I came to Christ when I was fifteen years old. I was part of a youth group that ran more than 100 students on Wednesday evenings. We had everything that we could want in a youth ministry. This robust and dynamic youth ministry was part of the reason many of the parents chose to plug into this particular local church. When we fast-forward to present-day and reflect back on that time, I realize that a vast majority those who were in my youth group now have nothing to do with the church and have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. This has been the trend in more than only my youth group.
Thom Rainer would report in his book, I am a Church Member, that only 15% of my generation is currently involved in any local church (this does not take into account the health of those local churches). He would also report that there has been a mass exodus from the local church in my generation, with 70% of those raised in church leaving. Rainer’s research team usually hits the nail on the head, so to speak. The same research shows that only 35% of that 70% will return to regular attendance (and the number is probably less now than it was in 2003). Whatever the organized church has been doing has not been working. Kenda Dean, in Almost Christian, asserts that “…religious faith… is not durable enough to survive long after they (American young people) graduate from high school.”
Modern youth ministry can be traced back to the 1940s when Young Life and Youth for Christ were developing attractive ministries for youth and beginning to hold youth rallies. In the ’50s and ’60s, their focus shifted to the development of youth Bible clubs and relational evangelism to unchurched youth. In the 70’s, churches began hiring youth pastors and developing specialized youth ministries. Youth ministries were being designed to attract youth and their families with food and music. In the 80’s, modern youth groups adopted MTV’s strategy to gain an even greater audience- entertainment and media. The message continued to be simplified and shortened “to fit the entertainment-saturated youth culture” (Wright, Dave, “A Brief History of Youth Ministry,” The Gospel Coalition, 2012).
In this process, youth were segregated from the rest of the congregation, the church incorporated an attractional model of ministry, the church resolved to make converts of many and disciples of few, and the church created a consumer mentality of church within an entire generation (or more). It has now proven to be more harmful than helpful. Not only for the church, but also for those people who are more unfulfilled in life than previous generations. Research seems to indicate that the rising pursuit of worldly prosperity is causing the current explosion in mental illness, substance abuse, and depression (Rhodes, Michael and Robby Holt, Practicing the King’s Economy, Baker Books, 2018. 41). We tried to replace the methods of God with the methods of the world, and we shot ourselves, and society, in the foot. The process continues, only now we have entire ‘churches’ employing these human-centered methods that have failed and have at least contributed to the problems in our society for the last 80 years.
So, we ask this question as we approach local church ministry: In response to the Gospel, how will we strive to serve our Lord? Will it actually be beneficial, or will we choose to perpetuate an 80-year failed experiment? Will we strive for apparent momentary and worldly success, or will we serve the everlasting good of God’s people for God’s glory?
Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk — not as unwise people but as wise — making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit:
speaking to one another
in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
singing and making music
from your heart to the Lord,
giving thanks always for everything
to God the Father
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
submitting to one another
in the fear of Christ.
Promotes meaningful living (v. 15-16)
As we dive head-first (or rather eyes-first) into this passage, we see immediate instruction regarding the Christian life. “Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk…” It is necessary that we be reminded, as we are with every instruction given in God’s word, that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We are not saved by our works. As this instruction is given, we recognize that it is being given as an application of something previously stated by Paul. “Pay careful attention, then…” Why might we need to pay careful attention to how we walk as the people of God?
When we read the previous part of chapter 5, and Ephesians as a whole, Paul is making the argument that we are saved by grace through faith, not by any work of our own so that no one can boast (2:8). Therefore, we are imitators of God, as beloved children (5:1). We are not to be partakers with those who deceive with empty or meaningless words (5:7) because we, who once walked in darkness, are now light in the Lord (5:8). Because we have been made light in Jesus Christ, we now walk in the light. Jesus Christ saves us by grace, through faith, and not by any work of our own, then the way that we walk changes.
What is meant by “Pay careful attention to how you walk”? This instruction, or command or imperative, is not given as a command regarding one’s swagger. How we walk refers to how we live and how we operate. Because we were formerly in darkness and have now been made into light, we now pay special attention to how we live- life methodology. It is different than the way we walked when we were in darkness. There is this explicit command in response to Christ’s saving grace. Now that we have been made light, we are to pay careful attention to how we walk. This is not works-based righteousness because we are not saved by our works. A new lifestyle is our natural and sincere response to God’s saving grace.
