How young is too young to 'join church'?

by Mariam Williams

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I recently had a discussion with a Christian friend about discovering the truth for yourself as you begin to question what you've been taught in church and how Scripture is applied. My friend's journey to find the truth began when she acknowledged and accepted that people tend to follow what their families exposed them to as children. Her parents had taken her to church from her preschool years; how likely is it that she would have chosen a different religion on her own? Like many of her peers and mine, she accepted Christ as a child and continued in the faith until she questioned it.

I've often wondered about the validity of children claiming Christ as their personal savior. I was 12 when I did this, and I told a friend in my class at school that I had done so the very next day.

"I joined church yesterday," I said. I don't like the term "join church" now. I think it sounds like people -- and in many cases, children -- enlist or pay dues to join an exclusive organization. In some ways, we do. The Bible says followers of Christ are to put the flesh to death, deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Jesus, and most people don't choose to do any part of that.

My friend at school responded, "That's good, Mariam. Congratulations." And then she shifted her attention right back to the flash cards we were supposed to be studying in our science class.

As I think of it now, it's funny that although she and I attended different churches and worshiped in different denominations, she knew what I meant. I'm not sure if "join church" is common throughout Christianity or just black southern Christianity, but we have codes, ethics, etiquette, and even lingo we use regularly that I'm not sure outsiders would know. I suppose this is another way the church is an exclusive organization.

I found my friend's reaction suspicious. My conversion was supposed to be life-changing, although expected -- I've seen the phrase "joined church at an early age" in countless obituaries printed in the funeral programs of deceased church members -- and she treated it like it was routine. "How old were you when you joined church?" I asked her.

"About 8, I think," she said, not looking up from the flash cards.

Even at age 12 and newly converted, 8 seemed too young to me. To this day, I flinch when I see 12-, 8-, even 6-year-olds donned in white robes being dunked back-first into a baptismal pool. "How can they process this commitment?" I wonder. "What do they possibly know about what they're getting into?"

I have found that as people who have been "raised in the church" grow up, rarely are we asked to process belief. All Christians should, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, be able to explain why they believe as they do. "Come let us reason together," Isaiah 1:18 says, but we are rarely encouraged to reason. Writing down your conversion experience in preparation for proselytizing is not the same as examining the Apostles' Creed and asking oneself, "Do I really believe this, or did I just memorize it? Do I go to church to celebrate the Lord and to learn how to apply his word to every facet of my life, or do I just enjoy the traditions or the emotional highs of the weekly experience?"

When she was around 16, my present-day friend took what I see as an unusual step: She sampled other religions and ultimately returned to Christianity. Most people I know who have doubts repress them, and most of those who follow my friend's lead and examine other faiths don't return to Christianity. They usually find the doctrine too rigid, the Bible too contradictory or exclusive and Christians too hypocritical. Or they're more interested in Christianity's history (i.e., Constantine making it the official religion of the Roman Empire) than they are in its message of Jesus and salvation.

If I ever have children, I'm not sure I would do anything different from what my family did in raising me and what every family I know does, even the secular ones, which is to expose the children to the family's traditions and beliefs and help them shape their own beliefs accordingly. And when those children have questions, I am happy for people who reach either my present-day friend's outcome or the more common one, because it is good to see people confront their doubts and fears and to find peace in their belief. It's good to see people grow up, to be mature in their faith, and to know the truth -- wherever they find it.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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