Making Jesus Accessible

Initial Thoughts On My New CNN Article

CNN has asked me to write another article on the difference between “following Jesus” and simply “becoming a Christian.” Of course, I’m happy to oblige. So….hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to work this out a bit with you guys and let you make comments to help shape this article.

Whenever I take leaders from here on trips to the Middle East, the first, and by far, most controversial thing everyone runs into is the fact that they are meeting some Muslims who claim to be “following Jesus” but have not become “Christians.” Talk about semantics – everyone’s head spins. What does this mean? And then…we get into the fact that I rarely would call myself or identify myself as a “Christian” even here in the States, but also prefer the label “Follower of Jesus.”

Is this new trendiness? Emergent? Trying to avoid persecution and appear in some way acceptable to the culture – either in the Muslim world or in the Post-Christian western world? Or…maybe it’s just me trying to create a buzz – as we saw with the first CNN article, controversy sells. Although not sure what it was “selling” since I don’t get paid for that type of thing, but….

There are three reasons why I think it works better, has more integrity, and is actually more biblical to NOT call yourself a “Christian” and DO call yourself a “Follower of Jesus.”

1. Pragmatically, the word “Christian” doesn’t mean what we’d like it to mean – or maybe even, should mean. It just doesn’t. Serbians are all Christians – is that what we mean? And so are the drug lords south of the border – they’re all Catholic, which is a type of Christian. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa is Christian. Eighty-five percent of Americans still self-identify as Christian. For 2000 years, many have called themselves Christian that haven’t been following Jesus in any way – do we really want to use that term?

It’s slightly provocative, but I refer you to the word “gay.” I could insist it means that I’m happy. And it does. And I am. So am I gay? In the way the culture uses that word today, no. I’m not gay. I’m just happy. And happily married to my female wife.

So it is with Christian. I can insist that it means someone who’s life has been changed by the power of the gospel. That I love God and love people. That I follow the ways and teachings of Jesus and have been transformed from the inside-out. That I have given my life to love and obey the commands of my savior – primarily to love and serve. I can insist that “being Christian” means that. But since the culture doesn’t see it meaning that, why not use words that communicate to the hearer what we actually mean, rather than insist on words that for sure communicate the wrong thing.

In the Middle East, as in much of the world, being Christian means that you are pro-American. Probably conservative in your political outlook. Pro-war. Anti-choice. Anti-gay rights. And someone who wants your money for some cause and makes you feel guilty that you don’t go to church on Sunday. Now…to be fair, I know very few Christians of any stripe that really live all of that out in such negative ways – but I’m speaking here of perceptions. And whether this is reality or not, doesn’t actually matter. This is what many think a Christian is.

2. It has more integrity to call yourself – and actually be – a follower of Jesus, for the reason I just stated. If the words I use for sure don’t describe to the hearer what I mean – and if I know that – then I lack integrity in using that word or phrase. I am, in fact, actually trying to follow Jesus. It’s really not a title. It’s a descriptor. I am literally wanting to follow him. He’s real. Tangible. This is what I do. It’s who I am.

Now, I could say that “being Christian” is all of those things as well, and of course, you’re free to think and say that. But since only those of us who are in this category even know what we mean by the word “Christian” (and even that is debatable), then why use it.

Let’s say what we mean, and do what we say. Describing who you are and what you live for is far more powerful than simply using a one-word noun anyway. Let’s actually be people who are so committed to and so in love with Jesus, that we really do follow him!

3. The Greek word from which we derive Christian is used three times in all the Bible. Twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter. Jesus never uses is. Once it is simply a passive statement that “they were first called Christians in Antioch.” Someone called them that – very likely as a derogatory term. Then Paul and Peter each use it once to describe the negative state they’re in so that others can see it’s okay to suffer – EVEN if someone has labeled you as “Christian.” They are not saying suffer because you bear the label of “Christian”, but were both making the point that if you do in fact suffer for following this new and better way of the Messiah, don’t be ashamed – whatever they call you.

No where is “Christianity” mentioned in the Bible. It’d be hard to show that Jesus came to start a new religion. In fact, many of us grew up in churches where we say “it’s not about religion, but about relationship.” But then we go right back to talking about Christianity.

    See we’ve learned to play an unfair game. Remember you’re SAT or ACT tests where they have questions like:  This is to that, like that is to this. So this is what we do: Muslims are to Islam, like Jews are to Judaism, like Christians are to Christ. Do you see it? I often share this and people miss the point.

