I’ve been given the opportunity to write about anything that’s on my heart. After almost four decades as a youth evangelist, maybe they think I’ve earned it. So I’ve decided to tackle a subject that the Bible has an awful lot to say about – and yet something that a lot of youth workers seem strangely silent on. In most areas of respectable society, it’s a mighty unpopular subject, too.
It’s sin. There you go, I’ve said it.
Christian young people down the generations have tended towards one of two extremes with sin. Some belong to the slightly po-faced brigade whose mantra is: ‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance and certainly don’t go to the SIN-ema!’ Their lives seem utterly boring and they specialise in condemning people who don’t keep their particular moral code.
But much more common these days, I think, is the other category. That’s where young people don’t seem to have a problem with getting drunk, sleeping around, dabbling in soft drugs and notso- soft porn, because they know they are going to be forgiven by their loving, heavenly Father at the drop of a hat. Bonhoeffer called it ‘cheap grace’ and my friend Lawrence Singlehurst calls it ‘enthusiastic dualism’: the scary ability to be down at the front, receiving Holy Spirit ministry and loving the hands-inthe- air worship, but just as enthusiastically engaging in the ‘lusts of the flesh’. It doesn’t make any sense in terms of living a good life and, more importantly, it is a lousy representation of what a follower of Jesus should look like.
‘HATE IT, HATE IT’
Almost 38 years ago, I came back to Christ with a bang. Aged 17, I went about trying to win as many of my friends to Christ as possible. Prior to this, I’d been quite a naughty boy. I remember being quite chuffed when the headmaster of my school told me I was the worst pupil who had ever been to the school. Within weeks of my recommitment, my RE teacher, Stuart ‘Basher’ Forbes, caught wind of my evangelistic fervour and invited me in for a day to address much of the school through his RE lessons. I had five lots of 65 minutes to share whatever was on my heart.
I practised my testimony and reckoned I could get away with about 20 minutes of questions, even though I didn’t have very many answers at this point in my Christian life. But it still didn’t fill all of the time, so I decided I would play a song on the tape recorder (remember those?). It was by a Northern Irish Christian new wave band, the name of which escapes me now but I know that the track was called ‘Sin’. The chorus went, ‘I want to hate it, hate it… sin kills!’ So for three minutes, 45 seconds the boys at Moseley Hall Grammar School had to sit there and listen to this punk track of a ranting evangelist telling them that sin kills.
As weird as it sounds, it strikes me that, 38 years later, my job is essentially the same. It is to relevantly let young people know of the destructive nature of sin and that they can only be saved from its deadly consequences through what Christ did on the cross. The music may have changed in 38 years but the message hasn’t. Our creative bands at The Message are not called to use their music to let young people know how trendy they are or to show them how fast they can climb the charts like ‘proper’ bands. Instead, through fasting, prayer, preparation and bold proclamation, they will see the greatest miracle in the world take place. It’s a miracle called salvation and it’s what our youth groups and their youth leaders are supposed to be obsessed with.
Unless you read the Bible with a large bottle of Tipp- Ex you can’t miss that, while yes, God is love, he is also a consuming fire. That in his white-hot holiness his wrath burns against sin. It’s only as we see the two sides of God’s character perfectly displayed in the Bible – justice that has to punish the sins of the world and love that takes the punishment in our place – that we can fully understand the glory of the gospel. And only then can we learn to truly hate the sin in our lives that messes everything up and nailed our saviour to the cross.
God is love, but in his love He Is also a consuming fire
SIN AND HOLINESS
I’ve read about so many of the great moves of God in the past and I’m longing and living for another one. But the reality is that every great revival movement has always been accompanied by a real conviction of sin and a fresh desire for holiness. That’s because, as Jesus said, ‘The Holy Spirit when he comes will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.’ It seems to me that while there’s lots of expectation in our conferences and festivals for mighty manifestations when the Holy Spirit comes, maybe the real sign of God’s presence should be massive conviction, hatred of sins and real repentance.
My great hero is General William Booth, the founder of the ministry with perhaps the most offensive name possible: The Salvation Army. People have been kind enough to say that The Message Trust is a bit like a modern-day Salvation Army with our creative arts, passionate evangelism and ministry to the last, least and lost. But the truth is, we’re nowhere near. We can’t hold a candle to the early days of the Salvation Army as they relentlessly rescued more fallen men and women than probably any other street ministry in history.
