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Followership: Not What You Think It Means

8 years ago written by

Spellcheck does not consider “followership” a word. No matter how many times I type “followership” for this article, that persistent, squiggly red line beneath it tells me: “This term does not exist in common English

Even in dictionaries, “followership” is usually defined by its inverse relation to leadership — “the capacity to follow a leader.” No one has come to terms with this word on its own. What does it mean to follow well? 

Marketing and business gurus have made fortunes telling us how to lead others
effectively. No one has opened a Swiss bank account on the earnings from teaching how to follow. But which one did Jesus first command us to do?

“Come, follow me” (Matthew 4:19). In fact, it’s His first command, period.

Learning to follow has become especially difficult in current culture. Millennials, and increasingly older generations, no longer consider denominational or even local church affiliations binding. Loyalties, if we retain any at all, shift with our needs and interests. Trust in institutions such as church, government, school or marriage is at its lowest since the baby boomers broke out a Beatles’ style “Revolution.” (“You tell me it’s the institution. Well, you know, you’d better free your mind instead.”)

So how do those institutions, namely the church, cultivate followership in a population so determined to follow no one and nothing? What does it mean to follow Jesus in an age of shifting commitments?

Here is where we find the ultimate in counterculturalism. At her best, a Christian leader does not ask people to follow her. She asks people to join her in following Jesus. People are used to following other people. Witness eager followers of celebrities, sports figures, cult leaders and even terrorists. They are not used to being told: “Don’t make me your idol. Make me your companion as we both take the pilgrim path behind the One who created it.” It’s difficult to establish loyalty this way. But it’s easier to make disciples.

Maybe that’s the golden ticket. Maybe the place to relearn following is the place where we strip away all we have followed and find the core of what, why and whom we should follow. Perhaps the younger generations are leading us down the best road possible — that of paring down what we’ve blindly followed and purifying what we should. It’s not a bad thing to rediscover our loyalties where they should have been all along. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Come, follow me”?

Come Away From Other Loyalties

Despite the commitment-averse declaration of any generation, the truth is that we all follow something. Like geese imprinted from birth to follow and accept as “mother” the first figure that appears, we are born needing to find the image imprinted on our hearts. Many don’t realize that it is the image of God. Nevertheless, the feeling we must belong to something is an undeniable human reality. We all follow something.

Unfortunately, in the church, that something often confuses our culture and our comfort with our God. Thus, theimage of what we are following gets blurred with a host of things attached to Jesus that often repel potential followers rather than attract.

Our God looks a lot like ourselves.

“Come, follow me.” In His language, Jesus was asking His disciples to come away or come out. “Follow” did not mean to trail behind someone like a groupie waiting for an autograph but to choose to leave behind one life and completely
enter another. Followers were to turn their backs to all other loyalties and priorities and turn their faces to Jesus alone. It was a radical change of focus.

That others do not want to follow our Jesus may have something to do with the reality that we do not leave behind the things we should. We talk about following Jesus, but our political, cultural, economic or personal glasses continue to filter every decision we make and every opinion we form. We are the tourists traipsing along behind the tour guide, getting sidetracked by sore feet and street vendors when our Guide is trying to point out the great kingdom sights for which we came.

If we want the church to be a place people come to practice followership, we need to follow Jesus — not a political party, country, doctrine, church style or type, leader, or celebrity. Just Jesus. We need to filter all our decisions, opinions and actions through the lens of what He taught and did, not what we find safe to believe. “Come away and leave behind everything else” is a radical simplicity that appeals to those not interested in following the “everything else.”

Come Into Community

Jesus put His disciples into community. Paul did too. The disciples learned everything side by side, and several came out into smaller groups of community to learn leadership. Paul didn’t let Apollos remain a lone ranger believer but gave him teachers and a community. Wherever early Christians went, they created fellowships of followerships.

That should be a cautionary tale to those who would say they love Jesus but don’t want anything to do with the church. Jesus never offered that option. Remember Chris McCandless, the young man who died trying to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness (“Into the Wild”)? Other people can make the difference between life and death. It’s life-threatening to trust in your own ability to navigate yourself through the rapids of faith. In reality, we don’t know our own blind spots. And not knowing can wash us overboard.

Notice what Jesus and Paul do not do. They put people in community and under teaching, but they never suggest we sell our souls to one teacher. In fact, Paul does quite the opposite: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? … Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’”
(1 Corinthians 1:12–13, 31).

In less time than it takes to watch a trailer for the latest Christian video, I can count a dozen Christian leaders who have fallen from grace. In 30 seconds, I can list a half-dozen wildly popular teachers whose theology is questionable. Yet Christian celebrity culture not only follows these teachers, it worships them. If younger generations don’t choose to affiliate with the church, perhaps our obsession with following teachers rather than the Teacher is good reason for their suspicion.

