One doesn’t hear the phrase quite as often these days, but the 4-14 Window might be one of the things Christian leaders fear most. It refers to children’s ages, you see. If Christians can’t get a child between those ages decently-well indoctrinated, then the chances are good that that child won’t ever become a Christian in adulthood. It’s one of the most important ideas in Christianity for good reason, and we’ll be talking about that reason today!
(From introduction: Child of Prague doll.)
A bombshell discovery in the Southern Baptist Convention
Many years ago, I briefly joined a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church. It was a megachurch, though I didn’t know the word for it then. It had a huge youth group of many hundreds of children and teens.
I came into the SBC from Catholicism. In Catholicism, of course, a priest baptized me when I was just a baby. That moment marked my entry into the arms of the capital-C Church. But my new leaders at this SBC megachurch told me that my Catholic baptism didn’t count. I hadn’t consented to it. Nor had I understood anything about Christianity beforehand. Now that I was a teenager, I could consent and understand everything. So I needed to be baptized again.
It was a weird baptism, very kitschy and just a little haphazard. Later on, I’d discover that I really hadn’t understood most of what had led me to it. But that was apparently fine this time around.
(When I became Pentecostal, I got dunked again, this time with a Oneness ritual rather than a Trinitarian one. After I drifted out of Pentecostalism and back into it again, a whole bunch of people at all levels of power in the church insisted that I get baptized a fourth time. There, I put my foot down. I’m sure a few of them still think that my refusal was a predictor of future rebelliousness.)
But at least I’d been closer to understanding baptism. Back then, I thought it was cool that Baptists wouldn’t dunk someone too young to understand. They had enough pride to want to be chosen rather than assigned.
That was all in the mid-1980s, though. The SBC began to seriously decline around the 1990s, when they finished up their big schism over literalism and misogyny, the so-called Conservative Resurgence. That prideful stance about baptism couldn’t last. And it didn’t.
Imagine my surprise around 2014, when SBC researchers discovered something that horrified them. The literal only growing age group of baptize-ees in the SBC were children aged 5 and younger. Basically, pastors got so desperate to bulk up their baptism rates that they began dunking little kids. They easily rationalized their decision.
Nowadays, baptisms of extremely young children are everywhere online. Nobody but nobody remembers why evangelicals once refused to do that. And the SBC’s top leaders are apparently all too aware of what would happen if they tried to forbid the practice again. The simple truth is that in an age of decline, no low is ever too low for those who fear losing power.
Indoctrination builds upon many layers of earlier lessons
Ideally, Christians want to begin a child’s indoctrination very young, by around 4 or 5 years old. At that age, the lessons are simplified and easily grasped by a vulnerable little mind. They will set the stage for more complex ideas later on. At that time, they’ll learn more ideas to gain slightly more sophisticated beliefs. This education sets the stage for a few years later still. And so on and so forth.
I definitely believe that this system works to some extent. By the time I was a Catholic teenager, I was consumed by Christian beliefs. I was very fervent, to say the least! And that made me easy prey for that SBC evangelist who caught me that fateful night.
I already believed in supernatural beings and a world that couldn’t be seen, as well as in Jesus and Yahweh. And I already considered the Bible a very holy book. All that evangelist needed to do was quote Bible verses that seemed to point to Hell as a destination for those who believed the wrong things, and he had his audience in the palm of his hand. I sure wasn’t the only teen who went home with wet hair that night.
Even my very Catholic mother couldn’t gainsay what that preacher had told me. She might have been aghast that I’d been baptized again, but she couldn’t overtly reject any of what I’d heard that night.
Thanks to extensive indoctrination in my earlier childhood years, I had no defense at all against this predation.
The 4-14 Window, defined
In Christianese, the 4-14 Window describes an evangelism concept related to children. If Christians can’t indoctrinate a child between the ages of 4 and 14, then chances are good they’ll never be able to turn that person into a lifelong Christian in adulthood.
See, before four years old a child can’t really understand the threats, misinformation, gaslighting, compartmentalization, and promises that go into indoctrination. After 14, a child has likely already learned too much about reality and healthy boundaries and relationships to accept that indoctrination.
So yes, the 4-14 Window operates a bit like the window of socialization for kittens, except in reverse: Miss the window for kittens, and they’ll always have trouble speaking People. Miss the indoctrination window for children, and Christianity’s beliefs and claims will sound ridiculous, weird, and manipulative to them.
You will mostly see evangelicals talking about the 4-14 Window. A subset of evangelism-minded Catholics might also draw upon its ideas, but it’s mostly evangelicals here.
The early history of the 4-14 Window
Around the 1990s, evangelicals panicked about what was going to happen to Millennials. Youngsters in that age cohort were coming into full adulthood. Some of them would soon be starting their own families. However, they didn’t seem to be taking their kids to church. As a result, those kids failed to be indoctrinated.
This worry led Bryant Myers, then with the charity World Vision, to create the idea of the 4-14 Window. (He teaches with the evangelical school Fuller Theological Seminary, these days.) He wrote a paper called “The State of the World’s Children” in the 1990s. In it, Myers shocked evangelism-minded Christians with some dire predictions. In 1996, Dan Brewster of Compassion International summarized it:
Bryant painted a sobering picture of the numbers and conditions of children and youth throughout the world today, and noted some of the implications that this huge and often suffering people group presents to mission strategists today. But the most significant portion of his presentation was the stunning graphic below, which shows that in the USA, nearly 85 percent of people who make a decision for Christ, do so between the ages of 4 and 14!
