Following Jesus is not easy. It calls us to become troublemakers, revolutionaries, seekers of change, and agents of transformation for justice and peace in the world. No small task.
When Jesus called his first followers from among the peasants and fishermen of Galilee, what did he teach them? Did he instruct them to believe that he would die for their sins so that they could gain an eternal life in heaven, or did he call them to follow him in a more authentic and fulfilling life on earth that would eventually change the world by establishing love, compassion, peace, and justice in the unjust societies of the first century? Was it about teaching his disciples an orthodox belief system, or instead leading them to a committed life of faith and servanthood? Was it a promise of a glorious and placid future in heaven with all our loved ones, or was it about the in-breaking kingdom of God here on earth among the poor and outcast of our society?
There is a vast gulf between the first century and the twenty-first century. So we must ask today what it means to follow Jesus in an increasingly secular and rapidly changing postmodern world. Do the same teachings still apply in our distinctly different context?
the way of Jesus
Like many other great religious leaders, Jesus taught a way or path to his followers. His teachings point to an understanding of the religious life as a journey. He spoke about alternative paths encountered on the journey—the wide path and the narrow path.
He talked about seeking and entering the kingdom or reign of God. These are active words. They imply doing something, moving from where we are to someplace new. These are not words of correct beliefs and doctrine, but words that call us to get up and get going.
Jesus called people to follow him in a way of living. As a result, the earliest members of the Jesus movement were known as “followers of the Way.”
the imperial church
But something happened that changed all that. A dramatic transformation occurred. The emperor Constantine (272–337 CE) invited the bishops of the early church to join him in ruling an empire. By the fourth century, following the way of Jesus in small intentional communities gave way to an imperial institutional church vested in orthodoxy—believing certain doctrines about Jesus (now known as the Christ), and about the virginity and sinlessness of Mary, the curse of original sin, and a trinitarian God. When your intent is to create an inclusive religion for an entire empire, the requirements must be easy and undemanding. This is the faith most of us have inherited. It is far easier to believe certain theological ideas about Jesus that were created by male clergy in ecumenical councils—that Jesus was the (only) son of God, that he was sinless, that he died for our sins, that he will come again, that he awaits us in heaven—than it it is to follow him in a life of radical love, lavish generosity, extravagant forgiveness, inclusive hospitality, compassionate action, selfless service, a passion for justice, creative nonviolence, and simple living.
That is the challenge we face if we want to take Jesus seriously. That is the challenge of the Way of Jesus.
The Following Jesus website and blog is devoted to exploring a life of faith in a postmodern world. Join us in this journey.
it’s not just for Christians
[Jesus] belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world.
—Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948)
Following Jesus is not just for Christians. The Way taught by Jesus is not a particularly religious activity. Instead, it is a decisively human activity transcending all religions. It is not a way of believing; it is a way of living. It is centered in human love for one another and is focused on compassionate action toward those in need. It involves our ethics, politics, and economics. The way of Jesus calls us to radical generosity, service to others, and the pursuit of social, political, and economic justice. Jesus offered a vision for humanity’s future called the kingdom of God. It was not about a heavenly afterlife. It was and is about a better world for all people, especially the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the outcast.
The mission and message of Jesus is appealing to many people the world over—those of other religious traditions and those who do not identify with any formal religion.
Gandhi wrote “Jesus gave humanity the magnificent purpose and the single objective toward which we all ought to aspire. I believe that he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world, to all lands and races.” He also reportedly said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Many postmodern people share that belief. The churches of the Global North are in decline and younger generations no longer seek meaning there. Yet, many of the people characterized as “nones” (no religious preference) and “dones” (those who have left the church) still find Jesus and his teachings compelling. Many of those who remain in the church struggle with how to remain faithful to Jesus while rejecting various aspects of orthodox creeds and dogma. Slowly, traditional “church Christianity” is giving way to some new path of living faithfully in the world.
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) called this path a “religionless Christianity.” (Although Bonhoeffer never specifically stated it, the new path he envisioned was in reality the original path of Jesus.) Awaiting execution by the Nazis, he began to imaging a future form of Christianity without all the rites and rituals, without church buildings and choirs and clergy. He believed that the essence of following Jesus lies in just two things: contemplative prayer and righteous action in the secular world. As the secular world abandons the church in the Global North, and as younger generations are no longer attracted to Sunday worship, this may become the only viable path forward for those who seek to follow Jesus.
