I've often been uncomfortable with the way we interview people to discover if they are believers. My concern goes back many years. It probably began decades ago as I was sitting with my young children as they were being interviewed by elders for the Lord's Table. But it includes my participation in countless membership interviews conducted by church sessions and school boards. So the problems I see are not endemic to interviewing children, but include the process of ascertaining the status of adults as well.
Part of the problem is that we easily settle for questions and answers that use simplistic slogans. If we hear the interviewed adults or children say the right words, we accept their "testimony" without much more inquiry. There are any number of evangelical code words and phrases that we learn so that we can communicate to one another that we are part of the same tribe. Which phrases and terms we use depends on the branch of the church with which we are associated. Some of the more common ones are:
Asking Jesus into my heart
Praying to receive Jesus
Personal relationship with God and/or Jesus
I was saved when. . .
I got saved. . .
My personal Lord and Savior
There are more, of course. But you get the idea. It's not so much that these phrases are wrong or dangerous in themselves. They can indeed helpfully summarize a Christian's experience and present commitment. My problem is not that people use these catch words to give testimony to their faith. My problem is that when these words are phrases are absent many interviewers are very likely to question the authenticity of that person's faith. What often happens in interviews is that we fish for these terms and phrases, asking question after question hoping to hear something familiar. Once we hear our favorite expression we breath a sigh of relieve and move on. Here is a real life example.
A little five-year old girl is being interviewed by a room full of Presbyterian elders for participation at the Lord's Table. The purpose of the interview is to discern whether she is a believer and also if she understands enough about the Supper to participate. I'm not too concerned about the second part of the interview right now. Rather, I want to examine how the elders sought to determine the authenticity of this little girl's Christian faith. The little girl is sitting on her father's lap and dangling her legs back and forth. One elder takes the lead in asking questions about her faith.
Elder: Mary, I want to ask you a few questions. Okay?
Elder: Mary, where is Jesus?
Mary looks at her mom and dad, then at the elder and answers: Don't you know?
Elder: Yes honey, I know where he is. I'm asking you to tell me where you think he is.
Mary: Oh. He's in heaven.
Elder: Okay. That's right. But where is he right now.
Mary is puzzled by this. She says: He is at his Father's right hand in heaven.
Elder: I understand that. Thank you. But I mean where is he in relationship to your heart?
Mary: I don't understand.
Elder: Is Jesus present anywhere in this room?
Mary: Yes, I think he's present everywhere even while he's in heaven. I can't explain that.
Elder: Yes, that's good. But where is he now in this room?
Mary: I don't understand.
Elder: I'm asking you if Jesus is in your heart?
Mary: I guess so, but I don't know.
Elder: If Jesus is in your heart, then you are a Christian. Is Jesus in your heart?
Mary looks at mommy and daddy. They nod and she says: Yes.
So what happened here? The elder that was conducting the interview surely meant well. But he was looking for something specific from Mary, a way of expressing her faith that apparently she had not been taught. So what should the elders conclude from this exchange? Some might be really concerned and question the child's faith, wondering if the parents were putting words into their daughter's mouth. Other's might be entirely satisfied because she was able to express what they were looking for.
But I am displeased with this whole line of questioning. Where does anyone in the New Testament confess their faith by saying that "Jesus is in my heart" or something similar? We know where this comes from. There's a tradition in American Protestantism of closing an evangelistic encounter with challenging someone to "Ask Jesus into your heart." Asking Jesus into one's heart then becomes the way in which people describe their conversion. "I asked Jesus into my heart when I was 5 years old," or "I asked Jesus into my heart when I heard the Gospel from my college roommate back in 1982."
This way of expressing the beginning of one's Christian life seems to come from Rev. 3:20 where Jesus stands at the door and knocks, saying "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into him." I'm not so concerned here with the proper interpretation of Rev. 3:20. I think it's pretty clear that this is Jesus standing before the door of a church, of a community of Christians, asking to be let back in. But I don't have a huge problem with people describing their first faith-filled response to Jesus as "asking him into their hearts." This only becomes a problem when it becomes the distinctive way of expressing one's faith in Jesus. Maybe a better way of saying this is that there are many ways of describing conversion and faith in the Bible. Truth be told, you really have to stretch and bend the New Testament to think that "Jesus is in my heart" is the best way of expressing true faith.
Back to the little girl. How should she have been interviewed? I'm not sure I'd care to provide some ideal way. A great deal depends on the elders' knowledge of the child and her parents. How has she been raised? What have the parents taught her about her baptism and membership in the church? Does she know portions of the catechism? There are many possibilities. But the problem we have been examining is that interviewing bodies get stuck in ruts. We don't consider each person and their situation carefully. We don't listen well. We take the easy way out, hoping to hear the certified catch words and phrases. In my experience this is an enormous problem for sessions and boards when they are interviewing both children and adults.
Just because someone does not express his faith using the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" doesn't mean that she doesn't in fact have a personal relationship with him. If someone didn't go through a little ritual where they asked Jesus into their heart, that doesn't mean they don't truly trust him and have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in their hearts. When we interview people we need to take into account the difference between a person's ability to articulate his faith and his actual possession of it. Not everyone who fails to express their faith well lacks faith. There are plenty of good Christian people that have simply not been coached in how to articulate their simple faith in Christ. And what's worse, they can get flustered and frustrated when interviewers start pressing them, looking for just the right words and phrases.
Continued in Part II.