The Art of Followship
Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own (Stu’s) sermons, as I was trying to help the congregation make a paradigm shift from the church as a building, to the people of God:
So, what exactly is a disciple? On one level the answer is simple: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. Now in our culture, the word “follower” is often quite negative: a follower is the opposite of a leader. And we are all called to be leaders, at least according to our culture.
Leadership is an entire genre for books, for conferences, etc… If you can still find a brick and mortar bookstore, you will find a leadership section.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen a follower section in a bookstore, have you? Now “followers” as a term has gained some popularity in recent years because of social media. Instagram and Twitter enable people both famous and almost famous to try to build their own brand by gaining “Followers”. But again, the whole point is that you need to be a leader, so that other people can follow you.
So isn’t it interesting that the primary word for people who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior is the word “follower:? (disciple) Now in the context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was a follower not just in a general sense, but also in a particular way. A disciple tended to be either a pupil, someone that would sit at the feet of a master or be an apprentice in some sort of trade.
And I think there is something to this, that even for the first disciples, they never graduated into something else. They always remained disciples, that is followers of Jesus.
And one of the many reasons for this is that a disciple is always in a position of humility, right? They are never the master with all the answers, but always the ones who sit at the feet of Jesus. So being a disciple is to be a follower, but not just in a casual way. An apprentice or a pupil has essentially given up a whole variety of opportunities to follow the one master. We can follow a lot of things, sports teams, musicians, politicians, etc…but to be a disciple of someone is to turn your life over to them and ask that their wisdom might help direct your life. So that’s discipleship…it’s following Jesus every day, becoming more and more like Him.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon: Matt.28: The Art of Followship.
Defining What it Means to “Follow”
Jesus made it fairly simple, at least to start. He said, “Follow me.” The word follow, diluted by our culture, begs for a biblical definition. In English, you can follow the directions (or not); you can follow a sports team (by simply reading the paper or watching TV); you can “follow your bliss” (though that might not get you beyond yourself); you can follow someone on Twitter (even if you don’t actually know them).
When Jesus invited a group of first-century Jewish fishermen and political Zealots to follow him, he didn’t mean “Let’s just keep in touch.” He literally meant, “Come with me, right now. Live as I live. Learn a way of life and faith from me by watching.” And some people did, but others did not. It was hardly surprising that young men working in their father’s fishing business walked away from that. The most highly revered career in that time was to be a rabbi. To “give up” a blue-collar job to become the follower of a rabbi (and therefore go into training as a potential future rabbi) was a no-brainer.
The Difference Between Jesus and Mental Patients
Some years ago I received a letter from a young man I knew slightly. ‘I have just made a great discovery,’ he wrote. ‘Almighty God had two sons. Jesus Christ was the first; I am the second.’ I glanced at the address at the top of his letter. He was writing from a well-known psychiatric hospital. There have of course been many pretenders to greatness and to divinity.
Psychiatric hospitals are full of deluded people who claim to be Julius Caesar, the prime minister, the president of the United States or Jesus Christ. But no-one believes them. No-one is deceived except themselves. They have no disciples, except perhaps their fellow patients. They fail to convince other people for the simple reason that they don’t actually seem to be what they claim to be. Their claims are not supported by their character.
Following Can Be Harder than Leading
My experience with following indicates that it can be even more difficult than leading. Following requires humility, risk, attention, awareness and guts. It means serving someone else’s agenda and following her or his cues. Following requires that I let go of my own way and trail the leader. But everything in me resists trailing behind someone else, especially when I think I can make my own way or lead just as well. Following for any length of time tests both character and steadfastness.
Following: Harder than it Looks
Recently I had to follow another car to a destination. Sounds easy, right? The responsibility of getting where I needed to go rested on the shoulders of the leader; all I had to do was follow. But I found out that following is not for the faint of heart. The leader squeaked through yellow traffic lights; I got stuck on red.
As I waited, more and more cars got between me and the lead car. I determined to catch up, so I shot through yellow (or red) lights and hoped that the lead car would wait somewhere up ahead. I caught up. Then dutifully trailing behind, I followed the leader as we headed out of town and onto open road. Maybe this will be easier, I thought. But no: the lead car went faster than I liked and took passing risks that made me cringe. Furthermore, when I wanted to stop for gas, the leader disagreed and said that we could make it to the gas station at the next exit.
A Literal Kind of Following
A rabbi’s followers, known as his talmidim in Hebrew, went everywhere with him, not just to hang on his every word and learn theology from him. They followed him everywhere so that they could mimic what he did. They didn’t just want to know what he knew; they wanted to do what he did, live as he lived. Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg note:
To follow a rabbi…involved a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did—from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived…. This approach to teaching is much more like a traditional apprenticeship than a modern classroom.
Jesus still says to us today, “Follow me.” He never told us to gain a lot of knowledge about him, but rather, to be with him, to remain in him (see John 15), and then, to live as he would in our place—to do what he did.
Playing Second Fiddle
An Admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”