I remember as a boy seeing a man from our church having a beer at a restaurant. My immediate thought was something along the lines of, Wow! I thought he was a Christian. Later as a teenager in the youth group, I had a conversation with who I had thought were the kind of boys my mom would’ve been happy to see me hanging out with, in which their dialogue concerning some of their “extracurricular activities” led me to a similar thought: I can’t believe I’m the only Christian boy in my youth group now!
This is not an article about alcohol. This is not about sex or smoking or foul language. This is about a boy who grew up believing that his Christian faith was about his behavior, about the activities he was allowed to do and not allowed to do, about maintaining a PG lifestyle. This boy was led to believe—unintentionally, I’m sure—that changing our behavior will, in turn, change our heart, not the gospel truth that tells us to let Jesus get a grip on our hearts and then in time the Holy Spirit will change us on the outside.
What would the kids in your church say about which comes first—changed behaviors or a changed heart?
Though far from perfect, I can say in front of God that I never smoked, I never had sex before marriage, and I never drank even a drop of alcohol before I was of legal age. But I still suffered immensely, because I spent more than half my life thus far believing my behavior is what made me pleasing in God’s sight. And when God saved me, my mindset was one of, He didn’t really save me from too much, because I’ve been a really good kid so far.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Because what the behavior-based discipleship did not teach me was about my sinful nature. Even the missionary of all missionaries, the writer of all writers, the great apostle Paul, admitted well into his ministry that he was still “less than the least of all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 3:8). But good, little me? I thought I was just fine. Not until well into my twenties did I experience what Charles Swindoll called “the grace awakening” (a must-have book for your collection!). Even now, nearing forty years of age, I have trouble reconciling if I do the things I do (or not do the things I don’t do) because of the behavior-based discipleship I was brought up in or because the Holy Spirit has renovated my heart.
I do not wish that kind of turmoil on the kids in your church, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. Maybe—and that’s a really cautious maybe (but unlikely)—preaching behavior-based discipleship keeps them away from alcohol, sex, and the like, but do you really want to teach them that being a Christian means:
- Not drinking
- Not smoking
- Not having sex
- Not listening to secular music
- Not reading Harry Potter (can you believe some pastors are still on that bandwagon?)
- Not seeing R-rated movies
- Singing in kids choir
- Singing in youth choir
- Going to youth group
- Memorizing the order of all the books of the Bible
- Getting more Awana badges
- Being at church every time the doors are open
- The list goes on and on and on
That is placing the emphasis on behavior. Instead, the emphasis must always be placed on Jesus and the grace of God. It is by God’s amazing grace, and not man’s lists of dos and don’ts, that we are “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2).
I understand it’s a fine line to balance. How do we protect the children and youth in our church from the inevitable temptations that will come their way, encourage them in their spiritual disciplines, while most importantly leaving room for the Holy Spirit to renew their mind and transform their hearts? There is not an easy answer, except to always err on the side of grace, not law; on the Holy Spirit’s whisperings, not on our loud preachings; on what Jesus already did, not on what we shouldn’t ever do.
Kevin Harvey is the author of two books, his most recent being All You Want to Know about the Bible in Pop Culture. He also writes at BibleInPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter under the handle @PopCultureKevin.