Turning the Great Commission on Its Ear

I doubt that any passage of scripture carried more weight and influence for the evangelical church in the United States during the last century of Christian history than the Commission of Jesus recorded at the end of Matthew's gospel. Its active verbs of "Go," "Make," "Baptize," Teach" and "Obey" provided the pounding rhythms of the global engagement of the church in the twentieth century. A particular subset of American Christians, those of northern and western European descent (of which I am one), were particularly captivated by its cadence.

It said to go-and we knew all about going. We were people on the move after all-we had a divine errand to the world that had been passed on to us from our Puritan forebears. "Going" was in our blood. Our hymns, many of them written on the frontier, expressed this reality. We were "pressing on the upward way-new heights (we were) gaining every day."1 Our covered wagons had made their way across the frontier all the way to the Pacific Ocean-and soon we would send our missionaries--first to China, then Nigeria and Kenya and Mexico, Brazil, Japan, India and Korea. They went-first a few dozen, then a few hundred and eventually thousands, driven to go by this clear and clarion call of Jesus.

The Commission didn't end at the point of Going. There was work to do-and we knew something about work. We'd cleared land, built fences and churches and homes, brought the Christian faith to hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-living frontiers-people. The stamp "Made in America" became a sign of quality, of stuff made out of the best of materials. Again, our hymns reflected our self-understanding of this calling-"To the work, to the work, we are servants of God. We will follow the path that our Savior has trod."2

We certainly didn't do all of this alone. Many folks of other ethnic backgrounds were vitally engaged in the effort to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world; in fact, in many places other groups shared that gospel long before we did. But I do think we had the impression that we were going it alone. We baptized and we taught under the authority and power of Jesus-and in many places, despite the obvious evidence of our own cultural captivity, the gospel somehow took root in the hearts and in the minds of people who had never heard that gospel before. By mid-century we were in the middle of what some among us called a Great Advance. Fueled by post-war optimism and by economic vitality, we doubled and then doubled again the number of us who were serving as missionaries around the world.

In 1966, in the midst of this heady enthusiasm, one among our number, an Anglican pastor named John Stott was preparing to address the World Congress on Evangelism in West Berlin. Long-time pastor of All Souls Church in London, Stott had a profound influence upon the evangelical church of his day both in the United Kingdom and far beyond. At this Congress on Evangelism, Stott delivered a series on the commissions of Jesus in the gospels, sounding a warning that many of us were no longer hearing the Great Commission properly and that we were even doing damage to the underlying call of Jesus by focusing our attention purely on sharing the Christian faith by word and not by deed.3 He insisted that it might be time for John 20:21 to become the focus for our global engagement-"As the Father has sent me," Jesus says, "So send I you." He warned us not to divorce word and deed but called on us to take seriously the issues of poverty and disease that were confronting the world.

John 20:21 does kind of cut through it, doesn't it? There's only a single verb in it-"God sent me," Jesus says. "And now I send you." And I send you in the same way that I was sent. I send you in love. I send you in humility. I send you into relationship with the people that you meet as you go. I send you, not to tell them how it is-but rather I send you to listen to their hearts and to find the places where my words of compassion and love and grace can connect with their needs.

Listening is not one of my natural gifts. My 17-year-old son recently said something like this to me-"Dad, you sure do seem to have picked jobs where you get to do a lot of the talking." It was a painful word-and a true one. I've been a pastor and a professor for most of my career-and neither job lent itself well to listening. I like to talk. For years and years, I was convinced that my calling as a teacher was to talk. I worried about what I said-did I know all there was to know about a subject? I put students through some hellacious and terrible experiences because I thought teaching had more to do with the mouth than it did with the ears.

One day I made the mistake of taking a breath-and some student in the room actually spoke. It was a bit unnerving. And he was a real smart aleck too. He had opinions, points-of-view, perspectives that I had never considered. I found myself put off by him at first-and then I started to reflect. It occurred to me that perhaps teaching had as much to do with listening as it did with speaking-that there was truly something to be gained, not by imparting answers, but by raising questions and listening to the perspectives of everyone in the room.

I discovered in the process that Jesus was a pretty good model for this kind of teaching-and that he had a way of raising more questions than he answered. He asked questions like "Who touched me?" "Who do people say that I am?" "Who do you say that I am?" "Has no one condemned you?" He followed along in the grand teaching tradition of the rabbis that is expressed most fully in the story of the exasperated student who looked at his rabbi in absolute and total frustration and said, "Why do you rabbis always answer a question with a question?" To which the old rabbi responded, "What's wrong with a question?"

What is wrong with a question? What is wrong with listening instead of speaking? Robert Shippey, a friend and colleague, recently published a little book called Listening in a Loud World.4 Robert is an expert on listening-he's spent most of his life with diminished hearing. When people speak, he has to cock his head a bit and move his ear toward them. For him, listening requires intentionality; it doesn't just happen. It is a full body experience.

The Great Commission calls us to go, make, baptize and teach. We U.S. Christians of northern and western European descent have heard that going and that making and that baptizing and that teaching through culturally conditioned ears-ears that weren't always very good at...listening. We've often interpreted it as a calling to talk...lots...and, sometimes, we've understood it as proof positive that, because our perceptions of Christian faith worked well for us, that therefore our perceptions could be universally applied.

I ate recently at a Chinese restaurant where the fortune in my fortune cookie offered up the following proverb, "Better to be silent and ignorant than to speak and remove all doubt." It's really not a bad proverb for people like me who are used to being listened to-particularly when you consider the fact that about three quarters of the Christian people in the world don't live anywhere near northern or western Europe or the United States for that matter-they live in the new center of the Christian faith. Way down South and to the East-and I don't mean toward Atlanta. They live in places like Africa and Asia.

And the gospel is as rooted and grounded in the cultures of those places as much as it ever was in northern and western Europe and the United States. The Spirit has moved among Christians in Africa and Asia and South and Central America and it has done its work-and people there have learned things about the Gospel that northern and western Europeans and Americans of such European descent never learned and they have seen things in it that we never saw and they have made things of it that we never made.

And, in the process, the Great Commission, at least on my side of the cultural wagon, is turned on its ear. An Asian friend recently offered up to me his vision of what the global Christian engagement might look like down the road. "In the past," he said, "You Americans and Europeans, you came here and told us about the Lord-and we listened to what you had to say-and some of us believed. But scripture tells us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And now, the day is coming when we who are last will become first and we will go and share our faith with you and you will learn from us."

I think that day is already here. Is it possible that we of northern and western European descent who have understood ourselves as the bearers of the good news to the world could ever turn the Great Commission on its ear just long enough that we could hear it properly? Is it possible that we who have had so much to say to the world could ever engage in some full body listening-to folks in those places where the majority of Christian people now live? I don't know. For some reason we expect to be listened to. But the truth of the matter is that the Christians of Egypt and of Ghana, of Mexico and of Guatemala, of Cuba and of China, and of Lebanon and of Slovakia probably do have more to say to me right now than I have to say to them. It's just a matter of how much I am willing to listen.

Let us pray.

Open our ears, O God. And help us to listen to each other-for all of us have much to learn. Engender in us a spirit of listening and openness so that, together, we might become all that you would have us to become. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
1) "Higher Ground," Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Convention Press), 324.
2) "To the Work," Lyrics found at http://www.lyricsondemand.com/miscellaneouslyrics/christianlyrics/totheworktotheworkweareservantsofgodlyrics.html
3) Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 25.
4) Robert C. Shippey, Jr., Listening in a Loud World (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2005).