One of the greatest traditions that is specific to this congregation is what takes place after a person has been baptized into Christ. Everyone present forms a circle around the auditorium (well, ideally it’s a circle—usually it’s more of an irregular polygon, we’re not too good at this part), joins hands, and sings, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” This serves as an impressive reminder of the life-changing significance of faith in Christ expressed in baptism. It is even more compelling if we know the origin of that song.
Great Christian revival movements occurred in many countries during the 19th century. As a consequence, many felt a new evangelistic fervor, with the desire to go and spread the gospel to faraway places. One such place was India, which saw an explosion in missionary activity in the late 1800s. Preachers came from Wales, in particular, but also England, the United States, and Australia; they were joined there by Indian evangelists, most notably Sadhu Singh.
The bulk of this activity took place in Northern India, an area that was formally closed to Christianity. Much of the population was Hindu of the most oppressive sort, with a firmly entrenched caste system. In more remote areas, there were still some isolated tribes who practiced native religions and ritualistic headhunting (indeed, it is possible that some insulated tribes of the Naga people in Northeastern India practice headhunting even to this day). In other words, evangelism was extremely dangerous, and dozens of missionaries and converts were martyred. Nevertheless, the movement continued to spread into these places.
In the province of Assam in the late 1880s, a Welsh missionary (or an American Baptist missionary, depending on the account) converted a little family: a man, his wife, and his two children confessed Christ and were baptized. This incensed the village elders, who arrested them and called on the father, who some report was named Nokseng, to renounce Christ. When he refused, the chief ordered archers to kill his children. Given another opportunity, he again did not budge, and his wife was similarly executed. Faced with one last chance to recant, he held firm and was dispatched the same way.
Eyewitnesses later told the story to the missionary: when told to repudiate Jesus or see his children killed, he replied, “I have decided to follow Jesus, and there is no turning back.” In response to the subsequent threats to his wife, he said, “Though no one join me, I still will follow Jesus.” He was reportedly executed while saying, “The world behind me, the cross before me.”
When the missionary then returned to the village, he found that a revival had broken out. The chief and the others were so impacted by what transpired that they had repented and come to faith themselves. The evangelist passed along the story to the aforementioned Sadhu Singh, who took the words and put them to traditional Indian music, becoming perhaps the first uniquely Indian hymn.
When we understand that background, we are firmly reminded that to follow Jesus is no easy decision. It is not something we take up casually. It is a life-altering, epoch-making event; there is no turning back when rightly understood. Discipleship can be costly; in fact, if it is not—if we are too comfortable, too much like the rest of the world, if there is no discernible difference between those of us who are Christians and others—then we are, quite likely, not what we ought to be.
What does it really mean to follow Jesus? That is the fundamental question we are going to grapple with this year, as we put ourselves in the place of the disciples and walk with Jesus through his ministry as revealed in the Gospel of Mark on Sunday morning and as we study through His Life on Sunday evening.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)