I am old and so are some of my memories. Back in the ‘70s when I first began going on campaigns to Ghana, West Africa, there were reports of a lot of baptisms. While the numbers made for successful reports to churches back home, most of those so-called converts were sadly never seen again. There is also the possibility they were given a false feeling of security from saying yes to something they did not understand.
A similar thing happens even today when we focus on making “converts” and not making disciples. Jesus never sent us to make converts, but disciples, and there is a big difference. Here is a quote that sums up the problem very well:
“In the United States and around the world, leaders sometimes say, ‘Our greatest problem here [in this country] is that the church is miles wide and inches deep.’ Obedience to the Great Commission suffers because nominal Christians, who have been momentarily ‘converted,’ do not grow in integrity or character or biblical knowledge or Christian living. These superficial decisions are not necessarily integrated into the way they live, treat their spouses, operate in their community or participate in business and politics” (from the book Western Christians in Global Missions by Paul Borthwick).
In an article entitled “No One Likes the Product,” Mike Glenn explains why today’s generation, and past and future generations for that matter, are not buying into the Christianity they see. “Because of what they see every day in the lives of those who proclaim to be Christian. Rarely can people remember an encounter with a Christian who was kind and loving. Everyone, on the other hand, has a story about a Christian who was rude and condescending. Many of us who are Christians won’t use the word anymore because it has become associated with attitudes of bigotry, hatefulness and judgment. We introduce ourselves now as ‘Christ-followers.’
“No one wants to be a Christian these days. The word is almost an insult in polite conversation.” https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2021/september/no-one-likes-product.html
When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He was starting a movement. When people came to Jesus, He minced no words when it came to His expectations of His followers. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’ ” Luke 9:23. Crosses today are worn as jewelry and placed on the walls in our homes, but you would never have done this in the first century. Crosses were a symbol of the most heinous form of torture and death known at that time. It would be like wearing a miniature electric chair around your neck. Or hanging an electric chair on your wall. When I “take up my cross” it is a picture of my death to self that Christ might live through me.
Jesus was calling people to love Him with a love that surpasses all other loves. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26, 27 (emphasis mine). Jesus says our love for Him must surpass love for the closest people to us on earth; in fact your love for Him makes your love for those relationships look like hate in comparison. Stop for a moment, read that again and reflect on what Jesus said.
You and I don’t determine if we can be His disciple; Jesus does that. Remember we are part of a movement that He started. It won’t be easy, and He makes that abundantly clear in many places with many illustrations.
I have been reading recently about the lives of early 18th and 19th century missionaries. One common thread running through all their stories is their commitment unto death, to take the Gospel to areas of our world that had not heard of Christ regardless of the consequence to their own lives. One of those stories was about Adoniram Judson. His commitment to Christ is humbling and inspiring.
Adoniram lived from 1788-1850 and was a missionary to Burma for almost 40 years. Before he left for the mission field, he fell in love with a lady named Ann Hasseltine. Knowing the hardships that were ahead of them, Adoniram wrote a letter to Ann’s father asking for her hand in marriage. Take just a moment and slowly read this letter.
“I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world? Whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life? Whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death? Can you consent to all this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with a crown of righteousness brightened by the acclamations of praise which shall resound to her Saviour from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair?” Wow, can you imagine getting that letter asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage?
Ann’s father did give his consent, and many of the things mentioned in his letter were fulfilled in the lives of this couple. Ann had three pregnancies. The first ended in a miscarriage while moving from India to Burma; her second child, Roger, was born in 1815 and died at 8 months of age; her third child, Maria, lived only 6 months after Ann herself died in 1826 of smallpox. Adoniram Judson lost two wives and six of his 13 children on the mission field. Ann and Adoniram suffered through many other trials while serving as missionaries. They left their homes and their family to spread the glory of God to an unreached people.
Ultimately, their sacrifice yielded much fruit. While Judson only had 18 converts after 12 years of work, when he died he left 100 churches and more than 8,000 believers. He was making disciples, who made disciples. Today we can see the results of his work since there are 2.5 million evangelical Christians in Burma (modern day Myanmar).
Judson also wrote a grammar of the language that is still used today, and he translated the entire Bible into Burmese, which took him 24 years to complete.
It is amazing what can transpire in our lives when we realize the seriousness of the commission that Jesus gave. We call it a “Great Commission” for several reasons. The one who gave it. The importance of the mission, salvation of souls. And the urgency of it, because so many people who face a Christless grave have yet to hear. Maybe it is time we took another look at “The Great Commission.” We will do that next time.