Many millennials are leaving evangelicalism and traditional Christians values. A number of our heroes of the faith from our youth have led the way. Notable examples from my life include Derek Webb, Joshua Harris and Ray Boltz.
The first Christian concert I ever attended was a Ray Boltz concert. His songs Thank You For Giving To The Lord, Watch The Lamb, and The Anchor Holds were among my childhood favorites. They shaped my faith in profound ways. Yet in 2008, Ray announced to the world that he was gay. He and his wife had separated and he was “living a gay life”. I was crushed. How could he claim to follow Jesus Christ yet reject God’s laws and love himself more than his Savior and his family (he had a wife and 4 kids)?
Derek Webb called out the hypocrisy of the church through his music. His was regarded as a prophetic voice calling upon the church to repent of self-righteousness and acknowledge their need for grace and forgiveness. His songs This Too Shall Be Made Right, and Wedding Dress beautifully express truths which the church needed to hear. But after Derek was caught cheating on his wife, she divorced him. And eventually Derek publicly abandoned the Christian faith.
As a teenager, my mother purchased us a copy of Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. She thought highly of this young many who could write such a book as a teenager. The premise of the book was that recreational dating sets one up for divorce, and one should abstain even from kissing until one is married. His book set the standard for pure dating for many in conservative evangelicalism. Later Joshua would plant a church and start a large ministry. Yet Joshua and his wife recently separated and Joshua has left the Christian faith along with many of its values.
The list of Christians leader who have been involved in scandals, have left their spouses, or have left the faith is quit long and deeply discouraging. It causes many to doubt the power of the gospel and the truth of God’s word.
Many of my friends have left evangelicalism to champion abortion rights, gay marriage, or a ‘liberal and loving’ ideology of inclusion and acceptance. Others have left evangelicalism because they believed in open borders, were critical of certain ‘conservative politicians’, or want the government to provide more services for the poor. Still others feel that to be an evangelical requires that we oppress women and embrace racism.
As a man who knows Jesus and loves His church, I am deeply saddened by what I have seen. All who know Jesus are called to be His ambassadors, to proclaim the good news to all, and to work toward peace between God and mankind. We are called into this spiritual battle to wage war against the devil and his lies. So how should we respond to those who have left or are leaving the church?
First, I believe that we must get on our knees and pray for our friends and neighbors, and especially for our Christian leaders. For the battle for the human heart is not a battle of reasoning or logic, it is a spiritual battle. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And Zechariah 4:6 says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” Therefore we are commanded to pray continually. Jesus told us that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15).
Second, we must be discerning. Not all who are in the church are sheep. Jesus said that there are wolves among the sheep. Matthew 7:15 says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Also, Jesus told a parable in Matthew 13 about the kingdom of God (the church) in which he compared it with a mustard seed which grows up to be the largest plant in the garden, like a tree. Even the birds rest in its branches. Now a mustard seed should only grow into a small bush. But this one grows into a tree because it is not a natural growth. The church will be filled with many people who are not God’s adopted children. The birds represent the devil and his workers. Many fill church pews who are actually enemies of the cross. They work against the gospel even while they believe that they are proclaiming it.
I believe that many are leaving the church today because they are responding to those in the church who are not living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a story from my past. When I was a student at Covenant College, I was called to serve at a small church in Dade County, GA as their youth director, and later, their assistant pastor. The Lord blessed the ministry there and we built a gospel-focused youth and children’s ministry team. We reached many students from unbelieving and broken homes and saw several conversions. But during my 2 year tenure at that church, I encountered a deep-seated legalism. Many of the members of the church believed that their good works for the Lord were what was going to earn them entrance into heaven. The senior pastor took a week of vacation my last month as their assistant pastor, and I was asked to preach. I read Ephesians 2:8-9 which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” One of the deacons immediately stood up and, in a booming voice, declared, “THAT’S NOT TRUE!” I informed him that I had only just read the text. He wasn’t disagreeing with me, but with the Word of God. But he said, “If that’s true, then everything we have done for all these years is in vain! We have been faithfully serving the Lord and giving our time and money to Him so that we could get to heaven!” After the message, only 3 people shook my hand as they filed out of the church building. The rest apparently disagreed with me that we are saved by grace and not by works. About a year later, while I was in seminary, the church fired their new youth director, a friend of mine and grace-centered minister, and kicked out the youth group. They told all those students that they were no longer welcome there. They said that the youth ministry was teaching a different gospel than the one they taught. They mis-assessed the situation in that they were not teaching a gospel at all, for if we can only get to heaven by our works, then no one but Jesus will get there! (See Romans 3:23 and 6:23).
