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.