Fixing Behavior Isn’t Enough

Youth Specialties
March 30th, 2016

This chapter in Good Kids, Big Events & Matching T-Shirts is addressing the shortcomings related to measuring youth ministry success by observing the behavior of teenagers and the related danger of preaching moralistic messages (behavior modification) to teenagers instead of the gospel.

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How do you know if you’re preaching moralism or “motivationalism” instead of the gospel?  What signs can you look for that indicate you’re calling students to behave more than you’re inviting them to believe or behold? When I thought back to my years of being a teenager who relied on works-righteousness, I realized I had four primary responses to moralistic and motivational preaching. My guess is you’ll probably recognize yourself and/or your students in one or more of these.

  1. Defiant: I never get this right, and I don’t care. This teenager listens to you tell him what to do, crosses his arms and says he doesn’t care what you say. It’s his life and he’s going to live however he wants. You preach a message on dating and challenge teens to start living pure, and he’s thinking, You don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager today, you can’t tell me what to do. You’re so old you probably don’t even notice women anymore. This kid will just flat out reject what you’re offering.
  2. Despairing: I never get this right, and I never will. This teenager feels so convicted by the message, knowing that she failed so many times in the past despite her best intentions to do better. She wants to live right and honor God but has learned that in her own strength she’ll only fall again. She doesn’t realize she can grow and progress in her faith in ways that aren’t fully dependent upon her own efforts and intentions. So she comes to the altar, cries, beats herself up and then goes back to her seat sadder than she was before she responded to the altar call.
  3. Determined: I never get this right, but I will now. It’s like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, as we cautiously root for him and halfway believe that maybe this time he’ll get to kick it. This teenager gives us hope. He is readily responsive to the call to action and maybe even thanks you for sharing truth with him (imagine what that would feel like—a teenager actually thanking you for your sermon!). And so he leaves the service with a renewed determination to do better, to try harder, to get it right. But he’s hoping in himself, not Christ.
  4. Desensitized: I never get this wrong. This teen has heard it all. She has sat through thousands of sermons and attended hundreds of youth events. She is pretty confident that her walk with Christ is much stronger than the others in the youth group. She is actually glad that you preached on gossip because she’s hoping the others were listening. This student is on incredibly dangerous ground because she only thinks of sin in terms of behavior. I’ll address this danger in more detail in the next chapter.

With each of these responses, the real problem here is that when a teenager listens to a moralistic sermon or a motivational talk, they leave with their minds and hearts focused on themselves—not on Jesus! They aren’t stirred to gratitude and worship because Jesus was their substitute in life and death and because He is their source of positional righteousness and strength for behavioral righteousness. They are called to believe more in self-ability than in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

Behavior does reveal our hearts. I believe that. But behavior is the fruit of our salvation, not the root of it.

If we’re satisfied with measuring health by behavior, we are no different than a doctor who’s satisfied by medicine that masks symptoms but does nothing to treat the sickness. The symptom is often behavioral issues, but the sickness lies in the heart. Moralism and motivationalism contain no real power to change the heart—only the gospel can do that. Look at how Paul makes this so clear in Colossians 2:20–23 (NIV):

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with us, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Paul reminds the church that regulations and rules are attractive for many reasons, but they lack what our hearts need most: the power to realign the very affections of our hearts. They can rein in our impulses and drive us to determination—and those aren’t the worst things that could happen to us. But they can also lead us into spiritual pride, works righteousness and an unhealthy reliance upon our rule-keeping abilities. “Do they behave?” isn’t a bad question. It might serve us as a starting point for important conversations and ministry opportunities. But if we stop at that question, then we’ll miss the opportunity to a) help the irreligious teenager recognize that his problem is much deeper than his behavior, and b) protect the religious teenager from trusting in (placing saving faith in!) her own good behavior. There is much at stake.

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david hertweck headshotDavid has served the New York Ministry Network (AG) as the director of youth ministry and Chi Alpha since February 2011. Prior to that he served as a youth pastor for 12 years in upstate New York. David is passionate about helping local church youth workers create and sustain disciple-making environments marked by Gospel Fluency, Spirit Dependency and Biblical Community. He has his MA in Transformational Leadership from Northeastern Seminary. David is the author of two books, Good Kids, Big Events and Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry (My Healthy Church) and The Word and the Spirit (GPH). David is married to Erin and they have three daughters: Lilia, Caraline and Madelaine. David loves his girls, his family, good music, good food, his Weber grill, his Taylor guitar, Liverpool Football Club, the Yankees and the Gospel. Find him on Twitter @DavidHertweck

This post is excerpted from Good Kids, Big Events & Matching T-Shirts by David Hertweck. Copyright © 2015 by David Hertweck. Used by permission of The General Council of the Assemblies of God.

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