Let me make this clear one more time. I’m not arguing that thinking about music styles or paying attention to the “feel” of our church or trying to exegete the culture is sinful stuff. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be asking questions related to cultural engagement. What I’m saying is that being experts in the culture matters nothing, and worse than nothing, if we are not first of all experts in love, truth, and holiness.
Look at what God says in 2 Peter 1:5-8:
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Did you pick up on the promise in the last verse? If we are growing in faith, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love, we will not be ineffective ministers for Christ. If ever there was a secret to effective ministry, these verses give it to us. Grow in God and you’ll make a difference in people’s lives. If nothing of spiritual significance is happening in your church, your Bible study, your small group, or your family it may be because nothing spiritually significant is happening in your life.
I love the line from Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “What your people need from you most is your own personal holiness.” I’ve given that advice to others dozens of times, and I’ve repeated it to myself a hundred times. Almost my whole philosophy of ministry is summed up in M’Cheyne’s words. My congregation needs me to be humble before they need me to be smart. They need me to be honest more than they need me to be a dynamic leader. They need me to be teachable more than they need me teach at conferences. If your walk matches your talk, if your faith costs you something, if being a Christian is more than a cultural garb, they will listen to you.
Paul told young Timothy to keep a close watch on his life and his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). “Persist in this,” he said, “for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Far too much ministry today is undertaken without any concern for holiness. We’ve found that changing the way we do church is easier than changing the way we are. We’ve found that we are not sufficiently unlike anyone else to garner notice, so we’ve attempted to become just like everyone else instead. Today’s young people do not want a cultural Christianity that fits in like a Baptist church in Texas. They want a conspicuous Christianity that changes lives and transforms communities. Maybe we would make more progress in reaching the next generation, if we were making more progress in holiness (1 Tim. 4:15).
Remember, the next generation is not just out there. They are also in here, sitting in our churches week after week. We often hear about how dangerous college can be for Christian teens, how many of them check out of church ones they reach the university. But studies have shown that most of the students who check out, do so in high school, not in college. It’s not liberal professors that are driving our kids away. It’s their hard hearts and our stale, compromised witness that opens the door for them to leave.
One of our problems is that we have no done a good job of modeling Christian faith in the home and connecting our youth with other mature Christian adults in the church. One youth leader has commented that how often our young people “attended youth events (including Sunday school and discipleship groups) was not a good predictor of which teens would and which would not grow toward Christian adulthood.” Instead, “almost without exception, those young people who are growing in their faith as adults were teenagers who fit into one of two categories: either (1) they came from families where Christian growth was modeled in at least one of their parents, or (2) they had developed such significant connections with adults within the church that it had become an extended family for them.” Likewise, sociologist Christian Smith argues that though most teenagers and parents don’t realize it, “a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.”
The take home from all this is pretty straight forward. The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians. Granted, good parents still have wayward children and faithful mentors don’t always get through to their pupils. But in the church as a whole, the promise of 2 Peter 1 is as true as ever. If we are holy, we will be fruitful. Personal connections with growing Christians is what the next generation needs more than ever.