The Following Jesus website offers many different people—those who remain in the church, those who dwell on its margins, those who have left, and those who have never ventured near—with a description of a life of faith that is both intelligent and passionate. It is an invitation to forsake a traditional religion of ease and comfort for a vibrant life of challenge, risk, and fulfillment. It is an appeal for all people of passion, zeal, and courage to embrace a life of service, justice, and nonviolence, and by doing so become followers of the Way of Jesus.
an invitation to follow Jesus
Take three-and-a-half minutes to listen to the words of Jesus inviting you to follow him in a life-changing experience.
Animation: Copyright © 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer
Music: “Expression,” Copyright © 2007 Helen Jane Long. Used with permission.
the following Jesus website
Visit the newly redesigned Following Jesus website. It has the same great content in a clean, crisp, and responsive format that is viewable on all digital devices. You will find it divided into sections titled: invitation, seekers, leader, vision, changing, journey, companions, and resources.
the following Jesus blog
Read a collection of occasional theological musings from Kurt Struckmeyer of the Mustard Seed School of Theology.
Mustard Seed books
Explore new books about a life of faith in a postmodern world from Kurt Struckmeyer of the Mustard Seed School of Theology.
A Conspiracy of Love
A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World (February 2016)—is available in paperback and eBook versions.
Back cover description:
Before there were worshippers of Jesus, there were followers of Jesus. Before there were organized churches with creeds and doctrines, there were small communities of love, equality, and sharing dedicated to the practice of Jesus’ teachings and committed to a wholly new way of living.
Today, the churches of the Global North are in decline and younger generations no longer seek meaning there. Traditional “church Christianity” is gradually giving way to some new way of faithful living. From a Nazi prison cell, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagined a future “religionless Christianity” consisting of contemplative prayer and righteous action in the secular world.
A Conspiracy of Love presents the contours of such a faith based on the “way” of Jesus. It calls us to become troublemakers, revolutionaries, seekers of change, and agents of transformation engaged in conspiracies of love to establish justice and peace in a postmodern world. It offers many different people–those who remain in the church, those who have left, and those who have never ventured near–with a life of faith that is meaningful, intelligent, and passionate.
A Conspiracy of Love can be purchased at a 20% discount ($24.00 USD) from the publisher Wipf and Stock. Prices at other online retailers vary: Amazon ($27.28 USD) and Barnes and Noble ($28.10) the last time I checked. eBook versions are available for the Kindle ($9.99 USD), for the Nook ($10.49 USD), and at Google Play Books ($16.50 USD).
An Unorthodox Faith
An Unorthodox Faith: A New Reformation for a Postmodern World (February 2017)—is also available in paperback and eBook versions.
Here is the description that appears on the back cover:
The time is ripe for a new Christian reformation—a profound transformation of theological substance, not just liturgical style. Jesus never intended to create a new religion of rites, rituals, and dogma that offered an eternal reward in heaven. Instead Jesus announced the subversive arrival of the kingdom of God—a social and economic revolution of the heart based on a lifestyle of radical love, lavish generosity, extravagant forgiveness, inclusive hospitality, compassionate action, selfless service, a passion for justice, creative nonviolence, and simple living. He invited his followers to transform their lives and change the world.
A postmodern Christianity will call people to engage in the Jesus revolution—a conspiracy of love that rises up against the unjust systems of the world through everyday acts of compassion and resistance. An Unorthodox Faith provides a framework for a renewed faith based on the Way of Jesus—a way of living authentically and humanely for the sake of others. It offers many different people—those who remain in the church, those who have left, and those who have never ventured near—with a life of faith that is meaningful, intelligent, and passionate.
An Unorthodox Faith can be purchased at a 20% discount ($25.60 USD) from the publisher Wipf and Stock. Prices at other online retailers vary: Amazon ($23.30 USD) and Barnes and Noble ($32.00 USD, full price) the last time I checked. An eBook version is available for the Kindle ($9.99 USD), for the Nook ($11.49 USD), and at Google Play Books ($17.60 USD).