Millions of people throughout the world call themselves Christians. From Roman Catholics to Protestants, from fundamentalists to liberals, there are many different perspectives about what it means to be a Christian. One can become lost in the complexity of beliefs, dogmas, moral injunctions, and religious rites.
But in a larger context—that of daily life—it is often impossible to distinguish one Christian from another, or even a Christian from a non-Christian. Most Christians blend in with the values, lifestyles, economics and politics of the predominant culture of their society.
But it wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, Christians stood out from the crowd.
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.
believing or following?
Lots of people believe in Jesus. They just love him to pieces. They worship and adore him. They praise his name. They invite him into their hearts and accept him as their Lord and Savior. But not many people are willing to follow him.
For the most part, believing “in” Jesus is really believing things “about” Jesus—that Jesus is divine, that he died for our sins, that he will come again to judge humanity and to establish his kingdom. But this kind of belief does not necessarily take the teachings of Jesus seriously. One can conceivably believe that Jesus is the Son of God and yet still live self-centered lives, ignore the cries of the poor, and demonstrate hatred toward people of other races, cultures, or sexual orientations.
All of this believing, loving, worshipping, and accepting Jesus is largely an internal experience, sometimes highly emotional, and although it’s frequently expressed in a corporate setting, it’s often intensely personal and private. But following Jesus is not an internal state. It’s an engagement with the outside world in a tangible way.
Some Christians are embarrassed to discuss their beliefs, while others are more than willing to profess their faith in public. Some may wear a cross as jewelry to symbolize their faith and devotion to Jesus. But publicly proclaiming Jesus as Lord is still not the same as following Jesus.
“Why do you call me `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” Jesus once asked. (Luke 6:46)
Following Jesus is about listening and doing. It is about putting into practice the things that Jesus taught. It is about a lifestyle of peace and justice that sets one apart from others.
discipleship or church membership?
Churches often put a focus on discipleship. However, it’s been said that some churches that claim to be teaching discipleship are just making “good church people.” The call to increased worship, study, and stewardship often results in people who simply serve the institution of the church.
Being a disciple should be radically different from not being a disciple. It involves much more than worship attendance, bible study, or service on a church board. Admittedly, those can be important parts of a Christian life. But they are merely food for the journey, not the journey itself. Hopefully they provide nourishment, not a detour.
Discipleship should result in people who lead a radically different type of life, who are counter-cultural, who are markedly different from the rest of the world.
Jesus calls us to transform the world. He calls us to spend our lives in the service of the least, the lost and the lonely. That kind of life goes way beyond serving in a local congregation.
The content of true discipleship is found outside of the walls of a church. It is found where people are hurting, where people are hungry, where people are oppressed, where people are denied justice, where people are dying.
In a book called The Cost of Discipleship, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace, he said, is grace without a commitment and response from the believer. It is grace without servanthood. Costly grace, said Bonhoeffer, moves us to respond to the call of Jesus.
The issue before us is whether we want to move from being admirers, and even worshippers, to being followers. If we want to take that step then the question is “What does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus today?”
what does it mean to follow Jesus today?
Is Christianity a set of beliefs, or is it a way of life? If it is a way of life, what kind of life? Is it delineated by clearly drawn moral rules, or is it a compassionate response to the situations that confront us?
What does a life of faith, that is honest to Jesus, look like? Even more precisely, how will this life of faith be expressed as we enter the postmodern world?
We live in a very different age than the pre-modern people to whom Jesus spoke in the first century. The modern age, which began in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, is now rapidly becoming a postmodern age.
In spite of a seeming chasm between the first century and the twenty-first, the way of Jesus is as appropriate to the postmodern world as it was to the pre-modern world. But it will not be achieved by clinging to a pre-modern worldview as some conservative Christians do today.
two different visions of the Christian life
In his book The Heart of Christianity, biblical scholar Marcus Borg (1942–2015) describes two very different ways of seeing what the Christian life is all about—two different visions of Christianity. Borg describes these as an “earlier paradigm” and an “emerging paradigm.”
The earlier paradigm is still the majority voice in American Christianity today, but it no longer speaks to millions of Christians who are uncomfortable with its definition of the faithful life. This earlier paradigm causes many to wonder if they can still call themselves “Christian” if they don’t buy into biblical literalism, religious exclusivity, and a heavenly afterlife as the goal of the Christian life.
“This earlier way of being Christian views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees the Christian life as centered in believing now for the sake of salvation later—believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus as the way to heaven. Typically, it has also seen Christianity as the only true religion.”
The emerging paradigm has been developing steadily for the last century and has become a kind of grassroots movement within the mainline denominations.
“The emerging paradigm sees the Christian life as a life of relationship and transformation. Being Christian is not about meeting requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.”
Borg is careful to say that “the issue isn’t that one of these paradigms is right and the and the other wrong. Rather, the issue is functionality, whether a paradigm ‘works’ or ‘gets in the way.'”
“The earlier paradigm has nourished and continues to nourish lives of deep devotion, faith, and love. The Spirit of God can and does work through it. It has for centuries and still does. When it leads to a strong sense of the reality and grace of God, to following Jesus, and to lives filled with compassion and a passion for justice, as it sometimes does, all one can say is, ‘Praise the Lord.’
“But for millions of others, the earlier paradigm no longer works. Unpersuasive to them, it has become a stumbling block. What is the Christian message, the Christian gospel, for people who can’t be literalists or exclusivists? What do we have to say to them? In an important sense, this is an issue of evangelism. For these millions, the emerging paradigm provides a way of taking Christianity and the Christian life seriously.”
a radically different understanding of Jesus
Following Jesus involves a radically different understanding of the identity, mission and message of Jesus than the traditional understanding presented by the earlier paradigm of Christianity.
Following Jesus in a postmodern world involves a new set of answers to the following three questions:
- Who was Jesus?
- What did he hope to accomplish?
- What did he proclaim?
If we are able to rediscover the life and teachings of Jesus in a fresh way, to understand how Jesus confronted the social issues, politics, economics, and religion of his day, we may be able to bridge the gulf between the ancient world and the postmodern world.
We invite to join us in this journey of discovery.