When our friends’ long hours of work finally rewarded them with a pile of paid-off college loans, they perched on the edge of the American Dream. A nicer neighborhood beckoned, one with better schools. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously observed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To everyone’s amazement, our friends sold their house and headed to Africa. They count the cost in frequent flyer miles.
As it turns out, “convenient” isn’t Jesus’s specialty:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 17:26–27)
Following him may cost our relationships, our finances, our proximity to family, or our health. And, whatever else we sacrifice, part of the cost of discipleship is geographic.
Should I Stay or Go?
The story of God-followers has always been a story of tents and sandals. We steep in it—the record of sojourners striking out, a homesick people, a homeless King.
We read to our little ones of Abram: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1). We laugh at Peter, leaping pell-mell out of the boat. We read of Paul the apostle—envoy of the gospel.
And then we read of Jesus—Jesus of Nazareth, who never traveled beyond his country, who knelt in the dirt and told stories about patient farmers, slow harvest, long seasons. We who would follow him live in the inherent tension between the biblical value of faithful rootedness and the equally biblical mandate to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19).
Am I called to be nimble, leaping Peter-like for the sake of the gospel, or am I called to be rooted, attentive to place, patient? Flinging ourselves into the unknown to follow Christ certainly strengthens faith, but the endurance required to stay put produces sanctification (James 1:5).
God is always moving us closer to Christ—from fear to faith, from stuck to steadfast. Sometimes it’s the going that’s difficult; but sometimes, counterintuitively, it’s the staying put.
When I was young and impetuous, I leapt to my feet during a missions conference and pledged my life to go for the sake of the gospel. Adventure sparkled somewhere on the horizon, and I was eager to hoist anchor. The church applauded missionaries; the missions field bloomed, ripe for harvest.
As I reflect on those days, I realize how little it cost me. All was anticipation and joy. I met my husband in the early days of inner-city ministry. We sat on sagging porch steps and drank sodas with the neighbor kids, and we shared Jesus with everyone who would listen. When, time to time, we experienced near-misses and scrapes with danger, we notched our belts and laughed.
But what if God messed with me now? What if he spun the globe and pointed to Mongolia or Timbuktu? Would I still be willing to go? As Nik Ripken explains in his memoir of ministry in the Middle East, “It is a simple matter of obedience. If he is our Lord, then we will obey him. If we do not obey him, then he is not our Lord.”
Matthew and Zacchaeus flung away desk jobs; the fishermen flung aside their nets. What tethers me? Like Lot’s wife, I crave comfort, security, and habit. But if Christ is all—my hope, my joy, my life—then nothing can hinder me from following him to the ends of the earth if he calls my name.
But sometimes it’s the waiting that’s difficult. Those of us who are goers by nature wiggle like children, antsy to leave when boredom and difficulty drag on. “Staying put,” Jen Pollock Michel writes, “is a fast from our appetite for constant change.” We desire to depart, but God asks us to remain—and not always in the places we’d expect.
Rural churches know the reluctance to stay all too well—few shiny seminary grads are willing to stay long in the little places of the world. As Matt Smethurst sarcastically quipped, “Laboring away in their little non-strategic locales, rural Christians reach few influencers and probably do not impress Jesus. Bless their heart.”
But even city churches feel it. In Denver, hipster church plants sprinkle the booming neighborhoods downtown. In the “doughnut,” however—that no-man’s land between the trendy urban core and affluent suburbs—it can be hard to find a gospel-centered church. Here, our buildings sag, our congregations struggle. We desperately need mature, immovable believers who will wait on this hard, foolish soil while the roots sink deep.
Paul may be the patron saint of goers, but his ministry wouldn’t have had the same effect without Timothy and Titus, the steadfast elders he left behind. “Are all apostles?” he asks (1 Cor. 12:28), and it’s a good question. Missionary work is honorable, but we hurt Christ’s bride if we don’t plan to stay beyond the honeymoon.
Committing to follow Christ necessarily requires his input in our destination. We go when he says “go”; we wait when he says “stay.” Wherever we land, we love messy people in less-than-perfect conditions. We count the cost with equal parts patience and anticipation. We desire a better country, and it is just around the corner.