In late May of 2001 I was in Kiev, Ukraine teaching at St. James Bible College. I had taught at the school numerous times since 1994 and had developed a close friendship with one of my former students, Igor Lemischuk, who was now a pastor in Kiev. When I was in Kiev Igor always asked me to preach at his church and this time was no exception. Before the service started Igor took me aside and pointed to a group of young men, probably early twenties to early thirties, and explained that they had been coming for some time and that he had met with them on several occasions and explained the gospel and Christianity to them. He then asked me to finish my sermon with a strong call to repentance as he felt that is what they needed to hear. This fit in well with the sermon I had planned as I was preaching on I Thessalonians chapter one, and verses nine and ten paint a great picture of the turning from, the turning to, and the serving that encompasses the fullness of repenting. So I did just as Igor asked and finished up the sermon with a call to repentance following the pattern laid out in those verses. As I finished the sermon I handed the microphone to Igor.
Even though I had preached at his church several times I don't remember ever having seen him do an altar call. When he grasped the microphone he immediately asked for those who wished to repent in the manner I had described to come forward and meet with him. Four young men came to meet with him. As we sang songs for the next ten minutes or so I could see him talking to each of the young men. Now here is where it gets interesting! When the music ended he had the four young men stand and face the audience and told us that they had come down to repent and turn their lives over to God. Then for the next ten to fifteen minutes he proceeded to address these young men about what it meant to become a Christian, what it cost to become a Christian, what was required of them in coming to Christ, what they would be giving up, the sacrifices and sufferings that would be theirs because of their new found faith. He went on to tell them that true repentance meant that their lifestyle would change and they would not be living the same way any longer if their faith was genuine. He told them that their new found faith would be put to the test to see if it was genuine. He explained to them that their friends and even family would ridicule them and ostracize them because of their faith. He told them that they were not just joining a church, but were joining themselves to Christ. He said that true repentance was not just a decision, but entailed a commitment, and was about seeking to please God and not themselves any longer. He finished with asking them individually if they understood what he had said, and then told them if they were not ready to make this commitment or were unsure about it to say so now and return to the audience. All four young men stayed there and affirmed their commitment for all to see and hear.
Thanksgiving of 2005 Igor stayed with us for five days and I was delighted to share the hospitiality with him that he given me on so many occasions. I asked him if those four young men were still attending his church and how they were doing spiritually. He told me that all four were still attending and serving the Lord.
What would happen in the churches in our country if we handled people who want to join the church the way Igor did these young men? When someone makes a profession of faith or wants to know how to become a Christian are we telling them what it really takes? In our rush to get people to make a decision, to get them to join the church are we leaving something out? Are we adequately explaining to people the cost of discipleship? Are we telling people it is not just a decision, but a commitment; not something tried on like a shoe, or tried out like a test ride? Is the church in America too scared of running people off that it has watered down or left out the cost of discipleship?
In fact, I believe the American church's obsession with numbers and growth prevent it from telling people anything that will upset them or turn them away. In John 6:41-69 we see Jesus explaining the commitment required to be a true disciple of His. At this many of the disciples said, "This is a difficult (hard) statement; who can listen to it?" To which Jesus replied, "Does this cause you to stumble?" And we see that as a result of this many of His disciples were not walking with Him anymore. In Mark 10:17-27 we have the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Even though Jesus felt a love for this man He told him what he must give up to have eternal life. The young man was saddened and went away grieving. In both instances Jesus spoke the truth, not harshly, but plainly, and let the people walk away who would not accept the truth. In Luke 14:25-35 we see Jesus explaining the heavy cost it will take to be His disciple, and then uses two examples of counting the cost before making the committment. Is this not the pattern we should be following?
I am afraid that the church in America has bought into and is preaching a false gospel. It is a gospel without a cross. In the American gospel both the cross that Christ bore, and the cross that his true disciples are to daily bear is missing. Without the cross of Christ the gospel is emptied of its saving power. Without the cross we are to bear the gospel is denied its claim on our life. Would it be that more preachers would be like my friend Igor and not be afraid to tell people the cost of becoming a true disciple of the Lord.