What Does It Mean To Follow Jesus?
- Categorized in: Church Leadership, Men's Ministries, Seniors' Ministries, Teachers/Disciplers, Women's Ministries, Youth Ministries
When I was fifteen years old, I had a life changing experience. However, I’m not sure exactly what happened. Billy Graham came to town. It was one of those early crusades. He and his team were in St. Louis for about three weeks. Good thing for me. It was a week or more before I was willing to attend with my family. That was the first time I ever remember hearing the Gospel.
I grew up in the church. I didn’t like it, but I went, at least to Sunday school. But I was a trouble-maker. One teacher thought I was retarded. I may be the only kid in history to flunk Sunday school. My friend and I needed to be separated. We fought too much.
I joined the church. There were weeks of classes children had to attend. I learned the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments. We learned the Lord’s Prayer. The pastor made a big thing out of that because he wanted us to say “which” instead of “who.” Amazing...the little things we remember. But I have no recollection of ever hearing the Gospel.
There could be at least two reasons for that:
1. It wasn’t presented. Maybe some in the church didn’t believe it or, at least, didn’t clearly understand it. It’s also possible that those teachers and leaders (including the pastor) assumed we knew the Gospel. Don’t skip over this! You may be in a church committed to the Bible and have any number of people (children and adults) who don’t really understand what it means to believe in Jesus.
2. The Holy Spirit didn’t tune me in. Because I say I didn’t hear the Gospel does not necessarily mean it wasn’t presented. It may have been presented plainly and I didn’t hear - or couldn’t hear.
We believe in the supernatural. Yet I tend to function in such a rationalistic way that I forget how important the Holy Spirit’s work is.
Being a follower of Jesus begins with a commitment to Jesus. In terms of the Great Commission, making disciples involves “baptizing” (Matthew 28:19). Baptism is the introductory rite into the faith. It is the ceremony by which we are “checked off’ as followers of Jesus.
But that night at the Billy Graham Crusade, I heard the Gospel. And I was asked to respond, and I responded. I raised my hand. I walked down the aisle. That’s an experience common to many evangelicals. It generally culminates with someone leading the seeker in a prayer of commitment. Faith in Jesus is verbalized. But there are traps: After all, it’s thedevil’s last stand.
1. We have given the impression that if the Gospel message is understood and the person agrees with the truth of that message, then the person has become a Christian. But that is a far cry from forsaking all to follow Jesus. Becoming a Christian is more than an intellectual exercise. Those who work with the mentally handicapped suggest that some of them may have far greater faith than many of us who are able to think it through.
2. The night I responded to Billy Graham’s invitation I wanted to follow Jesus. At that point, I would have done whatever was asked of me. What I did was walk the aisle, talk to a counselor, hear Grady Wilson give a brief challenge and take home a packet of Navigator “B” rations to work with.
Shortly after that, I heard Billy Graham say on the “Hour of Decision” that a person could become a Christian right where he or she was listening to the radio. I was confused. I thought you had to walk down an aisle. I may have been a little dense. I’ll concede that. Yet, I wonder how many people equate becoming a Christian with walking an aisle or with saying a brief prayer of commitment.
The Great Commission uses the word “baptize.” But “baptize” seems to have lost its punch. Particularly for those of us who believe in infant baptism. So many people have been “baptized” or “christened” and they never grew up learning to follow Jesus. So there’s very little sense that they were “checked off.”
It might be clearer if we were in a culture that censured those who were baptized because the idea is that we are casting our lot with Jesus. If He is alive, we will live. If He is still in a tomb, then we are doomed.
Some people at my church persuaded me to get involved with the Bible Memory Association program. I was in it for five years, and learned over a thousand verses. I spent weeks at summer camp, and became a leader in a high school Bible club, which was at least partly responsible for two people becoming foreign missionaries.
Yet, I wondered. At first it was, “Have I really done what I need to do to be a Christian?” I can’t tell you how many times I asked Jesus to come into my life.
Then, I couldn’t imagine how someone who did some of the things I did, who thought some of the things I thought, could possibly be a Christian. In retrospect, I realize I had a great sense of inferiority. It’s a problem common to many. Inferiority produces the same feelings as guilt. That, combined with those, things for which I was capable made me feel worthless.
At some point, I turned it around. I would say to myself, “I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.’’ Those feelings were part of adolescent ignorance. But it is interesting to mehow often the Bible talks about “enduring to the end.’’ I can think of a number of people who for one reason or another got sidelined - some married people who weren’t Christians and some married people, who allowed their marriages to collapse. Some got hurt. Some just sort of cooled off or burned out. Some began to Wonder if Christianity really works.
Another ingredientin making disciples is “teaching them to obey” (Matthew 28:20). That is so all encompassing. We could go in any number of directions. However, as: feeble as our efforts are, the emphasis with many of us is teaching. Christianity is reducedto right doctrine which must be understood.
To be fair, obedience is usually part of the package, but it tends to get overwhelmed. When officers are trained, my experience says that the bulk of the time is spent in getting them to understand the particulars of the faith. It flows from a seminary model that trains pastors in essentially the same way.
In our Christian day schools and colleges, the Bible has become an academic subject. And we have children whogive the impression that if they have to hear one more Bible story, they will throw up. We have graduates from our schools for whom Christianity means very little.
I am more and more convinced that we teach the Bible in a fundamentally wrong way. We take that which was given in a life situation and abstract it. That’s how we get our doctrine. But we fail to close the loop. We don’t put the message into the life situations of those studying the message. That failure is found everywhere - from the Sunday school, where the object is often to communicate a bit of information about the Bible, to the seminary, where the emphasis is on this discipline we call “theology.” When obedience is stressed, the line seems easily crossed into what could be called legalism.
The Bible makes clear that obedience has to do with relationships. Love God. Love my neighbor. And how do I show that love? By obeying what God has said. I show I love you by not cheating you. By not lying to you. Or to put it positively, I show I love you by being fair with you. Understanding is important. Knowing such things is one level. Doing them is another. I show I love God in the same way. Jesus said a visit to someone in prison is a visit with Him. A meal for someone who is hungry is a meal given to Him. As difficult as it may be to worship (privately or publicly), as hard as it is to come to grips with serious Bible study, those things are hollow if we aren’t loving each other.
A lot of years have passed since I made my commitment to Christ. Yet, I still wrestle with many of the same things that caused me trouble then. In my weaker moments, I ask, “Has anything changed?” I preach forgiveness. Yet, I still have trouble feeling forgiven. And I am still reluctant to forgive. So what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
In my better moments, I can see that while the struggles are in many ways the same, there has been movement. I feel more forgiven today than I did then - even though I was just as forgiven then as I am now.
At the same time, there is an awareness - far too dim - that I could regress. People far more gifted than I - apparently more dedicated than me - have fallen by the wayside. Jesus said, “All authority is given to me,” and “I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:18,20). That authority is exercised in the church. His presence is felt in the church. From my limited perspective, a significant block to that authority and presence is that the church tends to be impersonal. I don’t want to be held accountable. So I resist letting others into those areas where I perceive the greatest weakness. I want people to think well of me. So I keep my failings quiet. I allow the guilt to accumulate.
Yet, it’s not all failure. It is in the context of the church that I have learned and continue to learn what it means to live for Him. In the church, my feelings of inferiority have abated. Leaning on each other, we have reached out to others. Together, we try to discover what it means to be His disciples - to follow Jesus.
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