While Paul urges followers to imitate him and other worthy believers, he also tells us to search the Scriptures and make sure what we are being taught is true. One of the values of following within community is that we can test those truths with one another. Followership requires community to search those Scriptures, talk about what we have found and learn together what we cannot discern alone.

It’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncomfortable. But trying to follow Christ without a community of fellow believers is simply not within Jesus’ scope of possibility. That means face-to-face, dysfunctional family community, not online safe-distance community.

If you want to ride in the Tour de France but you don’t want to do it with others, good luck. You either have to trail so far behind the rest of the pack that you risk getting lost or perform so incredibly that you’re far ahead of them. I know I am not that
incredible. Yes, others may cause wipeouts. Yes, others may be high maintenance. But they also encourage, direct and complete us in ways we desperately need to finish the race. They sharpen our skills and fill in the blanks we miss. Followership requires following in community.

Come Into Action

To a Jew in Jesus’ time, His invitation is clear. “Follow me” would have been immediately understood as a call to consider Jesus their rabbi (teacher): the one they would unquestionably imitate and the one with whom they would live life. That He called others, rather than waiting for others to come plead with Him for the chance (the more likely scenario for an acknowledged rabbi) displays already God’s intent to bless with grace and acceptance any who would come.

A follower watched his rabbi in all things. How the rabbi ate, he ate. How the rabbi walked, he walked. How the rabbi spoke, he spoke. A follower imitated his teacher’s actions constantly until they were his own. Followership is not a passive thing. It is an active, changing, always watchful lifestyle.

A follower does not hear teaching and then go home and think about what a great idea she just heard. She goes home and does it. A follower doesn’t study the Bible and congratulate himself on all the knowledge he’s storing up. He puts it into action immediately.

If you stood at your mother’s elbow and learned how to bake Christmas cookies, as I did, how much peppermint goodness would you consume if you simply thought happily about making those cookies every December? What if you strongly considered how important those cookies were, and you wrote cool magazine articles about how great they tasted? I am hungry thinking about it, but I will always be hungry unless I actually bake the cookies.

That is the reason for closely observing and imitating the cook. Learn to enjoy the fruits of acting like the teacher.

In the Bible, words like “believe” sound static to our modern English ear, but they are far from it. “Believe” is a verb in Jesus’ language. It is something you do, not something you assent to. A follower imitates the Messenger and the message. He does what Jesus does.

Ultimately, what Jesus did was to sacrifice Himself. This is the goal of our followership. Following means to give ourselves away daily. Imitation of the One we follow entails active sacrifice of whatever He asks. Followership is not cheap. As we have sometimes made it a cheap, passive thing, we have also made it unpalatable for many younger believers.

In “Interrupted,” Jen Hatmaker writes, “Not only was Communion a symbolic ritual, it was a new prototype of discipleship. Become a living offering, denying yourself for the salvation and restoration of humanity. Obedience to Jesus’ command is more than looking backward; it’s a present and continuous replication of His sacrifice. We don’t simply remember the meal; we become the meal.”

A list of proper beliefs doesn’t appeal to potential followers; action does.

Come Into Vulnerability 

Jesus’ first followers also knew that a rabbi would watch them constantly. He would question their actions, decisions and beliefs. He would leave no thought undiscovered, no behavior unexamined, no pattern unshaken. Anything they wanted to keep in the dark, He would throw into the daylight. It would be His right as the teacher. Are we, as followers, ready to submit to that kind of vulnerability before our Lord?

Jesus was after behavior formation. He wanted to develop discernment for future decision-making. He could simply have imparted information, but He knew that followers would need a change in their souls to truly follow, especially after He was gone from the earth. Thus, He didn’t offer “three ways to be a better tither” or “five principles of effective prayer.” He offered Himself as a mirror we must look into to see where we need to alter ourselves to better reflect Him.

Hagar describes Yahweh as “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). He always was and still is. To follow Jesus is to let Him turn around on the path, beckon us up toward Him and let Him probe at those planks in our eyes. It’s to be seen, as we are and as we can and will be, and not run away from the threat of it.

Can the church retain followers in an age of Facebook faith? Yes, but it needs to return to authenticity in whom and what we are following. Younger generations crave this authenticity, along with community, simplicity and value in the journey of faith. Fortunately, this is precisely what Jesus offers when He asks us to come, follow.

If the church wants to cultivate followership, the church must offer not a doctrine or a cause or a system. It must not suggest we follow a party, preacher or program. It must offer a leadership that follows Jesus, and must portray a Jesus worth following.

JILL RICHARDSON is a Free Methodist pastor, wife and mother sharing God’s grace through speaking, writing ( and living.

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