This worship song becoming anthem of persecuted church

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A man stands outside the house, keeping watch for attackers. Music drifts from the open

(OpenDoorsUSA)

windows. People inside the home sit on plastic chairs, standing to sing and sway.

The words are in a local language—but the tune is familiar.

“Though none go with me, still I will follow … “

The group sings quietly, finally ending:

“No turning back, no turning back.”

The Christians gathered in this house live and worship in Manipur State, India, where ethnoreligious violence last May killed hundreds of people and left many homes and churches burned and reduced to rubble. Thousands of Christians were forced to flee.

This particular congregation is made up of Christians from the Meitei people. They’re the most populous group in Manipur State—and most of them are Hindu. When clashes began last summer, largely between the Meitei and the mostly Christian Kuki tribe, Meitei Christians were caught in the middle. On the one hand, they were Meitei, so their ethnicity made them targets for Kuki extremists. But on the other, they were Christians, so their faith made them targets for Hindu extremists among their own people.

This was especially evident when religious extremists burned down their church building.

One of the church members opened a house he had built for his son so the church could continue to meet. The believers who gather for worship know they are at constant risk of another attack, so they put one person to keep watch.

And still, they sing.

The song they chose was remarkably appropriate. “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is sung by Christians all over the world—but it has its roots in India. And it has its origin in the persecuted church.

Based in persecution

“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” is a classic twentieth-century hymn for Christians in many traditions. .Billy Graham used it regularly during his massive crusades, driving the popularity of the song. In denominations that emphasize personal conversion and a personal decision around salvation, the song has become a key component of many worship services.

However, the song wasn’t originally used in those contexts. The specifics vary (more on that in a moment), but most sources agree that the hymn originally came from India—specifically, the region of Assam, in the part now known as the Indian state of Meghalaya.

The tune itself is widely believed to have roots in an Indian folk song—the tune is simply called “Assam” in modern hymnbooks.

The lyrics are where there is some dispute. One Indian author and missionary, Dr. Peramangalam Porinju Job, said the lyrics came from the words of a man named Nokseng. He was a Christian convert in northeastern India, and Nokseng’s community tried everything they could to force him to renounce his faith in Jesus. Job writes:

[The] village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man sung his reply, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back.”

Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”

But the man replied, again singing, “Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back.”

The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be arrowed down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”

In the face of death, the man sang, “The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.” He was shot dead like the rest of his family.

It’s a powerful story—and reflects many of the stories happening to our brothers and sisters in India today!

An Indian missionary named Sadhu Sundar Singh is widely credited with putting Nokseng’s words to music.

But other sources aren’t sure about the Nokseng story (and doubt that Singh wrote the lyrics). Another possibility is that Simon K. Marak, a pastor and missionary in India, wrote the song as a response to God’s faithfulness during his life’s pains and trials. He taught the song to his children and instructed that it should be sung whenever the gospel was shared.

The theme song of persecuted Christians

Regardless of the specifics of the song’s origins, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” has deep roots in India’s Christian community—and has become something of a theme for persecuted Christians all over the world.

Consider Kham*, an Open Doors partner in Laos. Despite the risks he faces for his faith, he helps reach out to believers with spiritual and practical aid. “I have decided to follow Jesus because He gives me hope. I found hope only in Him, so I decided to give my life to Him,” he says. Listen to his song:

At Zion Church’s two-year memorial service for the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, the pastor’s words that day were a powerful reminder of the ongoing trauma: “We must also remember everyone who was disabled and who are still dealing with the effects of that incident,” Pastor Roshan said. “Only God can bring them comfort.” And yet, the children’s choir that sang showed the resiliency of persecuted Christians when they sang “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” in both English and Tamil:

a kids' choir in Sri Lanka

And in Nepal, Anisha* and her sisters sang the song as a testimony. When they accepted Jesus, they were placed under house arrest for six years by their parents, and then finally expelled after they refused to leave their faith. The siblings know the cost of their decision, and yet they still sing “No turning back.”

Persecuted Christians around the world show us that faith in Jesus is more than a one-time decision or event. It’s a life of faith that clings to the hope offered by our Savior, no matter what. When they sing a song so familiar to many of us, they remind us of the cost of discipleship—and the promises and faithfulness of God. — OpenDoors USA