Some disturbing trends
in response to
some legitimate concerns
I have seen some trends within our Evangelical movement recently that are causing me great concern. The concern is not only because I am worried about the direction some of our brothers and sisters are taking. It is also because they are reacting to some legitimate concerns they have over things that are happening within the Evangelical movement. The people are moving in these directions are being called by different names. For example, in the West, the term Emergent is being used, though that term is used for a varying group of people. Here are some of the concerns they have. And these are concerns especially relevant to youth movements like Youth for Christ (YFC).
- They have seen hypocrisy as we stick to and proclaim principles which we are not really practicing—such as the belief that the Bible is the supreme authority for all faith and practice. We say that; but they don’t really see it practiced in daily life and ministry.
- They see us continuing to do programmes which we have done for years, but for doing which we do not have a genuine passion any more. Our financial supporters and our leaders expect us to do these things, but we are not convinced that they are effective any more.
- They have seen leaders taking stands on some ethical issues without much grace and seen people who have sinned or made mistakes or acted unwisely hurt so badly that they have dropped out of the ministry and some even out of church altogether.
- They have seen staff burnt-out after many years of faithful service and then seen them dropped and discarded as useless to the organisation.
- They have seen para-church groups growing without the church growing, even though para-church groups are supposed to be an arm of the church.
- They have seen the church in the west become progressively less relevant, less attractive to the younger generation, and less spiritually powerful to bring change in their societies.
- They have been embarrassed by the arrogance of evangelicals in the way we respond to those with views different to ours. Those views could be political views, religious views (e.g. Islam), theological views (e.g. baptism), moral views (e.g. homosexuality), or social views (e.g. poverty).
- Some have reacted to the charge of arrogance by downplaying, and sometimes even rejecting, doctrines that suggest that Christians are arrogant, like the doctrines of hell and the absolute uniqueness of Christ.
The answer is not to give up the distinctives God gave us. The answer is to keep ourselves in vibrant relationship with God and our call, and to be humbly open to God correcting us and changing us.
Let me give you a few thoughts about how I think YFC Sri Lanka should be responding to this crisis within Evangelicalism. I think this material will help other groups too.
- We must keep asking whether a particular method we are using is bringing the results it once brought. What was effective once may not be effective now. This may involve rethinking some hallowed YFC practices like how we do camps and clubs. We did this some years ago with our rallies. Don’t be afraid of change and being utterly uncomfortable in a YFC programme. If we are willing to die for our youth—enduring discomfort is a small price to pay.
- We must encourage radical thinkers who come up with outrageous ideas on how to do ministry. They may sound like a threat to us old fellows; but they are an invaluable treasure. We all need people who keep challenging us even though they make us feel very uncomfortable. Recently, I have heard of instances in churches where younger staff challenged their leaders’ ideas and were dropped or ignored or given such a hard time that they had to leave the churches they had served. May this never happen in YFC.
- We must ensure that all who are in leadership in YFC have a passion for our mission. Do not put into leadership those who do not have a burning desire to evangelise, disciple and send youth to churches, and who do not want to submit to spiritual accountability. Some administrative workers may be lacking here. But they cannot be leaders in YFC, however senior they may be. They may get good salaries, as position is not such an important factor in our salary scheme. But they cannot be leaders. And please avoid taking such on to staff, even for administrative jobs.
- We must acknowledge where we have failed or been ineffective and take urgent remedial action. All these years I have followed the principle of reporting our failures to our major donors. This has not reduced our funding. Actually, I think it has increased our funding! Donors usually trust you when you give the full picture—including the successes and the failures.
- We must stamp out all unprincipled behaviour that we see in YFC. To neglect doing this is to let a deadly cancer to enter our ministry. What if you find that a valuable leader has been lying (e.g. not being truthful about a developing love relationship; or about a statement made to an insurance company) or has been getting things done quickly by breaking the law (e.g. paying a small bribe to a policeman to avoid getting a ticket so as to be at a YFC programme on time)? He/she must be disciplined and not used in public programmes for a time, even if that results in the programme being ruined. We may destroy a programme, but we will save YFC. By using such people we may be able to be save a programme for outward show, but you will be guilty of destroying YFC. Unprincipled behaviour has become the norm in Sri Lanka. We must be different.
