25 Jul 2019
In March of 2012, my wife and I, along with a group of dear friends, planted Citylight Church in Philadelphia. I was 26 years old and well over the average age among the early members of the church. By God’s grace, Citylight and I have aged, but we are still very young. As a result, the elders of Citylight Church have had the privilege and challenge of reaching, and then shepherding, a flock full of millennials and iGens toward sexual fidelity when that demographic increasingly embraces unbiblical positions on sex, sexuality, marriage, pornography, and gender. Throughout the journey, one passage of Scripture that has been particularly formative for us is Colossians 1:28-29 (ESV): “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
In this rich passage, we have found three guiding principles for making disciples among generations steeped in sexual confusion and brokenness. Proclaim. Warn and Teach. Remember Your Goal and Your Energy.
The very best way to help young people honor Jesus with their sexuality is by proclaiming to them all that Jesus is and all that Jesus does. We’ve watched something stunning happen over the years at Citylight as we tirelessly proclaim Jesus Christ as the eternal Son who was with the Father in the beginning, as the One through whom and for whom everything was made, as the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, as the perfect high priest who has brought us to God through his shed blood, as the resurrected Lord who secures our new birth, as the One who is with us always by the indwelling Holy Spirit, as the King who invites us into a kingdom larger than our own, and as the Savior who will return to deliver us from the wrath to come.
We’ve seen people become increasingly captivated by Jesus and decreasingly captivated by unbiblical sexual beliefs and practices. Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us. As we proclaim the wonder of Jesus’ person and work, over time, we’ve seen countless young people turn from the idol of sex to serve the “living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Never stop proclaiming Jesus.
Warn and Teach
Teaching is the orderly presentation of Christian truth for converts so that they may know how to grow.1 Since we want to present everyone in Citylight Church mature in Christ, we have to explicitly connect the proclamation of Jesus to the details of people’s lives, and that happens through warning and teaching. Gone are the days when people naturally connect the message of the gospel to its implications for sexuality. We have to warn and teach so that gospel proclamation leads to specific gospel application.
Many of the millennials I know (myself included) are worn out by their own narcissism. We are hungry for a King whose Kingdom isn’t a celebration of us.
When it comes to teaching, one of the very best ways to connect the gospel to issues of sexuality is to preach through books of the Bible when the church gathers. This practice ensures that we will talk a lot about sexual issues because the Bible talks a lot about sexual issues.
Other ways that we teach our church to connect the gospel to its sexual implications are through membership classes, our member covenant, through our small group leader trainings, through our weekly small groups that discuss the book of the Bible we are learning from on Sundays, and by encouraging and resourcing a culture of one-to-one discipleship where we help apply the gospel to the details of one another’s lives.
Warning in Scripture refers to confronting with the intent of changing one’s attitudes and actions. Warning is critical for maturity. In Proverbs, Solomon warns his maturing son that though sexual sin looks fabulous, he needs to know that “the dead are there” (Proverbs 9:18). Solomon warns his son by helping him consider where sexual sin will lead. At Citylight, we try to encourage a culture of love and courage that makes warning possible. Love desires the best for the other, and courage is willing to get in the way of someone walking toward destruction.
Most millennials have been discipled by the culture into a “live and let live” mindset when it comes to sexual expression. The result is that warning often feels like hate, rather than love. However, we have to keep Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in mind (Mark 10:17-22). Verse 21 says that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. Jesus then proceeded to tell the young man something he would have hated to hear: sell all that you have. Jesus, love incarnate, teaches us that love sometimes warns and says things that the beloved might hate to hear for the sake of their good (see also Acts 20:20).
I have one very practical encouragement to pastors and leaders when it comes to teaching and warning others: equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Teaching and warning one another to apply the gospel to issues of sexuality requires a level of closeness that a leader can only have with so many people. Therefore, the Christian leader should make it their goal to equip the saints to teach and warn one another (Romans 15:14). There is no perfect structure for equipping the saints to teach and warn one another (classes, training, leader development, online courses, etc.). Simply pick one, start equipping your people, and adjust the structure as needed.
I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality.
Equipping the saints to minister to one another’s sexual struggles is aided significantly by a culture of family in the church. The two best ways I know to create a culture of family in the church are to talk about the church as a family constantly and have the leaders go first in modeling transparency about their sexual struggles with a few trusted church members who can, in turn, do the same with other church members.
Remember Your Goal and Your Energy
Finally, keep your goal in mind as you minister to this confused generation. On this side of eternity, the results of proclaiming, warning, and teaching will always be a mixed bag. As a result, discouragement will always be nipping at your heels as you seek to lead people (young or old) toward sexual fidelity. As someone who is easily prone toward discouragement, I have to press into the goal of and energy behind my shepherding. My goal is to present everyone mature in Christ. My ministry isn’t about me; it’s about Christ. Why should I be discouraged?
My energy is the powerful working of God. Prayer kills discouragement and leads us into dependence on God who is powerful. I am overjoyed to tell you that God is powerfully at work in churches throughout our region who are reaching scores of young people and maintaining biblical fidelity in the area of gender and sexuality. Rest assured, you do not need to compromise Scripture’s clear teaching on human sexuality to reach people or build the church. Jesus will build his church. That’s his promise. Our privilege is to toil and struggle for our people with all his energy that he powerfully works within us!
This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
1 The New American Commentary, Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon by Richard Melick Jr.