    We cheat. While we put Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and everyone else in a category that makes them adherents to a religious system – we take ourselves out of that. We still use the religious word “Christian” but we would never say that a True Christian is someone who adheres to the religious systems of Christianity. No, we would say that we follow Christ. Which we do – so why not just say that. Once again, say what we mean and mean what we say!

    What’s the one thing Jesus called his followers to – every time? From the first time he saw the fishermen by the shores of Galilee to the last time he spoke with John? To follow him. “Come, follow me”, he said. It was an invitation. Not a command. An open invite. A very compelling one that ends in causing you to “lose” that which you don’t really have anyway – your life…and gain, what you could never have without Jesus – true and lasting life, now and forever. What a deal.

    But we have to choose to follow. Not join a religion. We could be followers as part of the Crowd – they loved Jesus. Or we could be a little more serious and be part of the Curious. Or…we could join the Committed. All “followers of Jesus”, but at various stages in the journey.

    May we join the throngs who adored him – the Crowds who followed because of what Jesus did for them. He fed them. Healed them. Taught them and loved them. But may we move beyond the crowds and explore more intimately for ourselves. Who is this man? Where is he going? Why does he seem to care? And why should I commit myself to him?

    Finally, once you’ve received and accepted his invitation to follow him with your whole life and you gain everything, let me know, and we’ll walk together – in the company of so many others around the world who love this man: The Messiah, Christ Jesus from Nazareth.

    Comments

    1. jzm says:

      I like where you’re going, Carl.

      In addition to the semantics of the word Christian, I’ve wondered if some of the confusion lies in how people define what it does, and doesn’t, mean to “believe” in Jesus. For example, two types of belief: 1.) “I believe this bungee cord will hold.” 2.) Jumping.

      Cause you’re right… Jesus didn’t say, “come and simply agree to these doctrinal statements” but “come, follow me.” (In other words, jump!)

    2. mcepl says:

      Nice article, but it seems to me couple of things are just suggested and not fully explained:

      a) What is “religious system”? What is exactly a difference between Christianity and Following Jesus? This article should be for CNN and not Christianity Today, right?

      b) Where does culture stand in relation to the type of Follower of Jesus (I mean American/Serbian/Czech/Lebanese/Irish Follower of Jesus)? Aren’t you actually talking about culture-free Christianity (i.e., not bringing American/European culture as part of the package)? Or is it even more complicated?

    3. Ian Stokes-Rees says:

      Carl,

      Your outline describes the semantic differences between the terms, but I’m not sure that is what they’re asking for. Instead, I would think the emphasis should be more about the “bounded set” (stepping over a line to “become a Christian”) vs. “centered set” (thinking about who Jesus was, growing in relationship with him, and considering how to shape your life around him).

      side comment: I’ve had good response from friends when I share a link your pieces on Facebook. The title and the first few sentences need share the main message for the “share” to be compelling to a third party (i.e. one of my contacts), and including some kind of graphic or photo goes a long way too.

      As always, I love your thoughts on this subject.

      Ian

    4. Carl Medearis says:

      Ian, wow….can you be my agent? Those are both good comments.

      I think you’re right on the first one – what they want/need. I’ll focus more on that.

      And good point about the “subject line” on a FB post. Pictures, now we’re getting too high tech. I just started this social media thing a few months ago…

    5. kvhuber says:

      I believe you are right about the label of “Christian” being perceived as pro-American, conservative, anti-gay, etc., in the Middle East. However, some of our politicians are proud to profess how “righteous” they are as Christians, but seemingly that are just intolerant of anyone different from them. I choose to be a Follower of Jesus as I do not want to be associated with these “Christians” in any way – in this country or in the Middle East or anywhere!

    6. miketodd07 says:

      Great piece Carl. I agree with you on the Christian label. At best it’s ambiguous, at worst it’s a conversation-stopper.

    7. Luke Parrott says:

      I think you have the ability to clearly see and articulate the social, cultural and historical nuances associated with the semantics of the word “Christian” from the time you have spent in Middle Eastern Culture.

      Many Western readers probably are unaware how pro-American the term “Christian” is to other parts of the world. But most readers are probably aware of how political (pro-life, anti-gay) the term can be.

      Helping the reader see the semantics of it all is helpful. But i think the end of the article should nudge the reader towards how intriguing the person of Jesus is and how much more challenging and illusive it is to truly follow his teachings rather than simply believe and adopt all the implications ones culture attaches to it.