- At the same time we must remember that we are a community of grace. Grace does not fear sin; so it can confront it without harmful panic reactions. When sin appears in the body, we respond humbly but firmly. We recognise that we are what we are only because of grace and not because we deserve anything. We know how often we too have failed God and been forgiven. We act with a burning desire to restore both the sinner and the honour of God, which has been compromised by the sin. Both discipline and restoration after forgiveness serve to uphold God’s honour by demonstrating God’s dual nature as holy-love. Sometimes we will discipline (Heb. 12:5-11), sometimes we will cover the sin (1 Pet. 4:8). When our staff and volunteers sin, we leaders pay a huge price. Whatever we do, we will be criticised. But we bear the criticism. And often that criticism is because we do not defend ourselves when criticised because that may hinder giving the sinner the best chance of being restored.
- We must be known as people whom those involved in gross sin can trust and come to for loving concern. Our camps this year showed that such are still coming to our programmes. May that continue to be so. May sinners come to us and be amazed at the love and acceptance they experience. May we never be known as people who are ashamed to associate with sinners. But through contact with us, may they give up sin and walk in the way of Jesus.
- We must maintain warm contact with the local church, however hard that is; and we must proactively work towards sending our youth to churches. When the church grows, we have been successful. When the church dies down, we have failed. Our success is when youth leave us and get happily settled in churches. This is one of the hardest aspects of our call. But if we do not let this happen—we are doomed. When YFC International wanted to change the mission statement some years ago, I vehemently opposed the move, primarily because I did not want us to lose the clause, “discipling them into the local church.” I wanted that in our basic statement, because that is so hard to do. We need some strong pressure to bind us to this task. Our primary institutional commitment is not to YFC; it is to the kingdom of God. But do not fear; God will honour such commitment by blessing YFC.
- Always, we must put first things first. For us leaders, our staff workers and volunteers are our first responsibility. As good shepherds we die for our staff. Never must a programme take precedence over the needs of our staff. This seems very foolish in our productivity-oriented world. But I believe productivity and also spiritual power will increase when you have motivated and committed staff. Indeed some will abuse this kindness. We have seen a few instances of this in our history. But that is a price worth paying, because others will rise up and show costly commitment to YFC.
- When people leave us angrily or when veteran staff get burnt out, we send a very bad message out about the work of God. Sensitive Christians will question our methodology and may end up giving up our methodology for a milder, gentler style of ministry that will be useless in storming the gates of hell to bring salvation to dying youth. I think I am right in saying that there are almost no former YFC staff workers who are out of fellowship with us. It has cost us a lot to have such a situation. Our leaders have spent a lot of time and energy and also used their personal funds in order to minister to wounded and sometimes angry soldiers. But it is a price worth paying!
- We must not fudge on our belief that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and practice. We must study the Word and see how it applies to the situations we face. We must show our people in practice, through preaching, teaching, counselling, writing, and in our strategising, that the Bible does give a definitive Word to the issues we face today. Today people are too lazy to grapple with the Word in this way. As a result people have lost trust in the Word and enthusiasm about it being truly relevant for every situation. This calls for the hard work of spending time studying the issues people face (even though they may not interest us), and of giving time to be dedicated for grappling with the truths of the Word in an environment that is not very truth friendly. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the Christian leader today.
- We must continue to teach the hard truths of the faith along with the more pleasant ones. For example, if one generation neglects teaching the doctrine of hell; the next generation will reject it. This is because the doctrine was not part of their worldview—their basic approach to life—a long time before they explicitly rejected it. Elements of worldview are imbibed through constant exposure, not through simply reading and signing a statement of faith. We must teach with conviction and with a sensitive awareness of the objections brought against these hard truths. I never wanted to be an apologist (and a lot of other things I had to become, after joining YFC!). But people began to ask questions; and I was forced to study and find answers to them. Postmoderns frown on apologetics. We must become persuasive but also gentle, respectful and winsome apologists for the truth, so that even those who frown upon apologetics would want to listen to us (see 1 Pet. 3:15).
Let me close with a prayer for Youth for Christ: O God, may we continue to be faithful to our call!