When the church is filled with those who proclaim their own righteousness, the next generation normally falls away. This is because the children can see all the ways their parents sin and they properly conclude that their parent’s faith in themselves is misplaced. They see the results of self-righteousness, a judgmental and unforgiving attitude and a heart of hypocrisy. And they want no part in the church.
I have not yet defined evangelicalism. I’d like to give two definitions. The first is the technical definition, and the second attempts to describe popular perception. First, evangelicalism is the belief that the Word of God is true, that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and that we must share the gospel with all the world that they may be saved. Popular perception would be something closer to this: evangelicalism is the belief that only the hyper-religious who follow the minutia of the Biblical law can be saved. It’s no wonder that our youth cannot stomach evangelicalism!
Third, we must be peacemakers. The gospel is the good news that despite our sin and brokenness, there is forgiveness and reconciliation with God and man at the cross. It declares that there are none who are righteous, especially not the arrogant church-goers who look down on others as greater sinners (see Luke 7:36-49). It calls us to come to Jesus for forgiveness and a new life. It offers us a new heart, a new family (the true church of those who know their sins and are overwhelmed with God’s grace), and a new identity. But making peace means condemning what destroys peace with God and with one another while loving those who are ensnared by such things. We must condemn abortion because God forbids murder and because abortion not only destroys a life, it damages the heart of the mother and the society which condones it. And we must love those who have participated in abortion and those considering it. We must condemn the practice of homosexuality because God condemns it and because it leads to early death, the destruction of the family, and great psychological damage. But we must love those who live in bondage to a homosexual lifestyle and accept them as those made in the image of God.
I cannot emphasize the next truth enough. We must not begin by condemning the sins of others which destroys them, we must begin by condemning sin in our own lives. And we condemn the sin in our own lives by confessing with God that we are sinners in constant need of grace, mercy and forgiveness. And we must live our lives before the face of God in absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit to work in us the love of Christ which can alone make us holy. For we all struggle against indwelling sin, the selfishness which leads us to break the law of God. To be effective peacemakers between God and man, we must first be reconciled to God ourselves. Then when the world tells us that we are being judgmental for condemning their sins, we can say, friend, we have already condemned our own sins, and we are telling you what God has to say about your need for a Savior simply because we want you to know the forgiveness, acceptance, love and freedom which Christ offers to you and which we ourselves have tasted. We come to you not to reject you, but to offer you acceptance in Christ. But it will cost you the same thing it cost us, we must submit to the Lordship of Christ.
Finally, when we talk with those who are part of the ex-vangelical movement, we must lovingly point them to Christ rather than defend the church. For their disillusionment with the church comes from placing their faith in the church or from looking to the church to show them Jesus instead of the scriptures. Many disciples of Satan are in churches to disturb weak believers and damage the reputation of the church. Believers in the church still struggle with sin and fail to perfectly represent Christ. We must direct people to the Word of God for a true knowledge of Christ and of the gospel. The scriptures and not the church are the revelation of God and His character. The Lord has instituted the church not as the revelation of God but as the visible manifestation of His kingdom breaking into the world. As such, the church is messy. But the scriptures are as trustworthy as our God.