Brewster also offered a diagram from Myers’ paper:
At the time, Christians were about 20 years away from realizing they were already smack dab in the middle of a serious decline. So information and diagrams like these had to be the intellectual equivalent of firecrackers lit under someone’s seat! Indeed, I find citations of Myers’ paper everywhere in the Christ-o-sphere. Luis Bush, a missionary who targeted children, wrote a big huge paper that capitalized on Myers’ ideas. But he was far from the only one doing that. Years and years later, older Christian leaders would still be using these ideas to impress their followers with the importance of childhood indoctrination.
Around 2003, Barna Group published a book about that same topic of childhood indoctrination. As is normal for them, they painted a scary (for Christians) future of almost completely secular children who had no clue what Christianity was about, then offered those scared Christians products that they promised would help immerse children in Christianity for life. Other Christian leaders and sites joined the fun in the 2000s, like Grace to You. They offered a list of “pitfalls” to avoid while indoctrinating children.
The 4-14 Window rules the mid-2010s
In 2010, Luis Bush returned to drill down harder on the 4-14 Window. He even called this idea “our Priority Missional Focus to Transform the World.”
Of course, some Christian leaders criticized the concept of the 4-14 Window. One, Kent Philpott, theorized that if a child converted too young, they might deconvert in adulthood. He feared that such young adults might not have fully understood their indoctrination. (Also of course, he decides that these deconversions represent only “false conversion.” This guy really frets a lot about false conversions.)
Outsiders to this kind of Christianity also roundly criticized the entire idea of indoctrinating children, especially in schools. One 2012 headline along those lines suggested that erstwhile evangelists “plan to teach genocide to schoolchildren.”
But the 4-14 Window was here to stay. In 2012, a Christian site declared April 14th to be the official 4-14 Window day:
A nondenominational movement called the “4/14 Window” is mobilizing one million Christians from around the world to fast and pray for the 2.3 billion children on earth on Saturday to raise up a new generation to transform the world for Christ.
After the mid-2010s, things got a little quiet on the 4-14 front. But even in 2021, we can find Christian leaders talking about it still.
How the 4-14 Window influences Christians
Christians—especially evangelism-minded ones—tend to believe that the 4-14 Window is real. From time to time, they talk about research that supports the notion of it. Some of this research comes from Barna Group, some from other Christian groups like Lausanne. By now, I’d be willing to bet that most Christian leaders take it as read that the 4-14 Window is real, and that evangelizing even very young children is an absolute necessity to ensure that Christianity continues into future generations.
There’s a serious catch with that plan, though. If parents don’t hand-deliver their little darlings to the indoctrinators, then indoctrination usually won’t happen. Thanks to rigorous protections of parents’ rights and freedom of religion, indoctrinators can’t even freely target children in public schools anymore. That used to be their last-ditch arena for indoctrination.
As a result, secularized parents produce children who, in turn, are likely to become very secular in outlook. Those children in turn grow up and have kids who are even further away from conversion.
So the 4-14 Window tells evangelism-minded Christians to find and create any opportunity possible that they can use to evangelize small children. The future of their entire religion’s dominance is at stake here!
If they can talk secular parents into sending their kids to “free” Parents’ Day Out babysitting events, or Vacation Bible Schools, or even just day-long camping events, then they’ll have a chance to get that indoctrination ball rolling. Children must learn to fear a place that doesn’t exist and a fate they’ll never experience. They must learn to think of Jesus as a friend they can truly love and count on, even though he will never, ever, ever say anything back to them and any good feelings they get from him will really be from their own hearts. Their fertile imaginations must be channeled into a Christian worldview of demons, angels, and saints before they get caught up with astronomy and history.
If parents keep refusing to send their children to Christians, then the Christians must find ways to get to those kids without their parents knowing about it. And if you’re suddenly reminded here of Christians lobbing accusations along these lines at their tribalistic enemies, well, there’s a reason for it. (Every accusation seems to be a confession with them, doesn’t it?)
But this window closed many years ago
In years past, long before the internet was available, the 4-14 Window still operated, of course. Boomers and Gen Xers certainly fell into its definitions. But Christians dominated society so much back then that children could hardly escape indoctrination. A child would need to be strong-minded and have supportive parents to escape it.
Things are very different now.
Chances are good the 4-14 Window was already closing when Myers and Brewster wrote their papers about it in the 1990s. By now, researchers note that Generation Z, or Zoomers, are the most secular generation of Americans ever. The oldest Zoomers graduated from college a couple of years ago. In 2018, Barna Group concluded that only 4% of Gen Z are TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
The youngest generation is now Gen Alpha, the oldest of whom are now about 13 years old. Nobody knows how secularized they are quite yet, but it’s probably going to be a lot.
The battle is already finished
Two things about Gens Z and Alpha work against evangelists.
First, a majority of Gen Z people have rejected the idea of becoming parents. With fewer children to indoctrinate period, Christians will end up with way fewer successful indoctrinations. The overall pie is shrinking. Of the ones who want to have children, they’re still a bit young; our national birthrate is not only falling, but parents are getting older too. Without some very strong safety nets designed for parents, Gen Alpha may go a similar way.
Second, Gens Z and Alpha alike have grown up with social media, smartphones, and always-on internet. The result: Young Americans who are extremely online. Though evangelists are trying very hard to capture children’s attention through the internet, their results are quite lackluster. Church leaders don’t understand the internet, and they really don’t understand the internet Gens Z and Alpha consider home.
The rise of the consumer internet created the first tiny cracks in Christianity’s armor. What that internet’s doing to Christianity now might be likened less to an axe strike and more to Tsar Bomba hitting the Vatican.
The children Christians want to indoctrinate are more aware than ever of things like healthy boundaries, what relationships really feel like and how healthy ones work, and how to analyze marketing claims. And they are growing up in a world that is less and less dominated by Christianity by the year, so they feel a safety in asking uncomfortable questions and calling out dealbreakers that kids of my generation just didn’t.
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