In the rugged landscapes of 19th-century Calabar, Nigeria, a pioneering figure emerged in the person of Mary Slessor, a remarkable Scottish missionary who ventured beyond social and cultural boundaries to follow Jesus. Driven by an unwavering commitment to sharing the love of Christ with those deemed unreachable, Mary's life is a challenging and helpful example of how to escape the trap of cultural Christianity and a model of the countercultural way of Jesus, revealed by Matthew in the following text:
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” 28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. Mt 8:18–34.
Noticing that a crowd had gathered, Jesus shifted focus to the twelve disciples, giving orders for them to cross the Sea of Galilee. Can we allow this reality to sink in? Jesus saw a large crowd - and was determined to leave the area. The pattern of moving on from a big crowd to being with His small team was a habit of Jesus.
For example, in the fourth chapter of John's gospel, we learn that Jesus chose to leave the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Galilee. Why did He do this? John says,
"Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John - although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria." (John 4:1-4)
While in Jerusalem, the disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus were all baptizing folks, but religious spectators noted that Jesus' disciples were baptizing more. There was a bit of buzz around this news. ‘Big things were happening down there with Jesus and His disciples.’
Jesus addresses their observations by walking to Samaria for an encounter with a cultural outcast - a Samaritan woman drawing water from a well adjacent to the town of Sychar. In these actions, we see how spectators followed Jesus and sought to measure his ministry in human terms, but Jesus did not measure success numerically, nor did He seek a large following.
Jesus did not come to invest kingdom treasure, erecting amphitheaters to hold the crowds who followed Him. He came to make the life-changing news of the gospel tangible to those near and far, train disciples, and reconcile humanity to the Father.
His large gathering practice saw Jesus healing people's diseases, teaching about His coming kingdom, clarifying moral frameworks, and performing miracles such as turning water into wine at the wedding feast and feeding the 5,000. Among the crowds, He proved that He was the Son of God and heralded the fulfillment of prophecy.
But Jesus didn't make disciples in large gatherings, nor can we.
To Jesus, disciple-making impact happens in small places. Instead of comfortably hanging out with the adoring crowd, He ordered His disciples to disengage from the gathering and row their boat out to sea for a faith-building lesson.
As their boat moved across the Sea of Galilee, the disciples' faith was tested by a fearsome storm and shaped through a lesson in casting out demons upon reaching the other side.
* Sees a crowd gathered
* Orders the disciples to get in the boat for a faith-building lesson
* Pursues two demon-possessed men and delivers them from bondage
He made disciples by doing life with a team of twelve, modeling the necessary shift from a big audience to a small one, and spending more time with fewer people to train, model, assist, and coach their growth.
In doing so, Jesus modeled how faithful followers escape cultural Christianity by prioritizing the unseen work of making disciples in boats, on forgotten shores, and other small gatherings where the gospel finds root in good soil and is tended with love and respect.
Just before they rowed out, two curious men approached Jesus, exploring the difference between being a fan and a follower of Jesus. Their dialogue with Jesus helps clarify how we can avoid the pull of cultural Christianity.
The first fan is a career religious teacher who likely found security in material things. He says, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus responds, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
In saying this, Jesus addresses the man's primary fan-driven desire for material security. While the man said he would follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus knew the approaching stormy boat ride would be too much.
The second fan is called a disciple but likely of lesser commitment. He asks Jesus about fulfilling the family obligation of burying his father, to which Jesus replies, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead."
Is Jesus saying that we shirk our family obligations to follow Him? No, this man's father is most likely not dead yet but entirely aged and in need of direct care. Otherwise, this prospective disciple would have handled the arrangements instead of following the curious crowd.
The man is probably delaying his commitment to follow Jesus indefinitely.
Jesus' statement to let the dead bury the dead is akin to, 'Let those who are spiritually dead take care of family obligations when the eternal fate of lost souls hangs in the balance.'
This sense of urgency to rescue lost souls inspired Mary Slessor to leave the comforts of Scotland to serve the Efik tribe in southeastern Nigeria. She learned their language, living among superstitious people who practiced cannibalism and the sacrifice of twin babies. She regularly came upon the abandoned little ones and felt compelled to rescue them.
Mary later moved further into the interior, establishing a mission center among the Okoyong, who were feared for their utter disregard for human life. By choosing to follow Jesus on His terms rather than her own, Mary saw the Okoyong people turn and follow Jesus, ultimately ending their practice of human sacrifice.
Mary's 38 years of cross-cultural work is an example for those who follow Jesus today. Jesus doesn't call everyone to become cross-cultural ambassadors to dangerous, indigenous people. Still, He calls every follower to leave the fan life behind and follow Him into the neighborhoods, workplaces, teams, gyms, and wherever people gather in our unique contexts.
Prayer: Father, thank you for sending Jesus so I could be reconciled to you. Jesus, you left the comfort of heaven and came to earth in the most humble way possible. You pursued and found me, and now I have eternal life because of your death and resurrection. Fill me with your presence and build a greater desire to follow you on your terms. Guard me from the pull of cultural Christianity and keep me focused on the big things you want to do in small places.
Questions for Application:
1. Who are the people that Jesus is calling you to row out to?
2. What traditions or comforts need to be suspended so that you can leave the stands and go out into the world's harvest fields?
3. Have you been measuring success by cultural standards? If so, how can you shift to defining success by the pattern of Jesus?