search of the ABCs of salvation reveals the phrase has become established church jargon. Numerous Christian websites, YouTube videos, and Pinterest boards strive to teach kids the gospel through this simple structure.
But as ministry leaders and parents prepare to use this evangelistic framework, they should be aware of the propensity to confuse the ABCs of salvation with the gospel itself.
An Important Distinction
In its simplest form, the ABCs of salvation is not the gospel; rather, the acts of admitting, believing, and confessing (and you might tack on, repenting) are all biblical responses to the gospel.
This distinction is important. As essential as it is for kids to learn how to glorify God in responding to the gospel, they cannot do so unless they first rightly hear the message that prompts a response.
For this reason, Lifeway includes the following in its VBS gospel presentation tools to supplement the ABCs of salvation:
- God rules—The Bible tells us God created everything, including you and me, and He is in charge of everything. (Genesis 1:1; Revelation 4:11; Colossians 1:16-17)
- We sinned—We all choose to disobey God. The Bible calls this sin. Sin separates us from God and deserves God’s punishment of death. (Romans 3:23; 6:23)
- God provided—God sent Jesus, the perfect solution to our sin problem, to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. It’s something we, as sinners, could never earn on our own. Jesus alone saves us. (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9)
- Jesus gives—Jesus lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose again. Because Jesus gave up His life for us, we can be welcomed into God’s family for eternity. This is the best gift ever! (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18)
- We respond—We can respond to Jesus. The ABCs of Becoming a Christian is a simple tool that helps us remember how to respond when prompted by the Holy Spirit to receive the gift Jesus offers.
Not Rushing the Gospel
When children’s ministry leaders are presenting the gospel, it can be tempting to rush to the last point and seek what may be a premature response from kids by inviting them to admit, believe, and confess before kids have an adequate understanding of what the gospel really is.
This can be especially true during VBS when leaders are understandably eager to share how many decisions were made that week for Christ.
But it serves children best when adults slow down the pace of gospel presentations to ensure that kids clearly understand the full message of God’s redemption—which includes the story of creation, the Fall, and God’s restoration through Jesus Christ.
Elaborating on the full gospel helps protect children from growing up to trust in an experience in which they prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, or signed a card. It shifts their spiritual security from a one-time personal event to the actual substance of the gospel, which is centered on Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.
So how can churches help prepare leaders and parents to share the full gospel with kids during VBS? Here are four suggestions:
It’s easy to fill VBS training sessions with information about crafts, snacks, and bathroom policies. While all of these things are important, churches should also make sure to reserve time to train volunteers on how to share the gospel with kids.
Crafts made at VBS won’t likely make it through the week. However, a proper presentation of the gospel can have an eternal impact on a child’s life. You can help make sure your training majors on what’s most important with resources like “Leading a Child to Christ” and the booklet “The Gospel: God’s Plan for Me.”
Tell a story, not a formula
At its core, the gospel is a story about good news. Children are captivated by stories, but for the sake of time, it can be tempting to shorten gospel presentations into a formula in which A+B+C=salvation.
While it’s true salvation is by grace through faith, that formula won’t lead to conversions if children don’t understand why grace is needed in the first place and how it is provided through the cross. As you train your VBS volunteers, encourage them to present the gospel as a story rather than as an evangelistic equation.
Strike this phrase
Well-meaning Christians sometimes try to seal the deal of a gospel presentation with the following phrase: “Now, all you have to do to become a Christian is …”
The problem is, Jesus never talked like this. Salvation is a free gift of grace that is not given on the merit of works. However, Christ often challenged people who brought a casual attitude to discipleship (Matthew 8:18-22).
Jesus encouraged people to count the cost before they decided to follow Him said anyone wanting to come after Him must be willing to die daily to his or her sinful life (Luke 14:25-33; Luke 9:23). He also told the parable of a man who was willing to give up everything he had for the sake of gaining a treasure that represents the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:44).
Have your volunteers teach free grace as they go through the ABCs of salvation, but encourage them to guard against using phrases that might understate the significance of what it means to follow Christ.
Establish an ongoing gospel culture
Some parents sweat over the idea of having “the gospel talk” with their kid.
These parents—who might be serving as VBS volunteers at your church—tend to view the act of sharing the gospel as a one-time event. With only one chance to get it right, it’s no wonder they’re nervous!
You can alleviate this pressure by helping parents and leaders grow comfortable sharing the gospel every week. This happens by helping kids make connections between individual Bible stories and Scripture’s overarching redemptive narrative.
For more practical suggestions on how to establish this kind of culture in your children’s ministry, check out the eight-week activity book What is a Christian, releasing this July, and the book Gospel-Centered Kids Ministry by Brian Dembowczyk
The goal of VBS: preaching the gospel
Even if they don’t go to church, most Americans recall attending VBS and report positive memories of the event. Your church can help attendees remember that VBS wasn’t a just fun summer distraction, but that it was also a setting in which they clearly heard the gospel proclaimed.
Take time to train your volunteers on how to point kids to Christ. But instead of starting with the ABCs of salvation—the response to the gospel—you might consider ending with it.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.