…not as unwise men but as wise…
Paul doesn’t necessarily take this in a direction that we would expect. He doesn’t begin to name all of the things that one should abstain from. He does not begin to list the rules of the church. He doesn’t say, “Now you are a Christian, so you can’t do anything fun and you have to give up everything you like.” Unfortunately, those are the types of things we have heard come out of the organized church, and we don’t see those types of things (regulations we must will ourselves to keep now that we are ‘Christians’) in Scripture anywhere. That is the very definition of works-based righteousness. Instead, in the text of Scripture we see things like:
“If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23).
Remember, God has brought us from the darkness and made us light in Christ. He is exposing our unrighteousness, not merely our sin. He is clothing us in His righteousness, not merely trying to get us to stop sinning. As we walk as light in Christ, our desires are different. It benefits us little to try by our willpower to submit to regulations, even if it makes us feel religious. Instead, Paul writes that we should walk as wise people. Think about what you do, how you do it, and why you are doing that thing the way you are doing it. Are you acting with wisdom or not? This is how you should walk in response to God’s amazing saving grace.
…making the most of your time, because the days are evil…
Literally, this is instruction for the people of God, in response to God’s grace, to buy back the time, or redeem the use of one’s time as God has redeemed (bought back) His people. I really loved playing video games when I was younger. I still like playing them. There was one game I owned that would record the hours spent playing for each distinct character. One of my characters, just one, had 127 hours of game time logged that I had played. I played many games and had a few characters on this particular game. I had this thought: what could I accomplish if I put this time into actually being productive? The instruction, here, is that in response to God giving us life and making us light, we no longer waste our lives, but do something meaningful for eternity and do so with wisdom. Too often, we only accomplish this limited and fleeting satisfaction. Our vision and our dreams are too small.
We have to be careful to walk this way because the days are evil. We live in a time when people busy themselves with meaningless things in light of eternity.
As a church, then, being careful how we walk means being careful about the way that we do ministry. This applies specifically to the methodology of one’s life, and consequently to the methodology of church life. Just as many people busy themselves with meaningless things, many church calendars are full without any real fruit being produced. Pastors and ministry leaders wear themselves out without accomplishing much for the Gospel. Meaningful ministry of any kind in the local church has an end that gets the people of God involved in God’s eternal mission. So, ministry doesn’t seek to entertain, babysit, occupy, or to dictate morals. Ministry gets people involved with the work Christ is doing to the glory of the Father.
Accomplishes understanding (v. 17-19)
This imperative continues, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
As we pay careful attention to the way that we walk, we are reminded not to be foolish. In this case, foolishness is listed to re-emphasize the importance of practicing wisdom and to help explain what it means to walk (or live) with wisdom. We are to understand the Lord’s will and walk according to His will, not our own. What is the will of the Lord? I am so glad you asked, and I believe Scripture should be the one to answer in the context of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.
We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory” (Ephesians 1:9-12).
We often try to make God’s will about us, but here it is explicitly stated for us. God’s will is to bring everything together in the Messiah, in whom we (being predestined according to His purpose because He works everything in agreement with the decision of His will) receive an inheritance so that God might bring praise to His own glory through us. That is the will of God. It seems familiar, almost as though we saw that in the text last week… Now we know. We don’t have to wonder! As we pay careful attention to how we walk, we pay careful attention to walk in such a way that we are not trying to glorify ourselves. We must decrease as Christ increases.
And don’t get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit…
Because of God’s saving grace, we walk in wisdom, we do meaningful things with regard to eternity, and not being foolish but understanding the will of God. This means that we, because of Christ’s righteousness, refuse those things that impair our judgment or make us unable to pay careful attention to how we walk. This isn’t a regulation against drinking. We saw what Scripture had to say about those kinds of religious rules. It is continued instruction for us to pay careful attention to how we walk in Christ so that our wisdom is not impaired and so that we are able to continue to do meaningful things. Instead of getting drunk (which is an active action done according to our own willpower), and so impairing ourselves, we are to be filled with the Spirit (which is passive on our part, we are filled).
…speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music from your heart to the Lord…
The remainder of this passage is Paul’s description of what it looks like for one to be filled with the Spirit. We often think of someone speaking in tongues, convulsing, or something else that looks more like demon possession than like anything godly. When this is described in Scripture, we see something else entirely. When the people of God are filled with the Spirit, it means that the Spirit is the one enabling the people of God to pay careful attention to how they walk. We have not done this by our own willpower. We are filled by way of the Spirit. We speak to one another joyfully and sing, making music from our hearts to the Lord! We have our wits about us so far as the Holy Spirit enables. We encourage and stimulate one another to love and good deeds (that one sounds familiar, also). We cannot help but praise God for what He has done. We only benefit joyfully to the point of singing when we pay careful attention to how we walk.
