Getting saved through Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit sounds like it would be a really big deal.  I mean, the sheer mechanics of opening up one's heart and having the Holy Spirit move in like a college kid moving into the dorms is difficult to wrap your head around.  Oddly enough, Christians seem to think it requires nothing more than the ability to repeat phrases told to you by another person.  This applies mainly to children who are too young to formulate a sentence based on the premise that a person died for you thousands of years ago so you won't go to Hell when you die.  It goes something like this:

Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you.  I want to be a better person.  I believe you sent Jesus to die on the cross for my sins, that you raised him from the dead, and that he hears my prayers.  Please forgive me and let Jesus come into my heart and life.  I give my life to you, Lord. In Jesus' name I pray, amen.

All you have to do is mean it.  The problem with this prayer is that a child really doesn't understand what they're being led to say.  A sinner?  What does that mean?  How did I get that way?  Why did god make me wrong?  Jesus died on the cross?  How did he know me back then?  How does someone dying make up for me being born a sinner?  How did he die if he's still alive and listening to me?  How does a man live inside of someone's heart?  How can he be in Heaven and in my heart at the same time?

Children really don't understand the intricacies of what you're proposing, and I'd venture a guess that a lot of adults don't either.  However, children and credulous adults have one thing in common: if you make it sound important enough they'll suspend their disbelief and go along with it.  At this point the adult tells the child that they've been saved (from what?) and that their next step is to show their obedience to Jesus Christ by getting baptized -- more ritualized behavior to ready the kid for a lifetime as a follower.

The problem with this ritual is that it's empty and deceitful.  Who honestly thinks they could fool an all-knowing deity by coaching a kid to say some lines they don't even understand?  Doesn't that make it seem like you're spitting in god's face?  And what good does this do for the child?  If they weren't actually, truly saved from Hell because they didn't really know what they were saying then aren't they still going to Hell?  I guess it doesn't really matter, as long as you're making soldiers for Jesus, right?  You have to keep those attendance numbers growing!

When I was four years old I said the prayer of repentance with my dad coaching me.  I really meant it but I can tell you now, I didn't understand it.  I had just been frightened into following along by the threat of Hell, and it was very effective.  That's how I became a born-again Christian.

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Comment by Jon Willis on July 7, 2011 at 6:37pm
Kim, I'd be interested in knowing what she would have done as well. I remember my mother trying to force my step-daughter to say the sinner's prayer and be saved. The way she was pushing it, my daughter was in tears and scared to death. That was traumatizing for both of us. She never actually gave in, to her credit.
Comment by Kim D on July 7, 2011 at 8:56am

Wow, I have a childhood memory of a friendly lady named Pat that lived in my apartments who had my friends and I say that very same thing to become "saved."  We had no clue as to what we were reciting; all we knew was that we'd get candy if we admitted how bad were were and asked Jesus to come into our hearts.  She used to play the guitar and teach us church songs.  Nice lady since we went along with it, but now I wonder what she would have done if we had refused her offer.

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