If you peruse the most popular Christian book titles, or if you check out what pastors and church consultants are blogging about, or if you read the titles of plenary speeches and workshops at Christian conferences, then you will quickly discern one of the hottest current topics in Christian circles: leadership. Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to be an effective leader. TED Talks address this in the secular world, leadership conferences at places like Willow Creek tackle it in the Christian world (they even call it their “Global Leadership Summit”).
But search Amazon.com sometime for books on what it means to be a follower. Your search won’t return many results. “Followership” is not as sexy as leadership. Being a follower is not as scintillating as being a leader. People don’t take to the speaking rostrum at big-ticket seminars to share their grand dream of being a world-class follower or about how God inspired them with a vision to stay near the back of the pack, to be quiet, to stay out of the limelight. Doesn’t happen.
Of course, there can be no leaders if there are no people to follow them. And, in truth, most of us in the church are followers—we are not up front but exist in the middle, if not the back, of the pack. But even in the church we don’t always do such a great job of celebrating followers. The spotlight stays on our leaders.
That is a problem. In the church we have a word for becoming a better follower. It’s discipleship. Disciples follow. Disciples are students, apprentices, underlings who take their cues from the Master. Perhaps no single season in the church year gives preachers a chance to encourage faithful discipleship—and the faith formation attendant on being a follower of Jesus—than the season of Lent.
After all, the gospels are about following Jesus almost from the get-go. But up until that moment when Jesus definitively turns toward the cross—Mark 8, Luke 9, Matthew 16—following Jesus was a fairly popular activity. Jesus drew large crowds early in his ministry. The inner circle of disciples was dwarfed by those who marveled at Jesus’ miracles and sensed a new kind of authority in his teaching.
But all that began to change once Jesus started to talk about death, sacrifice, taking up a cross. That’s when any number of people shook their heads, waved their hands, and left Jesus behind. When the season of Lent catches up with Jesus, there are not many followers left, and those that are left have to hear and try to understand some difficult teachings. Lent is a time to talk about the kind of discipleship that leads to the Place of the Skull.
What kinds of things does Jesus say about discipleship in the latter half of the gospels? Well, here is a short list of topics Jesus tackled: self-denial, becoming lowly and humble like a child, leaving family behind to follow a homeless Jesus, welcoming with joy the least desirable people in society. This is also the phase of Jesus’ ministry when he told so many parables that predicted the downfall of those who were only outwardly righteous, the fate of those who refused to forgive as they had been forgiven, the leveling effect of grace when people who work one hour get paid as much as those who labor twelve hours.
Being a disciple means following a Jesus who views the world upside-down compared to most other people. Values are turned on their head. The rich and powerful are dismissed, the poor and marginalized are elevated. Religious works done without love are despised, the lowliest act of service done in love is praised. Disciples who imitate Jesus, therefore, are eager to seize the bottom rung of the ladder, not the top. They reach down to the invisible members of society, not up toward the brass ring and the so-called “beautiful people.”
It’s all profoundly counter-cultural. That’s why even back in his own time most people shied away from Jesus’ coterie of followers once Jesus made clear that kingdom living means putting daylight between yourself and the rest of society. But this message is no less off-putting today. That’s why some popular preachers try to stay popular by going the other way, talking about possibility thinking, your best life now, how to be successful in marriage, home, and business.
But for preachers, Lent is a time to focus on true discipleship and nurturing a faith that can—as a traditional baptismal form puts it—stand the light of day and endure the dark of night. It is, however, vital that even this Lenten talk about discipleship be framed in God’s overarching and abiding grace. It is altogether too easy to turn talk of discipleship into a guilt-inducing “to do” list, making people think that if they do not live in such-and-such ways, God will frown on them.
Discipleship is not about joyless drudgery. Discipleship is pure joy! Discipleship begins when Jesus, out of sheer and undeserved grace, comes to each of us and says “Follow me!” Once this invitation of grace is given, the rest flows from there.
Mark 10 and its parallels tell of an incident that happens after Jesus turns to the cross. A rich young man comes to Jesus, really quite full of himself and with every good confidence that he has already earned his salvation. He is the original “self-made man.” When he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he is not so much looking for an answer as he is waiting for Jesus to punch his ticket to heaven. Jesus goes for the chink in his armor by telling him to sell all that he has, but Jesus’ last words to the man are, “Then come, follow me.” That’s when the man “went away sad.” You see, when “follow me” becomes the last word instead of the first—when “follow me” can come only after you have tried to qualify yourself—then it is bad news. You’ll never make it. But—as for Peter, the other disciples, and now us—when “follow me” is the first thing Jesus says, then a joyful lifetime of following ensues.
It is grace that keeps us on the road with Jesus even when the road is bumpy, even when Jesus’ way fights against culture, even when the Spirit tamps down our natural tendencies to look out for good old #1. It is grace that forgives our failures on the road, and it is grace that lets us be crucified with Christ so that we may also rise with Christ on Easter morning.
In a world where everyone wants to be a leader, it is good in Lent to remember that there is finally just the one Leader in the Church, and everyone else—everyone else—is his follower.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu/.