Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Follower of Jesus" or "Christian"?

11 Thoughts on Whether It’s Better To Be a “Follower of Jesus” or a “Christian”

In February, I attended a missions conference with 3 main speakers who have ministered throughout the world. The man who spoke on Sunday morning is someone who has ministered for over a decade in the Arab Muslim world (I’m not giving his name or location in this post, I ask that anyone leaving a comment do the same please). His sermon was thought provoking, and perhaps a “feather-ruffler.” He asks the question: should we replace the term “Christian” with “Follower of Jesus” in order to communicate more effectively who we are what we do? I wrote down his 11 thoughts while he was preaching, and soon after typed out some thoughts of my own. I’ve since gone back and listened to the sermon again in order to make sure I did not misunderstand him. What follows are my thoughts on his thoughts.

This sermon addresses the issue of communication. He claims that the word “Christian” does not accurately reflect our faith, therefore we ought to consider replacing it with the phrase “Follower of Jesus.” He gives 11 reasons why, which I address below. Some of them overlap, so I don’t give responses to each of them. Each point deserves a more thorough response, but this will be plenty long as it is. I’m addressing this issue from the perspective of what we should do here in America. I recognize that there are good reasons not to use the term “Christian” in other contexts (such as the Arab Muslim context the speaker ministers in). But he also states he thinks we need to rethink this issue in our own culture. So, I take him up and examine it. Anyway, here are his 11 points, with some of my comments, as well as some follow up thoughts.

1. Being a “Follower of Jesus” is dynamic rather than a static noun
I like this thought. The term “Christian” is rather static: I am a Christian, period. While this is true, it could lead to the thought that once you become a Christian, that’s it. But we are on a “journey” (that sounds so cliché and corny), one that ends in our reception of a resurrection body, just like Jesus (1 Cor 15). Our sanctification is ongoing. We are trying to become more and more like Christ everyday. In that sense, our relationship with Jesus is dynamic rather than static. It’s not that I think anyone is more or less a Christian, but we are more or less like Christ. And I think this is what he is getting at here.

2. If a “Follower of Jesus”, you are forced to talk about Jesus
True enough. Of course, this can easily be done with the term “Christian.” It depends more on the person talking rather than the term that is used. The advantage to the term “Follower of Jesus” is that more than likely people will ask something like “huh?” That opens the door to talking about Jesus. I suppose this could be what the speaker is saying. But we don’t have to stop using the term “Christian” in order to be forced to talk about Jesus. Talking about Jesus will do that just fine.

3. Places us back in company of the 12
I’m not convinced this is true. I mean, I could call myself an apostle, that doesn’t mean I’m in the company of the 12, does it?

4. Suggests process rather than completion
“Even though we are completely in the kingdom… all of our life is a process.” This is essentially the same as #1.

5. Shows you’re trying to follow Jesus rather than agreement to facts
I understand that he believes theology is important and that there are necessary beliefs one must hold (resurrection, deity of Christ, etc). So, why the false dichotomy? It certainly seems Paul thought agreement to doctrine was important (read his letters to Timothy). Jesus Himself knew there to be certain facts that His followers must agree with. He argued against the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead. He praised Peter for his confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which is a statement of fact- “You are the Messiah”). Agreement to facts is important. It is not everything, but it is something, and we should never lose sight of that.

6. Being a “Follower of Jesus” means Jesus at front, me following
This could still be true if you call yourself a Christian. The speaker claims this helps us realize that we are following Him, rather than Him following us. I suppose calling oneself a “Follower of Jesus” might help some do this, but that won’t automatically be the case. His main point, however, is quite valid: we are not leading in our relationship with the Lord, He is leading. I’m just not sure calling ourselves something other than “Christian” helps us avoid this. Or let me say it this way: if you have trouble letting Christ lead while calling yourself a “Christian”, you’ll continue to have problems with it no matter what you call yourself.

7. If a “Follower of Jesus”, you don’t have to explain what kind of “Christian”
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? The variety of “Christianities” is an unfortunate fact in our world. That the one Church of God is divided is something we can’t avoid this side of eternity. Actually, I think by calling yourself a “Follower of Jesus” you introduce a new “kind of Christian”, thereby compounding the problem rather than solving it.

8. If a “Follower of Jesus”, I don’t have to defend 2000 years of Christendom
This sounds wonderful at first. After all, there have been all sorts of evil done under the banner of Christianity. However, if you decide not to associate yourself with 2000 years of Christianity because of its dark side, I say that you must not associate yourself with 2000 years of triumphs. You can’t associate yourself with the foundational councils of the early church (that doesn’t bother some, but this simply shows their ignorance of the debt we all owe to them). You can’t associate yourself with the missionary movements (William Carey, etc). And so on. This may be helpful in some contexts (Arab world, for example), but not necessarily in ours.