    8. Brent says:

      hi, Carl! I think this is the key:

      “We still use the religious word “Christian” but we would never say that a True Christian is someone who adheres to the religious systems of Christianity. No, we would say that we follow Christ. Which we do – so why not just say that. Once again, say what we mean and mean what we say!”

      The fact is that many Christians DO believe that being a Christian means adhering to a particular religious system, or at least a particular list of doctrinal/political/social beliefs. This is the source of those negative perceptions you mention, and the main source (in various ways) of Gospel-subversion in our history. I think the point has to be made strongly that this is not what being a Christ follower is about. The delicate part is how to say it without making it sound like you’re saying millions of American Christians aren’t really following Jesus.

      Btw, love your stuff, Carl. I’m not in ministry, but I work w/ Muslims from East Africa and some of your work has been very helpful in navigating faith-conversations with my Muslim friends. Thanks so much!

    9. Hannah N says:

      It’s good stuff – particularly the discussion of religion under point 3.

      On a technical side, when you talk about Jesus telling John to follow him, do you mean Peter at the end of the book of John? (Sorry to nitpick, but it’s the kind of thing that I notice.)

    10. Carl Medearis says:

      Yes, it’s Jesus talking to John about Peter. I wasn’t very clear on that one!

    11. Peter B says:

      Hi Carl, Really good article – I’m always interested to read your thoughts on this type of stuff.

      I wonder if it’s actually more than symantics, but actually that the meme ‘christianity’ is broken. (meme as in the Richard Dawkins theory – not the daft stuff on the internet).

      Probably a bit high level for the CNN article, but I think it’s fair to say the whole package of information and connotations most people understand as ‘christian’ isn’t the same as Jesus’ teachings, or indeed biblical truth as a whole. It’s why you often get people talking about ‘christian values’ when they really mean something closer ‘contitutional rights’.

      On the other hand ‘follower of Jesus’ is much harder to subvert the meaning of the phrase, as we’ve always got the gospels to go back to. Plus, ‘follower of Jesus’doesn’t imply a supscription to the whole package of theology. You can can be a follower of Jesus without neccesarily believing he rose from the dead, or was the Son of God. As an entry point into a relationship with the living Jesus, this allows people a way to gradually discover him, rather than throwing them in at the deep end. The hope then being that the more they learn of Jesus, the more a ‘follower’ discovers his nature as their saviour.

      (sorry that ended up a longer comment that I was expecting – anyway, keep on working at it Mr Medearis, it’s all good stuff)

    12. JerryDavidRediger@hotmail.com says:

      I would offer that if the healing and feeding is the only thing the crowd loved Jesus for during His life on earth, then His life is irrelevant to me and everyone who lives, today.

      Minus the Cross and empty tomb I would not be a “follower of Jesus”. I don’t follow Him because He was a nice guy. I follow Him because I am crucified with Him that my body of sin would be destroyed and that He may live His sanctifying life through me as his surrendered (hopefully dead)instrument.

      The term “Christian” has always bothered me, too. I sometimes say to others that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Master. They seem to understand that a lot better. The idea that one professes he would rather be controlled by another — even our Creator and Redeemer — runs counterintuitive to the natural man and his dellusion of being master of his own fate.

    13. JerryDavidRediger@hotmail.com says:

      One more thought: While the cults may parade that they are in a relationship with God, Christians are in that it is the only doctrine which does not rely on personal merit to achieve salvation and favor with God. One who is woking to earn favor with God is not His friend or in any other intimate relationship with Him. Jesus declared, “Now I call you friend….”

    14. Pierrerashad says:

      “In the Middle East, as in much of the world, being Christian means that you are pro-American. Probably conservative in your political outlook. Pro-war. Anti-choice. Anti-gay rights. And someone who wants your money for some cause and makes you feel guilty that you don’t go to church on Sunday. ”

      This definition of “Christian” may be common in the US, but it certainly is not common in the middle east. Do you really think that common middle easterners criticize Christians for being against abortion and gay rights???

      Muslims criticize the “Christian West” for being PRO gay, not “anti-gay rights”.

      It seems you are confusing the contexts here.

    15. Carl Medearis says:

      Pierre

      actually, the word “Christian” is very common and quite well understood in the Middle East.

      And you’re right about them confusing that word with being pro-gay or pro-abortion. Another good reason to NOT use it. Thanks for that…..

    16. Perhaps I’m not being very clear.

      What I’m saying is that in this article, you are applying Western misconceptions about Christianity to the Middle Eastern context.