We strive, in response to God’s saving grace, for a lifestyle that praises the glory of God and that does not seek glory for self. Likewise, meaningful ministry of any kind in the local church accomplishes the greater understanding of those who participate in the ministry. So, Bible-centered teaching is, again, paramount. Ministries are not merely evangelistic, but serve the purpose of the local church (the encouraging and stimulating of one-another to love and good deeds) and the eternal mission of Jesus Christ (the glory of the Father through the exaltation of the Son in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit).
Encourages holistic unity (v. 20-21)
As we are filled by the Spirit, we also continuously give thanks to God for what He has done in bringing us from darkness and making us light by grace through faith. The Spirit leads us to submit to one another in the fear of Jesus Christ. As we submit to one another, we submit to the encouraging and the stimulating of one another to love and good deeds in Christ. Instead of seeing this mentality that demands we draw people in by being cool enough, we see this mentality that strives to see others actually do something meaningful and grow in their understanding. This is infinitely more valuable than doing everything we can to merely attract people. We become loyal to one another, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ for our good, and we profit more than we could ever imagine.
As we pay careful attention to how we walk, we experience unity through this kind of mutually submissive loyalty in every generation, ethnicity, as men, and women in Christ. He is preeminent, not any specific generation or ethnicity or gender or group.
In the way we do ministry, we want to be God’s unified kingdom, not a segregated kingdom according to the pattern of the world (Ephesians 1:9-10, 22-23, 2:13-15, 21-22, 3:6, 20-21, 4:1-6, 11-14, 16). There is only one body because there is only one Lord. Godly ministry promotes this truth. Form follows function and methodology follows theology.
Considering the aim of specialized ministry according to Scripture, it is not difficult for us to see where most specialized ministries in churches miss the mark. I’m so thankful that there is much grace and mercy in Jesus Christ! Here are some ways in which I think we miss the mark because of our own unrighteousness:
- Our mission is often to win people.
- So we develop ministry that seeks to attract people rather than accomplish the biblical mission and purpose of the local church.
- Ephesians 6:10-12 would warn us, “Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” Our mission is bigger than winning people to a building or organization. Our vision needs to be bigger.
- Our method is often to entertain.
- We had a guy leading our music when I was in the youth group and this was his philosophy of ministry: The music draws them in so they can hear the word.
- 2 Timothy 2:1-4 would encourage us to remain vigilant in grace, “You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in the concerns of civilian life; he seeks to please the recruiter.” Grace is the only means, let us not get entangled with the ways or strategies of the world. Again, our vision needs to be bigger.
- Our purpose is often to make people feel good about themselves.
- So, we preach messages designed to empower or glorify people rather than serving the glory of God and the genuine good of God’s people.
- Romans would encourage us against flattery and to, instead, implore us to be changed, “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
- Our mission is often to win people.
Do we realize how the trajectory of modern ministry in the church has led to rebellion against God and, ultimately, an exodus from the organized church in the western world? In the pages of Scripture, we receive a godly philosophy of church ministry, one that is actually beneficial for the people of God. I am not claiming that youth ministry (or any other ministry) cannot be beneficial. I am not claiming that we shouldn’t use the tools that God has given us to do His ministry. I am claiming that all ministry needs to be biblical, following God’s instruction and not employing the methods of the world (which have been proven a failure over the last 80 years). This ministry philosophy serves to direct us as we seek to serve God’s glory and the good of God’s people. Therefore, we must say, according to God’s word, that our ministries exist to:
- Serve the eternal glory of God through the exaltation of Christ in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit,
- by devoting ourselves to biblical teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers, praising God,
- for the purpose of encouraging one another and stimulating one another to love and good deeds in Christ,
- with the personal result of our meaningful living, personal understanding, and unity as the body of Christ.
Our philosophy of ministry can be summed up by the slogan, “God’s glory, our good.”
God has used the current trajectory to, like He did over and again with the nation of Israel, prove the insufficiency and depravity of people and show that He alone is our deliverer. In doing ministry the way we have for the last 80 years, we have won people to so much less than Christ. We have committed idolatry and blasphemy. The organized church in our day is in desperate need of repentance and turning back to Christ. He is our only deliverer; let that truth alone drive our ministries.