In the five years I’ve been a lay worship leader in rural Nova Scotia, I’ve started to realize the same ideas keep appearing in my sermons: “Love God, and love your neighbours.” Sunday after Sunday, no matter the subject, I always return to Jesus’ two commandments. And as I reflect on current events, I’ve developed a second mantra: “The world needs more Jesus.”
In fact, I’m convinced he’s all we need. His ministry provides the guidelines for leading an ethical, compassionate and inclusive life. For this reason, the term “Jesus follower” resonated with me when I first encountered it while researching and reading contemporary Christian authors. It seems a much better description of my faith than “Christian.”
Author Benjamin L. Corey highlights the difference between the two terms. “‘Christian’ can mean a million different things,” he wrote in a 2014 Patheos article. “‘Jesus follower’ is a little more definable because by definition, this would be an individual who is living a life that follows the example we find in Jesus. I’m proud to be a Christian, but I long to be a Jesus follower.”
Young evangelicals and fundamentalists coined the term many years ago. In the past, I would have recoiled from it simply because of that association. But as I’ve contemplated what I believe and why, I know that “Jesus follower” is a label I’m comfortable with (although you won’t catch me wearing a T-shirt declaring it).
For me, part of the shift to identifying as a Jesus follower rather than a Christian is an attempt to distance myself from a religion increasingly associated with judging, excluding and persecuting — entirely opposite to what I hear the Gospels telling me. To follow Jesus means something specific and, paradoxically, separate. The more scriptures I read and sermons I write, the more I have come to see how convoluted and messed up the message of Christianity has become. We seem to be more about buildings and rules than faith and mission.
For all these reasons, saying “I’m a Christian” feels loaded and unwelcoming. As former religion columnist Lisa Miller explained in a 2009 Newsweek article, advocates for the “Jesus follower” label believe it “doesn’t carry baggage. You can wear it abroad, in Islamic countries, or at home with your Jewish or Buddhist friends, without causing offense.”
Canadian author Sarah Bessey also liked the freedom of the term when she became disillusioned with the church. However, she realized she had to figure out what being a Jesus follower actually meant. “If I was going to orient my life around some guy named Jesus,” she writes, “it had to be more than a rejection of Christianity.”
Why do I want to be a Jesus follower? Because what he calls us to do is clear and concise: “Love God, and love each other.” It’s challenging, but I find myself embracing the hard work. I don’t need to reject Christianity to be a Christian. I just need to, as Bessey says, align myself with Jesus.
Rev. Nancy Nourse of Calgary’s Northminster United wonders if identifying as a Jesus follower comes with more accountability, too. “Perhaps saying we are Christian keeps faith [and] religion at a greater distance. But when we say we follow Jesus, does it give us a more clear direction to resist empire, be more welcoming, live lives that reach to the margins, shine the light on justice issues?” From my experience, the answer to Nourse’s question is yes — which is why the world needs more Jesus.
Sara Jewell is a writer in Port Howe, N.S.
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