9. Being a “Follower of Jesus” encourages me to follow His model of how to live
I’m not sure by calling yourself a “Follower of Jesus” that you make yourself a follower of Jesus. Only by following Jesus is one a follower of Jesus. What you call yourself means little in this regard. Does it encourage you to think about what Jesus would do? Perhaps for some, but again, not necessarily. The speaker notes that Jesus didn’t always snap off theological answers, so we don’t need to. Agreed, but Jesus did in fact get into some theological debates. What He did is often answer with parables and other things. That isn’t less theological, but it is a different form of communication than we commonly use. In this sense he is correct, we should look for ways to communicate other than debate. But, as I’ve said, how successfully this is done is not determined by what you call yourself.

10. Being a “Follower of Jesus” helps start the day to find out where He’s going
Again, I’m not sure how calling yourself a Follower of Jesus makes this so. You can do this whether you call yourself a Christian, Follower of Jesus, Baptist or Red Sox fan.

11. Being a “Follower of Jesus” means we check in multiple times a day to find out where He’s going
See #10.


Further thoughts

1. My friend Lisa noted that calling yourself a “Follower of Jesus” rather than “Christian” can be seen by some as dishonest. I think this is a great point. Imagine if someone asked you if you were a Christian, but you replied that you were a Follower of Jesus. As they get to know you, see that you read the Bible, pray, go to church, etc., there’s a chance they’ll think you tried to slip in the back door. These are things that Christians do! So why are we avoiding the obvious- we are Christians. Refusing to call ourselves Christians could be seen as attempt to slip in under the radar and trick them into accepting us.

2. How long would it be before we need to come up with a term other than “Follower of Jesus”? After all, eventually someone who calls themselves a Follower of Jesus will do something not befitting that name and ruin it for everybody, just like we see now with the term “Christian.” Are we then to come up with a new name? How long will this cycle go on? Why not just stick with what we got?

3. Not calling yourself a Christian separates you from the body of Christ. I think this is the number one reason we should be careful about doing away with the term. This reminds me of something the Lord convicted me of a few years back. I was working at a bookstore with people who were not predisposed to like Christians. While I was working there, a well known evangelical Christian leader said something in the media that was, well, stupid. Of course the media jumped all over it, and I found myself in the middle of the firestorm at work. So, I separated myself from this man and tried to let them all know that I was not like him. But something hit me (I’d say this was a slap from the Lord): he is my brother in Christ. No matter how much I disagreed with him, he is closer to me than any of my non-believing coworkers. The same Spirit that lives in me lives in him. Here’s the point: many Christians may be idiots, but they’re our idiots. We don’t have to defend what they do or say, but we must stand by them. The same Blood that washes away my sins washes away theirs.


There are two ways to take the speaker’s points. First, as I point out a few times above, one could say that calling oneself a “Follower of Jesus” will help you do things differently (checking in with the Lord throughout the day, etc). I’ve stated multiple times that this is not necessarily true. What you call yourself has little bearing on whether or not you do these things.

Second, his main point throughout the sermon is the issue of communication. Are we accurately communicating who we are and what we do/believe? He suggests we change our self-designation from “Christian” to “Follower of Jesus” in order to communicate better. I have attempted to show that this might not actually be helpful, it could in fact be counterproductive. He seems to think that by calling yourself a “Follower of Jesus”, then you communicate reality better. My main point is that this is not necessarily true. In fact, you might just muddy the waters even more. I would ask the speaker this: is the term “Christian” beyond saving in our culture? It may be in other contexts (remember, he works in a Muslim context, where this may be true). I maintain that in our culture, “Christian” is still redeemable. There are enough godly men and women who proudly wear the name “Christian” that we can win it back from those who have tarnished it.

But I do want to note that I think the speaker is right in his overall point- we need to learn how to communicate our faith better. He uses the example of inviting someone to church. What will that person think when you invite them to “church”? Their notion of church is probably far different than what you want to communicate. So why not describe what it is to them in order for them to gain a more accurate understanding of what we mean? It’s doubtful we’re both thinking the same thing, so we ought to bridge that gap. He stated that his sermon was really about “communication style.” And in that sense he is right. We, meaning American Christians, rarely do a good job of communicating our faith. We speak in Christianese, as well as its close cousin, Biblish. We use words and phrases that are not commonly used in our language. Some of this is okay- I’m still searching for a word that can replace “justification”, but I doubt I’ll ever find one.

Jesus often used words to create pictures to teach concepts (dare I say, theology). These were effective and memorable (as evidenced by the fact that someone remembered them well enough for them to end up in the Bible). And He lived out what He taught in such a way that communicated His message. This is where my brother and I undoubtedly agree- we ought to strive to do the same.