New believers still have so much to learn and do after getting saved and we have effectively truncated their life in Jesus and belittled Christianity if we have taught them that their religion is no more than saying the sinner’s prayer. John Wesley knew this kind of simple-minded Christianity could happen in ministry and worked to fight it.
I am more and more convinced, that the devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half awakened, and then left to themselves to fall asleep again. Therefore I determine, by the grace of God, not to strike one stroke in any place where I cannot follow the blow.John Wesley (Wesley, John, and John Emory. “March 13, 1743.” The Journal of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M. Sometime Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, 1st ed., vol. 1, Carlton & Phillips, New York, 1855. p. 282.)
Brennan Manning went so far as to warn people against accepting Jesus if they weren’t going to live it out. Once while extending the invitation of salvation he said, “But for Christ’s sake…. don’t come up here if you’re playing a game. Come back tomorrow or next year or twenty years from now, but don’t make a mockery of the greatest Lover the world has ever known. We’ve got too many phonies and fakers in the church already honoring Jesus with their lips and denying Him by their lifestyle.” (Manning, Brennan, and Sue Garmon. Souvenirs of Solitude: Finding Rest in Abba’s Embrace. Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 2009, p. 112.)
Similar to Manning, I remember a missionary at a conference once mentioning that she didn’t offer the sinner’s prayer to a certain man until she knew he was serious, since the life he was leaving behind was quite dark and she wasn’t sure he was ready. A mentor of mine mentioned he once did the same thing.
But often times, we build our weekly services completely around getting people to say the sinner’s prayer before service is over. This has often caused our Sunday messages to revolve entirely around the theme of sin and grace and caused Christians to know little else about the gospel; for every week, the primary teaching time was about the same message over and over again. Pastor Brian Zahnd recalls once doing this in his own ministry:
As a zealous American evangelical, I spent plenty of time peddling “the bus ride to heaven” reduced version of the gospel. I can tell you it’s a pretty easy sell. You promise the moon (actually heaven) for the low one-time cost of a sinner’s prayer. How hard is that? And since it mostly applies to the next life, why wouldn’t you pray the prayer? If for no other reason than as a kind of afterlife insurance. Oh, yes, we did offer the optional discipleship package for those wanting to upgrade their Christian experience. But the important thing was to fill up the bus for the postmortem ride to heaven. That’s largely how I understood and preached the gospel. And, yes, at times it did seem a little cheap. But plenty of people made decisions and prayed the prayer. As the saying goes, you can’t argue with the numbers.Brian Zahnd. A Farewell to Mars: an Evangelical Pastor’s Journey toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. Colorado Springs, CO, David C Cook, 2014, iBooks. Ch 2, ¶ 2.
For many of us, it feels like after we got saved, we entered into Christianity 101 and never moved on to the upper level classes. Michael Frost’s concern that, “many Christians seem to have developed merely a passing knowledge of the Gospels (what I call Jesus’ greatest hits—his birth, his death, his resurrection, a few miracles, and a couple of parables),” feels entirely legitimate (Frost, Michael. Surprise the World: the Five Habits of Highly Missional People. Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 2016, p. 74.).
Every winter Jesus is born. Every spring he dies and is resurrected. Every communion we remember his death. Every year we hit on the same few parables. And in some churches, we hear about how the cross redeemed us every single week, so that if even one person doesn’t know the story, they might get saved. This, of course, is key to the church’s vision, but it kind of dumbs down Christianity to the basics for those who have known Christ for some time.
We must aim for more. We must go deeper into the Scriptures. We must learn the other themes of the gospel. We must aim for the fullness of growing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. We must give people the tools and outlets to grow daily, not weekly. And we must help people see that the gospel is not just about how we think, but also about how we live and act.