“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
We call these words the great commission, yet so many people seem to misunderstand them: “Jesus was speaking only to the ‘Eleven’ (disciples) on that mountain.” “Maybe he’s talking to the few who have been specifically gifted as missionaries and evangelists, but not to me. I have a day job. I don’t have time. I don’t know how.” Or my personal favorite, “I’m afraid,” which most people don’t admit. If we start dissecting Jesus’ words on the basis of who was present to hear them, we could write off most of what he said as someone else’s responsibility.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. His real question is, “Do you love the lost?”
When I was 38, God called me from a sales career to seminary. Seminary was unlike anything I had done before. Beyond the learning and studying, God was “doing business” in my heart all the time. He changed me in ways I never would have known to ask for. It was there during my first year that my call to preach God’s Word became a defining passion in my life.
However, by the end of that first year I ran out of money. Part-time jobs, even with all five in our family working, were not going to be enough. Debts were multiplying, and we couldn’t see a way forward. So, after much prayer and counsel, Betti and I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave seminary. I went back to my former career to take care of that “other business,” our finances. I was filled with self-doubt, and a deep sense of failure, but I had a plan: work two years, pay my debts, save some money and return to Fergus Falls to complete my studies.
Almost immediately, I realized my plan wasn’t going to work. I had underestimated just about everything, and those two years turned into thirteen. It was a very long time. In fact at one point, one of my professors jokingly said to me, “Lang, the Lord is going to come again before you come back to finish seminary.” That one got my attention, and the Lord used those words to sharpen my focus and the intensity of the vision he had given. Of course God is never silent, and during those long years he did a lot of sanctifying, changing old attitudes and behaviors, giving new priorities. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). He wasn’t giving me what I desired. He was planting his desires in my heart. He even gave me an opportunity to serve as an interim pastor for the last 18 months. What a gift!
Finally, my debts were paid and a plan was approved to finish seminary in one year through extra classes and independent study. It was then, after 13 years, that the Lord gave me the most striking challenge of all: “Paul, you have no passion for the lost!” I was in shock. I had shared my faith countless times. Rarely did I shy away from telling the truth when opportunities came, even at work. I can’t explain what was going on all those years before. Was I just going through the motions? Was I showing off? I still don’t know. But, when the Lord spoke, I knew it was true. I did not love the lost.
This is not a good thing for a minister of the gospel, not a good thing for any of us. So I began to pray, earnestly, that the Lord would give me a true love for not-yet-believers. I needed to be changed, again.
When I returned to seminary for my final year, I was scheduled in four courses with the missions professor, Dr. Rod Spidahl, and he began to challenge me like never before. (How did he know?) Every book, every class, every project was about reaching not-yet-believers. Everything about Rod is mission, mission, mission. It was what I wanted, but for some strange reason I resisted. I don’t know why. I just resisted, until God finally broke through and connected the dots for me. This is what I was praying for. True love, true passion for the people who don’t know Jesus yet. OK, now I get it, and Dr. Spidahl, my “antagonist” (not really), became my very good friend. He had transferred his love and passion for the lost to me. We met together and talked about it often for the rest of that year. Even today, twelve years later, I can think of little else.
When I landed in DeWitt, Iowa to serve Emmaus Road Church, I started by taking my Bible and computer to work in restaurants and coffee shops, instead of my office. I met people. I had conversations. Sometimes I shared the gospel, but I was restless. I needed more. I met with another CLB pastor, and he shared with me the compelling outreach his church was doing. I was trying to piece together how we might build a similar “program,” but I didn’t think it would fit in our context.
As I was driving home, I realized it wasn’t a program for them. It was started by one person. He loved people who didn’t believe. His love grew into a vision, and he acted on it. Then others joined the fun, and people were being saved. I pondered these words, “One person with a passion and a vision, and action.” I started praying, “Lord, please make me part of someone else’s salvation.” I prayed that prayer all the way home, and it was exhilarating. It’s all up to God, not me. My passion; it’s God’s to give. My vision; it’s God’s to give. My actions; they are God’s to inspire. I just need to ask and be intentional.
So, what does passion for the lost look like? It’s probably different for everyone, but I have connected with Philippians 3:10 (ESV), “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings…”
“Share his sufferings?” I can’t go to the cross for others. I’m not qualified. Jesus already did that for me—for everyone. But I can do what Paul instructed Timothy to do: “… do the work of an evangelist…” (2 Timothy 4:5). I can reorder my life to meet more people, who aren’t believing yet. I can invest myself in relationships with them. I can love them like Jesus, maybe just a little, and I can suffer in my soul for them.
I still don’t have the gift of evangelism, but I can be intentional. During that car ride home with the sun in my face, praying to become part of someone else’s salvation, Jesus broke my heart for people who aren’t on the road to heaven yet. Since then he’s been opening more doors than ever before. Some people are believers today. For others, I am waiting. And I’m still praying, “Lord, please make me part of someone else’s salvation, today.”
Rev. Paul Lang serves as pastor of Emmaus Road Church in DeWitt, Iowa.