Recently a man commented on the "tough topics" I'd taught on over the years—hell, money, sex, relational confrontation, self-discipline. He asked, "Of all the topics you've preached on, which has been the hardest to get across?"
I didn't even have to think about it. "Becoming totally devoted to Christ." My greatest teaching challenge is to convey what Paul was driving at in Acts 20:24 and elsewhere: "I no longer count my life as dear unto myself; I have abandoned my personal aspirations and ambitions; I have offered myself as a living sacrifice to Christ." When I teach that to secularly minded people, they think I'm from Mars. The thought of living according to someone else's agenda is ludicrous.
To many people, living for Christ is a kind of fanaticism the world could do without. Who, they wonder, would be foolish enough voluntarily to suffer loss, refrain from pleasure, or impinge on the comfort level of his life? They think total devotion to Christ means squandering the only life they have.
A man from my church provides a perfect example. His biggest problem, as I perceive it, is his successful company. Clients whose business he's not even seeking are lining up for his services. Just responding to them is tyrannizing his life. Several months ago I asked him why his heart didn't seem to be as warm toward things of God as it had been.
"Business has been dominating my life," he admitted, but added in defense, "but I'm not seeking it. I'm just trying to handle what's coming in. I mean, what do you expect me to do?"
I suggested he could say, "Enough is enough." He looked at me as if I were insane. What businessman in his right mind would say no to a client whose order would produce a bigger profit? You don't do that in this world. More is always better; it's the American way. The desire for more had a greater pull on this man than his desire to follow Christ, use his spiritual gifts, serve his wife, or be father to his kids.
If it's so hard to persuade people to commit themselves unreservedly to Christ, why bother? Why not settle for church attendance, or membership, or at least periodic service?
As ministers, we all have to come to terms with the quality of fruit we're producing. We have to decide what level of commitment we expect from the people we're leading.
Church history has taught us that a leader can do more through a handful of totally devoted believers than through a church full of halfhearted ones. So we're left with a tension: How can we teach in such a way that we produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, when we know that most people don't want to hear about radical discipleship?
Let me suggest five principles that guide me when I preach for 100 percent commitment.
Describe total commitment
The first step is to develop a clear understanding of total commitment. A teacher constantly has to define and redefine: What does it really mean to be completely devoted to Christ? If it doesn't mean simply showing up for services, putting in a check, and going home, then what does it mean?
Several Bible passages define total commitment for me and shape my preaching on the subject:
Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15:31: "I die daily." I've never met a fully devoted follower of Christ who didn't have to die daily to a host of things that would like to have a grip on him—personal ambition, worldly pleasures, people's applause, greed. This culture ferociously maintains that "you can have it all," but that slogan is foreign to the mind and teaching of Christ. It's difficult for me to stand in an affluent, suburban congregation and tell people what they need to die to, walk away from, or give up, but I have to do it.