Sobbing and tearful, an endless stream of teenagers made their way to the microphone to testify about what had happened to them during the weekend. Their words varied, but the same message echoed throughout the auditorium: “I accepted God,” or “I asked God into my heart,” rang out over and over again to the delight of tearful parents and classmates. Feeling like an evangelical killjoy, I sadly couldn’t bring myself to clap. Like Elvis, the gospel had left the building.
As I wrestled with mixed emotions, a scream began to erupt in my gut: “None of this has anything to do with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ!” My own daughter sat in the audience. Riding home in the car, I knew what came next; “Dad, I got saved this weekend,” she announced. When I questioned her about the basis of her salvation, she replied, “I believed in God.” My mind raced for a way to untangle the confusion.
Nothing good awaits those who abandon the true gospel of Christ for a different gospel (Gal. 1:6). The church must return to its roots, and two things must happen. First, we need to realize the dangers of unclear evangelistic presentations. Once we clarify the dangers, we then need to make sure that we present the gospel accurately and clearly. Many well-intentioned evangelists, blissfully unaware of the consequences, present a false or watered-down gospel. It seems that the evangelists at my daughter’s event must have checked the gospel message at the door of the auditorium.
You see the problem, don’t you? The future leaders of the church will come from our teens. George Barna’s book, Real Teens serves as a good source of information for what the average teenager thinks about Christ and the gospel. After polling “born-again” teenagers, he found that 48 percent believed that by doing good things a person can earn a place into heaven. Another 40 percent believed that Jesus Christ sinned. Of the born-again teenagers, 6 percent did not believe that Jesus Christ existed as a real person. When the church fills the pews with people who think of Jesus Christ as either a sinner or as a fantasy, the foundation of the church has already begun to crumble.
False gospel presentations bring disaster upon the church in two ways: first, they lull the spiritually dead into an even deeper sleep, and second, they fill churches with false-believers. Unbelievers do not believe, but false believers think they believe and in reality they do not. At least unbelievers know they do not believe. The false believer doesn’t even know that a problem exists. My daughter walked away from her youth event with a false sense of eternal security. How many other teens did the same thing without anyone—parents or mentors—questioning them on what they based their eternal salvation upon?
Many youth evangelists rely on pure pragmatism at all costs. Getting “decisions” out of today’s teen requires the use of games and clever gimmicks that have proven themselves successful, right? The mantra in youth evangelism seems to hold to the premise that, “Whatever works, works for me.” The true gospel messenger should not measure success by the number of “salvation-scalps” claimed. Why not measure an event’s success by how faithfully it adheres to the saving message of Jesus Christ, and not by how many tearful teens walked an aisle and prayed a prayer? Did the message change their lives? Do they show growth in Christian maturity and in dedication to Christ?
False gospel presentations have certain identifying characteristics. False messages focus on what we must do rather than on what Christ has already done on our behalf. Almost every testimony at my daughter’s retreat revolved around what the young teenager did or did not do. Not once did I hear about the finished work of Christ on the cross during the extended testimony time. Not once did I hear the true gospel message. My own daughter’s profession never once spoke of Christ or what He had accomplished on the cross on her behalf.
The central issue is accuracy. Many well-intentioned gospel presentations simply fail to spell out the problem of sin. The unpopular “sin problem” rarely fits the evangelistic agenda which instead relies upon results and decisions to gauge success. Our youth must understand that as hopelessly lost sinners, they stand awaiting judgment from a holy God. Evangelism that diminishes the problem of sin in exchange for perceived success fails the truth test.
The solution? Simple. Give them the gospel! Tell them what Jesus did on the cross for them. The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian church in the first century, and today’s evangelist as well, to stay true to the gospel which he had preached to them:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1–4, ESV).
Paul presents the problem: “our sins.” Paul presents the simple solution: “Christ died for our sins.” The sole hope for everyone resides in the pure, unadulterated gospel of Christ. “Christ died for our sins … He was buried … He was raised on the third day”—meet the true gospel! The gospel does not need endless amounts of pizza sauce and pepperoni to make it more appealing to young people. Youth can take the truth and they can see through the endless cheesy gimmicks. When I talked with my daughter on the way home I didn’t need to stir up her emotions or spice up the gospel to make it more easily digested. She understood my concerns and scriptural explanations without any additions.
Why should we serve up the truth on an emotional platter? Many teenagers, my daughter included, walked an aisle and prayed a tearful prayer without knowing what Christ had accomplished for their salvation. Don’t get me wrong, tears can serve a purpose if they flow out of a repentant heart, however, do we need to whip up our youth into an emotional frenzy for the gospel to succeed?
Let’s get back to the basics. The Apostle Paul pronounced a curse upon the Galatian church when it strayed from preaching the true gospel of Christ. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another … if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:6, 9; ESV). We should shudder to consider what he would say about a good percentage of what serves as evangelism today.
Wondering about my daughter? After questioning her about how she “got saved,” it became clear that she did not understand the gospel or her sin problem. Jesus Christ and His gospel figured nowhere in her profession of faith. Once I clearly presented the gospel to her she replied, “I believe that.” Time will tell if she truly believed what she professed. At least she now knows the truth.
The church weakens with every false believer added to its membership roles. Evangelism must rest on the finished work of Christ on behalf of those who stand condemned before God. Tell our teens the truth. Feed them more than just pizza. A steady diet of the gospel just might do the trick. Maybe the next time they take the trip to the microphone we will hear what Christ did for them. Maybe the next time this event happens, the gospel won’t stand rejected, knocking at the door like a beggar with no chance of admittance. Maybe Elvis will be all by himself.
- James Leavenworth
James Leavenworth serves as a teacher at Redeemer Church of Abilene in Abilene, Texas. He is graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary in December with a Master of Theology (New Testament). After graduation he plans to pursue a PhD in New Testament/Early Christianity. He can be contacted at [email protected].