“. . . go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you . . .” (Matt. 28: 19-20a)
Jesus’ “great commission” to his followers was to share his Gospel message with all the world. Throughout the ages, Christianity has employed many strategies to this commission, from sending missionaries to foreign countries to knocking on doors and asking strangers if they know where they’d go if they died tomorrow.
Unfortunately, in the zealousness with which we meet this call, I fear we might have lost the heart of the message. I fear the gospel message has become unfocused, like a throw-away photo. We teach in our churches the proper words needed to “lead someone to Christ, ” quoting a few verses from the book of Romans, asking a couple of personal questions, and having the prospective convert repeat a (“sinner’s”) prayer that we have memorized as if magical. And when we find someone who agrees to repeat it, we claim victory. This person has now been changed forever, we have been taught to believe. S/he is now guaranteed a Christian life and an afterlife in heaven; and if we are honest, we have probably also put a proud notch in our own belt. One more convert for me (and we can hardly wait to “humbly” share it with all our church friends).
I remember one summer when I was serving as a church planter, my partner and I had weekly paperwork to fill out about our ministry. One of the questions was “How many people did you lead to Christ?” Most weeks my paperwork said 0, but my partner, every week, responded with numbers of 20-something to 50-something. Was she following the Great Commission that much better than I? Maybe. Maybe not. Here’s what she was doing. As we led Vacation Bible Schools and Backyard Bible Clubs for dozens of children, she would say a few words about “accepting Jesus into your heart” and then ask for a show of hands of all who wanted Jesus to come into their hearts. The children, perhaps wanting to please the teacher, perhaps raising their hands because their friends did, perhaps having no idea what the question even meant, would raise their hands, thus being counted for the weekly paperwork.
I don’t know that there’s harm in this, except to our own spirits, but I think we have missed the point. I think most of our “how to witness” classes are out of focus from Jesus’ intent. Over the years, we have allowed words to take the place of heart.
If we look to Jesus’ life and his teachings as our model for “witnessing, ” we come out with something quite different. Jesus’ challenge to the “church people” of his day was always to love, not to say the word “love, ” but to live every day, every hour, every second of their lives living love. When asked what was the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God will all your soul and with all your mind, . . . and . . . love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)
1 John 4:16a-21 says: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love, But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says “I love God, ” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.“ And if we need a picture of what this love looks like, 1 Cor. 13 offers us a clear view.
If we actually read through the four Biblical Gospels, beginning to end, we see in Jesus’ everyday life, as he walks among friends and strangers, how transforming that love can be. Jesus’ gentle and sincere love transformed dirty fishermen, outcasts, hated tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor . . . almost everyone except the “church people” who thought they already knew everything they needed to know. (Is there a message here for us?)
What is happening to the Great Commission in our society today? I’m afraid we have flipped it upside down. I’m afraid Jesus weeps at our misunderstanding. Yes, we are going through the motions that have become our church “witnessing” traditions, but while we are adding a few notches to our belts, we are managing to completely turn off those around us like never before. The mere mention of Christians is all it takes to send people running for cover. They, like every human of every time and culture, are still seeking meaning, answers, God, and love, but we, in our self-righteous judgment, which resembles Jesus’ love in word only, are chasing them away, and they are landing wherever they find love. Universalist churches, Pseudo-Buddhism, and a new “paganism” that embraces and affirms women are offering the love that we have forgotten.
We believe we are recipients of the transforming love of Jesus. Yet when it comes to loving those outside our church tradition, we have chosen judgment and labeled it “love” to protect ourselves. We have allowed the politics of our day to creep into our faith and take it over.
But there is hope. Our hope is not in politics, or in judging and condemning our poor, our lepers, and the women at our wells, but in Christ. It is time, Christians, to refocus our view. It is time to return to the Christ we proclaim. It is time to challenge ourselves beyond the mere words and to actually love our neighbors, yes, even those neighbors, and those. This is Jesus’ Gospel, not that we pronounce the word “love, ” but that love floods every part of our being, so that those around us cannot help but be transformed.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.You can follow her personal blog at http://kathyon.blogspot.com/ or follow her on Twitter @VestalKathy
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