Have you burnt your ships?

February 18, 1519. The date is underscored in history; the 501st anniversary of the events from that day came and went last week. Any clue what happened?

Hernan Cortés – we know him as Cortez – was a young Spanish man with a heart for adventure. His family was nobility but economically modest; he had read the exploits of Christopher Columbus as a teenager in Spain, and began his own journey to the new world at 19. By age 26, he had become the mayor of Santiago, a city on the island of Cuba. 

With 11 ships, 100 sailors and 500 soldiers, he left Cuba to venture west, on behalf of Spain. They sailed into the Veracruz harbor; their landing on the Yucatan peninsula happened February 18, 1519. Cortez was intent to colonize – not just conquer – the frontier they had discovered. 

His mission included the intent to convert the indigenous people to the Christian faith. As they swept through Cozumel, he learned of the pagan ritualistic religious practices of the Mayan and Aztec cultures: human sacrifice was a key component of their search for their gods’ favor.

As the Spaniards learned more about the Aztec Empire – with its capital in Tenochtitlan and their leader, king Motecuhzoma – his men knew they were vastly outnumbered. Cortez recognized the risk of mutiny among his troops if fear became their dominant emotion. In a dramatic leadership maneuver that has been recounted for five centuries, he ordered their ships burned and scuttled, removing any option of retreat. They would advance and succeed… or be martyred.

The history of the period – as European exploration driven by political and religious fervor swept from Mexico into Central and South America – was a time marked by cultural domination and human tragedy. Conversion by conquest was a practice sanctioned by Rome; it left a stain on missions that created a sharp contrast to the message of love and peace that beats at the heart of the Gospel.

The expansion of the footprint of evangelism in the last half-century – disconnected from the power centers of government or religious institutions – has happened because of men and women whose courage and commitment matched Cortez’ and his contemporaries, but whose methods have shown the graciousness of God as they march forward into opposition and danger.

I’ve spent the last few days with a handful of Kingdom leaders who are leading outnumbered cohorts of passionate Christians in strategic initiatives that are breaking through the barriers that have isolated the 1.7 billion Muslim followers of Allah from any chance to encounter the Gospel.

One team is focused on the 1.5 million Muslim refugees currently in Germany. One team is engaging the trans-national Muslim tribe – stretched across sub-Saharan Africa – from which Boca Haran is lashing out at any and all Christians within their reach. Another is tracking epic breakthroughs as they reach influential cultural and tribal leaders in Muslim countries who are bringing their newfound faith back into their clans and communities and reporting dramatic stories of transformation.

They all had one strategic element in common: all are using The JESUS Film in their work. Soon after establishing a connection, their next move is to use this dramatic retelling of Luke’s Gospel – now translated into 1816 languages – to let God speak for Himself. At the end of the movie, the opportunity to declare allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ is offered. The results are astounding…

Cortez and his men had ulterior motives; they plundered the peoples they came to convert. The current wave of Kingdom warriors have no motive but to give the gift that God has extended to all. There is, however, a common resolve: the commitment to burn the ships – to be all in – is evident in the lives of men and women God is using to attack the Gates of Hell with the Love of God…

Bob Shank






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