By Bill Itzel
There is a pandemic spreading in American churches. Our youth are turning away from God in droves. The number of those who identify as “Nones” (No religious affiliation) is skyrocketing, and so many youth groups respond by playing the same old tired games, singing songs that give a false view of Christ like the new song of the year - Reckless Love, followed by discussion groups where everyone sits around and shares their "feelings" and/or the latest gossip; and the Word of God, rightly divided, is never brought to bear. There is a staggering lack of biblical discipleship in many churches today, but this lack of accountability in leadership goes beyond just our youth groups and student ministries.
2 Timothy 2:2 says, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” This is THE model of discipleship. No matter where you are in your spiritual walk, find someone who knows more than you, and learn from them. Then find someone who knows less than you and teach them what you know (Titus 2:1-12, Proverbs 27:17, Proverbs 22:6, Proverbs 9:9, Proverbs 13:20, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Proverbs 1:5).
In my preparation for the article I wrote on “Rethinking Reckless Love”, I did a study on Luke 15:4-7 (the parable of the lost sheep). When I came to the oft-misinterpreted question “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”, I was struck by how many church leaders miss Jesus’ point, and follow that error right into the wrong conclusion. If “the ninety-nine” refer to believers, wouldn't the right application be to offer up a quick and easy invitation into the kingdom, then once they become part of the flock of God, we “leave the ninety-nine” and go search for more lost sheep. Wouldn’t logic say that a lost sheep would be of more vital importance than a saved one? One is going to heaven and the other to hell, so if we triage this situation, once someone says a prayer, they get shuffled to the back of the deck and we move on to find more lost sheep.
The problem is, that we take Luke 15 out of context and don’t understand who the ninety-nine are in this parable, and songs that misinterpret it like "Reckless Love" don't help. Jesus explains 3 verses later, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Who does not need to repent? I’m saved and I need to repent every day!
John MacArthur explains who these ninety-nine are who don’t “need to repent”: “That last line is pure sarcasm. The sinner who repents is like the sheep: helpless, understands his helplessness, danger, weakness, need, desperation, and recognizes only a hope for life and a hope for rescue and trusts himself into the arms of the Great Shepherd, and rests fully on His back until He brings him home. That's in stark contrast to the ninety-nine righteous persons who don't need to repent. The Pharisees and the scribes had nothing to do with the purposes of God, nothing to do with the work of God. They were deluded into thinking they needed no repentance. They are the ninety-nine who are the self-righteous, self-made legalists who know nothing of God. They are saying with the Pharisee in Luke 18, I thank you that I am not like these vile lowlifes.”
Mark 2:17 similarly speaks of calling sinners to repentance. There are two kinds of people here, ones who know they are sinners and therefore turn, and those who think they are righteous (the religious leaders) who don’t think they need repentance. These are the ninety-nine whom Jesus leaves to go after the one who knows he is lost. These are the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. This is the thinly veiled criticism Jesus had for the Scribes of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16).
When we look at the parable of the lost sheep, and correctly identify the ninety-nine, we would never conclude that ignoring the commands of God to disciple one another (Hebrews 10:24-25, Colossians 3:16, Matthew 28:19, James 5:16, Ephesians 6:4, Galatians 6:1, 2 Timothy 2:2, just to name a few), would be within God’s plan for His church.
I’d like to encourage your church in three ways: Give the gospel in your invitations, encourage discipleship in your church, especially of your youth, and stand on the Word.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been involved in a service where someone else was giving the “invitation”, trying, in their own power, to convince people to “Try Jesus”, Ask Jesus into their heart”, “Look at the evidence, it’s obvious”, “Trust me, you need to check out Jesus”, or “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. Who wouldn’t want to add Jesus to their life to make it better? The problem is, Jesus isn’t an “Additive”. Jesus is a replacement, a substitution (1 Peter 2:24, 1 John 2:2, Isaiah 53:5, Hebrews 9:12, 1 John 4:10). Notice what is missing from all of these “Invitations”: man’s fallen condition, the affects and consequences of sin, who Jesus is, Jesus’ sinless life, death, burial, and resurrection, and the need for repentance, submission and faith…basically the Gospel. I’ve heard a lot of invitations to come to Christ that never touched on a single point of the Gospel. While the Holy Spirit can save even when we misspeak, as the saving grace of God is irresistible, this is a dereliction of duty for anyone who calls themself a preacher. 2 Timothy 4:2 says, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” What we save people with is what we save them to, so make sure you include the gospel in your "Gospel invitation".
Lack of Discipleship
For those who believe that justification is a synergistic work of God (We add to the work of Christ to be saved), it’s easy to assume that once a decision is made for Christ, we’ve done our part in salvation. Teaching any doctrinal distinctives would just cause dissension and perhaps hurt our numbers. After all, we want unity! The problem is, truth divides…always. I’m not sure which is worse, the many congregants who want to sit back and suckle on the milk of the word all their lives, or those called to feed the flock who encourage it. I was even told once by a church leader that I could not have a personal discussion about theology with anyone in the church. He was afraid of unregulated discipleship. This represented a breakdown from the very top. It should be no surprise to learn that this church downplayed the sovereignty of God, repentance and submission in salvation, biblical exposition, theological discipleship of their children and teens, and consequently, was also a church with a terrible track record of apostasy, especially in their youth. Churches like this one abound all over the country, and the affects are tragic. There is usually a lot of fellowship, but very little discipleship, one on one. It doesn’t help when superstar mega-church pastors like Elevation Church’s Steven Furtick say that their church is not for believers: “If you know Jesus, I’m sorry to break it to you, this church is not for you”. I would say to him, if your church is for unbelievers, you don’t have a church, but that’s fitting as you don’t have a pastor either, a shepherd of the flock, but rather an entertainer of goats.
I am blessed to say that our current church preaches the word, teaches the word, prays the word, sings the word, reads the word, and makes every single decision asking the question first, “How does the Word of God instruct us here?” Our children age 6 and above sit in the 2-hour service and take notes. Why, because we not only want to disciple them, but because we refuse to fall for the lie that our children can’t listen, they can’t learn. When you set the bar at nothing, you’ll hit it every time. Replacing Biblical teaching with worldly psychobabble is a recipe for eternal disaster. Our youth group studies the Bible verse by verse because we care more about discipleship than entertainment, more about scripture than psychology, more about what God wants than what man wants. Unfortunately, this is the exception, not the norm. We are commanded to preach the Word of God, not our own ideas. 2 Timothy 2:15-19 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth. But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. And their word will spread like gangrene; Hymenaeus and Philetus are among them. They have deviated from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and are overturning the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, having this inscription: The Lord knows those who are His, and everyone who names the name of the Lord must turn away from unrighteousness.” Pragmatic church growth methods may grow numbers, but will kill the church. Topical ted talks, self-esteem techniques, easy-believism invitations, man-centered worship, seeker-sensitive leadership decisions, and bible-eliminated youth programs will only grow the tares in your building…and that’s not a church.