      The average Mid-Easterner has a very different view of Christians than the average American. I was just surprised because I thought you would know the Arab context better than to say that they think Christians are conservative, anti-gay, and anti-abortion.

      Your last comment seems to indicate you have reversed that position- which is your stance- the article or the comment?

      As I mentioned before, the Arab view of the west is that they are pro-gay, and that is objectionable to most Muslims.

      But abortion is a different matter- Islam actually permits early term abortions, although there is controversy over what that means exactly.

      And the whole “guilty that you don’t go to church on Sunday” thing- that’s completely American!

      Anyway, yes, the West and Christianity have plenty of baggage for people in the Middle East, but it’s not about the WORD “Christianity”. Even if you don’t use that word, that baggage is still there, and you have to deal with that.

      You are a Westerner, and Mid-Easterners know that, no matter what labels you avoid. But it’s important to understand how Muslims view you when you do dodge those labels.

      Americans understand when you want to redefine terms and labels. But, in my experience, when Arabs see you do that, they just think you’re ashamed and/or lying.

    17. agoerner says:

      Carl,
      We need to define our terms and what we mean by “God”, “Jesus”, “Christian”, “follwer”, etc. We even need to define the term “Bible” and whether or not we are talking about 66 books. The church has been defining terms for centuries with creeds and confessions.

      1. agoerner says:

        Carl,
        What is the role of creeds and confessions in your being a “follower of Jesus”? For me, they include the:
        Nicene Creed
        Apostle’s Creed
        Westminster Confession
        Heidelberg Catechism

    18. Monicus Peregrinus says:

      Good article. I spend a good bit of time in Central Asia and I use “follower of Jesus” to define my faith. I found that most people are very open to this where as the word Christian shuts the conversation down quickly.

    19. Carl Medearis says:

      One mistake that is easy to make is this – that we simply replace the word “Christian” with the term “follower of Jesus.” That’s possible (and would be better than the term “Christian” for sure), but that’s not my intent at all….

      My point is this – I am actually following Jesus. It’s not a title. Not the name of a religion (I don’t belong to one) and it’s not a noun (like “Christian”). It simply and accurately describes who I am and what I do. I follow Jesus.

      So the Creeds of the church are helpful to define Christianity and some good theology. But I’m not discussing that here….it’s for another blog I guess. 🙂

    20. ericscholten76 says:

      I lived for a few years in the middle east. My primary work was to make known the gospel among Muslim peoples. The term Christian was loaded with baggage among Muslims with whom I spoke. When I said I was a Christian, it meant that I was nominal in my spirituality, but drank alcohol and ate pork. It also meant that I believed in 3 Gods and thought that God had intercourse with Mary in order to bring Jesus into the world. Because of this, I almost always used the “follower of Jesus” terminology. Even in that, I had to be careful of what term I used for Jesus. If I used the Muslim term, “Isa”, my hearer heard, “prophet only.” If I used the “Christian” term, “Yesua,” my hearer often heard, “the leader of the religion of alcohol and barbecue.” I ended up using the term, “Messiah.” This seemed to communicate the very distinct nature of this one whom I followed, but also allowed the conversation to continue with the least amount of baggage.

      This brings up a huge point when talking about making disciples. We have to do the hard work of exegeting the culture and contextualizing our message. It takes time and listening ears to understand the barriers to the gospel in any culture (even our own). As we continue to understand these barriers we must learn to communicate in a way that overcomes. We struggle with this in the western church because we are submerged in our own church subculture so much that we fail to see that the culture around us continues to change shape and redefine barriers.

      This is hard work, but it is an absolute necessity if we are going to faithfully communicate what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

    21. kogflag says:

      Carl,

      I’ve read Speaking of Jesus and I’ve read this post and the comments but I’m still not sure what you mean by “following Jesus”. Could you provide a definition, maybe something like: “Look at the four Gospels. Look at what Jesus said to do; when the opportunities arise to do them, do them. Look at what Jesus said not to do. When the opportunities arise to do them, don’t do them. Here’s a list of all the things he said to do and here’s a list of all the things he said not to do…”

    22. Sean says:

      There is a fine line between a C4 movement and a C5 movement (insider movement)…. most of it is just semantics. We need to build bridges and I congradulate Carl for doing this, but make sure, we don’t park on the bridge.

    23. cousinkc says:

      I’ll suggest an analogy that may not ask for as much controversy:
      “Biblically, I’m a saint living in the last days. Does that make me a Latter-Day Saint?”
      People usually get it when I say it that way.