In his beautiful book on The Salvation Army, William and Catherine, Trevor Yaxley highlights an article that was written by a cynical journalist in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle in 1879. He records a visit to a Salvation Army meeting:
‘The people present, taken as a whole, were the roughest lot I have seen at any of these meetings … Taking a policeman into my confidence, I asked him if he knew any of these young men. “Know any of them?” he said. “Why, I know them all. This one is from Newcastle; the other sitting near him is one of the worst roughs we have”; and so he went on. Singing was followed by what is called “witnessing”: various officers of the Salvation Army narrating their experience of “what the Lord had done for them”. About half an hour was [spent in this way] and, but for the ordinary interjections of enthusiasm, the time passed quietly enough. It would have been impossible to guess at what followed. The General requested his audience to sit still and sing when the “witnessing” was concluded. He gave out these lines:
“I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord! No tender voice like thine can peace afford. I need thee, oh I need thee: Every hour I need thee, Oh, bless me now, my Saviour! I come to thee.”
The words were taken up by the whole audience; the chorus was rolled out to a rattling tune, and was no sooner finished than it was commenced again with additional vigour. This chorus might have been sung perhaps a dozen times when there was a shrill scream, a bustle round the platform, and a general rise of the audience. Seats were mounted; hands were raised in the air; the singing was mingled with loud, “Hallelujahs”, bursts of vociferous prayer, shouting and hysterical laugher.
To add to the confusion, four of the forms fell backwards, and threw their occupants into a common heap on the floor. Sinners were creeping to the penitent-form, the Salvation Army was rejoicing; fully one-third of those present acted as if they were more or less insane. Several figures are bent double near the platform, groaning and wringing their hands. The “Hallelujah lasses” have surrounded them; the tall figure of the proprietor of the “Hallelujah fiddle” gyrates around them; the sweep is dancing and shouting, “Glory be to God”; and the “General” is smiling placidly and twiddling his thumbs.
As may be seen from what I have written, until penitents ‘throw themselves at the feet of Jesus,’ as it is called, a meeting of The Salvation Army is a tolerably sane affair. The fat is at once in the fire, however, when penitents come forward. Half a dozen crop-headed youths – boys they are, indeed – are praying vociferously, with their faces towards me. Did I say praying? I only suppose they were. It was vociferous shouting, with closed eyes. Their bodies sway to and fro; their hands are lifted, and brought down again with a thump on the form; they contort themselves as if they were in acute agony. The hymn resounds high above their prayers. Meanwhile the “lasses” are busy with the work of conversion.
At the heart of revival is a person who repents of their sins and seeks forgiveness from God
I watched the proceedings for some time from my point of vantage on a back form; and then struggled through the crowd to get a look at the penitents. They had fainted away. Here lay a woman in a dead swoon, with six “Hallelujah lasses” singing round her, and not one of them trying to bring her round even by so much as a sprinkling water on her face. On the other side of the platform was a man lying at full length, his limbs twitching, his lips foaming, totally unregarded.
I appealed to the general, “Really, cannot you do something to bring these people round?” “My good man,” he replied, “won’t you sit down? They will come round all right.” When I came away people were swooning all over the place. I had to step over a man in a fit in order to get to the door. When I reached the street and the pure air it was a fresh, grey morning. “Is this a common sort of thing here?” I asked of the policeman outside. “Very,” he said, “but it has reduced our charge sheet, and I haven’t had a case for two months.”’
It’s what’s called full-blown Holy Spirit revival and it’s so needed in our nation. But notice that at the heart of it is the penitent: a person who repents of their sins and seeks forgiveness from God, throwing themselves at the feet of Jesus under massive conviction.
Booth’s discipleship from these amazing meetings was like that after the other massive revival movement of the 19th Century. The Methodists would put these new converts into weekly holiness meetings where they confessed their sins to one another and to Jesus, and also sought the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. It sounds old-fashioned now, but I promise you it is not. It is, in fact, what our generation of young people desperately craves deep down.
We at The Message are now planning something that we are calling The Higher Tour where, alongside all our long-term work in prisons and tough communities, we plan to boldly proclaim the gospel up and down the country relentlessly for the next five years. We believe it could be the largest youth mission for a generation. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, on the back of all this activity, we could see something similar to what General William Booth saw almost 150 years ago?
So my plea is this: please let’s not change the word of God but instead allow it to change us. And whatever we do, please let’s not present our awesome, fearful, holy, majestic and all-loving God as some kind of lovey-dovey, wishy-washy life coach whose main job is to give us the best life possible. And let’s never shrink back from saying, ‘I want to hate it, hate it, sin kills!’
Andy Hawthorne is founder and CEO of The Message Trust. For more information on the Higher Tour and the wider work of The Message, see message.org.uk