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Jesus gave a clear and succinct mission to his followers before he left: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It is not hard to understand. It is hard to do.
In fact, it is so hard to do that I basically don’t do it.
Don’t get me wrong. I approve of the mission. I am willing to support those who engage in fulfilling it. I give to organizations that preach the gospel and make disciples. I just don’t do much myself. When I consider what I might do, I feel defeated before I start.
Many years ago when I was a senior in high school, one of the local churches decided to sponsor a door-to-door campaign to reach local neighborhoods with the gospel of Jesus. I went along partly because there was a girl I liked who was participating. Unfortunately, I didn’t get paired with her. I was sent out with her sister instead. We started canvassing houses. Most people were simply not home. Others clearly mistook us for Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses and refused to open their doors. After a while, we came to a house where several young men were lounging on the porch and steps drinking and smoking. I hung back, thinking that these men were not likely to want to hear about Jesus, but my companion walked right up to them and invited them to church. She was an attractive young woman, so they were immediately attentive. Their attentions quickly became crude, but my companion was undaunted. She politely ignored their comments and pressed on, asking them where they would spend eternity. They were plainly drunk and just as plainly entertained. They strung us along as long as they could, and I was only too glad when we finally left.
“That was a waste of time,” I said.
“No,” said my companion. “Who knows what seeds we may have planted.”
“But they were drunk,” I objected.
“Tomorrow they may be sober,” she retorted. “They may think about what we said and be drawn to God.”
It was very charitable of her to say “we” since I hadn’t opened my mouth the whole time. I had been silently praying, but not for her hearers. I had been praying that she would shut up so we could leave. I didn’t think—and still don’t—that we had any positive impact at all. All we had done was to reinforce cultural stereotypes about evangelical Christians. Great.
I love the gospel. I have seen people transformed by God’s power, and I have experienced it myself. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It really is the power of God for the rescue of everyone who believes. But I don’t like doing things that are demonstrably ineffective. I can’t imagine that “make disciples of all nations” means employing some of the silly methods evangelical churches have used over the past several decades in an attempt to reach the surrounding culture with the message of God’s enduring love.
I confess. I gave up. I was wrong to do so, and the thought that I ought to do more has nagged me ever since.
Recently I’ve been thinking about it more. Like most Americans, I spend a lot of time being entertained and little time thinking deeply about the state of the world, the direction its headed, and what I might be able to do about it. Sometimes it seems that our whole world is geared toward convenience. People won’t recycle unless it’s convenient. People won’t volunteer unless it’s convenient. People won’t oppose injustice unless it’s convenient. We regard those who inconvenience themselves as extraordinary. We regard zeal with suspicion. We live in a world where half-hearted efforts garner praise and whole-hearted efforts provoke envy, where ease is the only happiness and hardship the only misery.
I am by nature an optimist. I don’t do dismal, even when I’m out of a job and the economy is still in the basement. I think the world is rife with God’s blessing. Every living thing seeks opportunities to grow and develop. Many of us, however, seem content with little. We content ourselves with movies and music and food and drink when there are things we could do to change people’s lives for the better. I don’t see around me the same ambition that drove pioneers to break up the sod on the Minnesota prairie or caused fur traders to endure extraordinary hardships to feed the demand for beaver hats. Who am I to complain? I don’t see that kind of zeal in myself.
So what do I want? I hardly know. I want zeal with knowledge. I want to spread the good news of God’s kingdom in ways that work.