In their book on missions, World Christian Trends, authors David Barrett and Todd Johnson wrote about “the greatest missed opportunity in Christian history.” The Mongol empire, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, once stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. One reason why this empire flourished was the famous Silk Road which cut a path from Europe through Asia and came right through Kahn’s kingdom. The Silk Road was the interstate highway of trade during the middle ages that brought precious commodities from the Far East to Europe.
It was into this “gold rush” that Marco Polo’s merchant father, Niccolò, and Uncle Maffeo pursued their fortune. After much exploration in China, they detoured further east. There, by chance, they met envoys of Kublai Khan and in 1266 the Polo brothers were given an enthusiastic reception into the court of the larger-than-life ruler.
They were surprised to discover that Kahn had an insatiable curiosity for everything Western, including Christianity. He was interested about rumors he heard of “the man who died on a cross” and who had done many miraculous things. Before the Kahn’s left for home, the warrior-king, wrote a letter in which he asked Pope Gregory X for the following:
“Send me 100 men skilled in your religion. If they were convincing, I shall be baptized, and then all my barons and great men, and then their subjects. And so there will be more Christians here than there are in your parts.”
When the Polo’s returned to Rome they gave the Pope the note. But Pope Gregory X, unable to see the potential, only sent two friars. Tragically, neither made it Khan. They turned back half way to China because of the harsh weather. By the time the first batch of a missionaries arrived in Beijing in 1294, Kublai Khan had died and the Mongols had turned to Tibetan Buddhism.
Today, Buddhism is Mongolia’s most-practiced religion (55%, according to Pew Research Center), followed by the unaffiliated (36%) and a smattering of Muslims and folk religions.
About 2% of the country’s nearly 3 million people are Christian, which seems small until you consider that when Mongolia opened up after communism in 1990, it was statistically zero.
Could we imagine a more botched opportunity for the Gospel? Was it because the Polos failed to convey a sense of urgency? Was God in some way protecting China from the brand of Catholicism which later gave rise to Luther’s 95 theses? Was it because God knew that the persecuted Church in 21st century China would ultimately bear more fruit?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but that history lesson got me thinking about all the evangelistic opportunities I have failed to capitalize on. You know what I mean—the Holy Spirit nudges you to witness to a stranger and instead of being bold you are bashful. Maybe you have a chance to go on a mission trip, but instead of going, you make an excuse, “Well, I just can’t afford it.” Or, you hear about a ministry need in your church, but instead of stepping up you think, “I’ve done enough. I will step back and let someone else take this one.”
Meanwhile, souls hang in the balance. Friend, besides you and me there is no plan B. We must not let the golden opportunities God has placed in our path slip away. I am reminded of what Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). Are you living with that kind of urgency for the Lord’s work? How tragic would it be to be on your deathbed with heavy regret over what might have been.
Missionary Amy Carmichael was right, “'We will have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only a few short hours to win them.” Excuses will always be plentiful, opportunities won’t. -DM
David Barrett and Todd Johnson, World Christian Trends (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2001), 124.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Rectifying the ‘Greatest Missed Opportunity in Christian History,’” The Gospel Coalition, AUGUST 7, 2017 <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/rectifying-the-greatest-missed-opportunity-in-christian-history/>