Over the past few weeks, my mind has been contemplating this observation: our primary call as Christians is to follow rather than lead.
This is a tough pill to swallow in an individualistic society that praises influencers and CEOs, celebrities, and world leaders who are larger than life. Following seems so passive. So dependent. Extreme followers seem to hang on every word of their influencers, waiting for the next notification to pop up on their phones, so they may drop the next pithy comment to get noticed. “Be a leader, not a follower,” the popular saying goes. Followers get a bad rap, don’t they?
Following in and of itself is not inherently wrong, but who we follow matters. Who we follow can make the difference between whether we are empowered or disempowered. Who we follow can make the difference between being heard or being silenced.
As Christians, we are to be considered “followers of Jesus.” Following requires a sort of faithfulness, the placement of trust in another outside of yourself. Those who have endured the heartache of broken trust know that following is not so passive. But there can be powerful agency in choosing who we follow… who we allow to lead our lives and our future.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, understood this quite well. He didn’t set out to lead a movement. He didn’t set out to create a whole denomination. He was concerned that the Church he loved was not following through with the commitment to love all neighbors, especially the poor. How could one say that they followed Christ while denying marginalized individuals the opportunity to hear the word of God? How could one refuse the ability to commune with other believers solely because of economic status? Through his methodical way of studying God’s word, engaging with God, and building accountability groups, he was empowered to follow the nudges from the Holy Spirit: to go where the needy were, meeting them where they were instead of beckoning them to come to the lavish buildings that shunned or dismissed them. Wesley remained faithful to his call from God, enabling him to grow deeper as a follower. And you know the funny thing? People started following him. He became a leader, an influencer, by following the ultimate influencer.
In our baptismal liturgy, we are asked three questions:
· Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
· Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
· Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races? (Baptismal Covenant I, Book of Worship)
When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, as the primary influencer over our lives, hate, injustice, and oppressive tendencies are no longer permitted to reign through our actions. Love must be the center of our lives and the yardstick with which we measure our faithfulness to God, our creator. We declare that we will trust in the one who gave His life for our sake so that we may be able to partner with God in something greater than ourselves: to help heal our broken world.
However, with faithfulness comes trusting in things unknown (it’s why it’s called faithful). When we put our full faith in God, we may not know or understand the end goal or the steps in between to get there (incredibly frustrating for the type A, planning types like myself). At the same time, God doesn’t ask us to trust God blindly. We are free to interrogate and ask questions of our scripture and tradition by engaging them through our experience and reason. Often, through this questioning, a closer relationship with God begins. In this intimate relationship with God, we trust that God will reveal the next steps for us to take despite the unknown. We pray that we will be courageous enough to recognize those next steps and humble enough to follow them.
The United Methodist Church yet again faces another postponement of General Conference, our primary legislative body of the Church, leaving many of our ongoing conflicts unresolved. What does faithfulness look like now? Faithfulness looks like remembering who we are faithful to and recognizing that our call as Christians to make disciples for the transformation of the world does not cease. Our global conference is halted, but our ministry must not. Faithfulness is following the call that God gives each and every one of us. Granted, as a sage Facebook post once said, “Not everyone will understand your calling. That’s ok. It wasn’t a conference call.” Even Jesus’s hometown didn’t understand his call: their denial did not negate him from having one (or pursuing it for that matter!). Each one of us has a unique call, spiritual gifts, and role in transforming the world for the glory of God, something that no conference can take away from you.
So who is your influencer? Who do you follow?
In this season of waiting, may we be still enough to seek the guidance of our ultimate influencer that we have pledged to put our primary faith and hope into. May we be the followers that hang on to every bit of our living Word and seek to hear God’s voice calling us in the midst of the noise. And may the Holy Spirit allow us to discern the agency that God has empowered us with for the here and now. Who knows where (or how) our following might lead?
Shandon Klein is a certified candidate for the order of Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and a lay delegate to General Conference. She currently serves at First United Methodist Church Richardson as a ministry associate and is finishing her first year of doctoral work in Religious Ethics through the Graduate Program of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University. Shandon has a passion for the planting of multiethnic churches and bridging the gap between academia and the local church.