There’s a lot of discussion in youth ministry circles about raising up young leaders. But how about the less appealing subject of following? Dr Andrew Smith believes that discipleship and leadership begin with following well, and that we can often overlook the precious gift of being a good follower – to the detriment of our young people.
There’s an 11 year-old lad I know who is a member of a church youth group. He joins in with everything enthusiastically and on the whole contributes to the life of the group. He is, however, a classic follower. If there’s a trip announced his first question is ‘Who’s going?’; if there’s an event that involves dressing up he wants to be 100 per cent sure that everyone else will be dressed up before he goes. Fitting in with the crowd matters to him, whereas standing out or going against the flow are concepts that just turn him off straight away.
I wonder how many young people like this are in the groups you run? I suspect that there are several in every group. People who want to belong to a group who are constantly checking what everyone else is wearing or doing and wanting to fit in with them. So how do we as youth workers disciple and nurture faith in a natural follower rather than a born leader? Being someone who follows the crowd is rarely painted in a positive light. It suggests someone unwilling to have or live by their own moral and ethical code. ‘If your friends all jumped off a cliff would you jump as well?’ is a standard retort from teachers if anyone in trouble says they only did something wrong because everyone else did it. To follow is often portrayed as being weak. It’s very easy in church to reinforce this image of followers as people who need to be challenged and changed. We urge young people not to follow their peers as they will almost certainly lead them away from Christ and almost certainly into a debauched life of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I might be overstating the case here but when I interviewed young people about peer pressure they all said that it was a common theme in youth groups and that it was always negative. Peers, they were taught, shouldn’t be followed as following was bound to end in trouble.
Over the past few years there have been many good young leaders courses developed for youth groups which have challenged the Church to take seriously the gifts and skills of young people. These, on the whole, have been great for encouraging young people to develop and use their God-given skills. They have also challenged the young people to stand up for their faith in a society which can be at best indifferent to Christianity and sometimes hostile. However, in our desire to raise up leaders and Christians prepared to ‘go
against the flow’ or to stand up for their faith whatever the situation, have we alienated or turned off those young people who just want to fit in and follow the crowd?
Asking this question might seem outrageous. Surely Jesus called us to follow him whatever the consequences! Isn’t the lesson from Peter’s denial of Jesus that we should not try to fit in like he did but be ready to stand up for Jesus however difficult it is? Isn’t it our job to show young people how the gospel offers a contrary message of hope compared to the messages we get through the media and wider society? Now I want to say ‘Yes’ to that but I also want to say ‘Yes, but…’ I don’t think that those very clear challenges are the totality of what the Bible teaches on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Being a real disciple
Talk of being a disciple of Jesus might conjure up all sorts of images of what it might look like in practice - fundamentally it means being a follower or learner. As disciples we are called to follow Jesus. That was the simple command he gave to Peter, James and John (Matthew 4:18-22). Being willing to follow, to go with the right crowd, is actually at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So being a follower is not always to be seen as a negative character trait. The question is not how we stop people being followers but how we encourage them to follow the right people. Consequently, encouraging people to ‘follow well’ is a primary task of any Christian leader. This might mean that we need to refocus some of our teaching to emphasise the importance of following and what a gift it is to be able to follow faithfully. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him it wasn’t a call to listen, or to speak or to perform great acts of faith – although it included all of them – rather it was a call to follow, it was the act of following that led to all these actions and situations. The disciples followed Jesus into a storm, to quiet places to pray, to parties with tax collectors and sinners, into Samaria and to Jerusalem. They followed him to hillsides where they heard him teach, to friend’s houses where they relaxed and to mountains where they saw him miraculously transfigured. All they learnt of who Jesus was and the purpose of his ministry came, ultimately, through the constant act of following.
So when we are talking to our young people about standing up for their faith we need to teach that the reason we do this is not because we are challenged to be tough or brave but because we are challenged to follow
Jesus so closely that we follow him into these situations. This changes the dynamic of these encounters, we are no longer on our own against the world or asking Jesus to help us as we stand up for him but asking Jesus where he is going so that we can follow him there. It’s not him helping us, it’s us following him.
I hope you can see by now that following is both a good and important quality for Christians. This might seem counter-intuitive but that might be because we’ve focused so much on standing out against the crowd that we’ve lost sight of Jesus’ simple and fundamental call to follow. Consequently the natural followers in our groups have got an important gift that we should affirm and nurture and also be willing to learn from.
It is important to note that Jesus didn’t just call one disciple, he called a group and they followed together. The 12 apostles were supplemented by the 72 disciples who are mentioned, and then there were the crowds who also wanted to follow. Jesus created a community of followers who together would live and learn from him. There have been lots of good discussions recently about the importance of creating a place of belonging for young people and this is exactly what Jesus did in calling a community. In creating a place of belonging we also have the opportunity to form a community of young people committed to following Jesus together. For young people who are natural followers, creating a community where they can follow Jesus and be his disciples enables them to use this gift of following in a constructive and positive way. It also affirms their natural inclination rather than constantly challenging them to behave in ways they find difficult.
Following, of course, doesn’t mean an unthinking blind obedience. They questioned Jesus and when some turned away he didn’t stop them (John 6:60-66). I’m certainly not advocating that we suggest to young people that we take our brains out, or lose our identity when we follow Jesus. The disciples still had to choose every day whether to go with Jesus, and as we read the Gospels we see real people with their own identities successes and weaknesses. What Jesus managed to do so brilliantly was to bring this group together and inspire them to keep on following him, together, wherever he went. That is the model we need to live out and teach our young people. Together we follow. It is, therefore, crucial that Christian leaders are also good followers. We only lead because we have followed Jesus to a place of leadership. We do not seek it out or aspire to it but hear God’s calling and follow.
Learning from the followers
I hope by now you’ve got the message that being a good follower is vital to discipleship. I wonder, though, how many of us are very good at it. With an emphasis in society (and often in our churches) on individualism,
questioning authority and doing what makes us feel good, we can fall into the trap of teaching that following is worse than leading, and lose our ability to be good followers. So perhaps the natural followers in our groups have something to teach us. Perhaps we should listen more closely to the questions they ask, or the concerns they have, and use them to inform our discipleship. ‘Who’s going?’ might be seen as blindly following the crowd but it can also be a critical assessment of whether we should do something. Who’s
going from our community of fellow disciples? Is this where followers of Jesus go? ‘Will we fit in?’ is not just an immature longing for a group identity but can also be a check to see whether what we teach and do fits in with orthodox Christian teaching. Are other Christians doing this? Did people in the Bible say these things? In asking these questions we can look to whether we are following with others or just doing our own sweet little thing. Of course we need to remain critical; other Christians might be doing and saying all sorts of things that are contrary to scripture (and so might we), but learning from our brothers and sisters and checking against the Bible can lead us into new depths of discipleship as we follow into new places.
I wonder if we can also be a bit more radical here in how we teach our young people. Whether we like it or not they will all follow different people to a greater or lesser degree, both people inside the Church and outside of it. As I’ve said we can be very good at painting a negative picture of how our non-Christian peers can lead us away from Christ and into bad habits. But is that always true and is the idea that non-Christians are always a bad influence a helpful message for young people? I think not. To refer back to the research I did with young people around peer pressure, I discussed with them whether peers could ever influence them in a positive way. This was a new idea for many of the young people and they struggled to find answers. Some were positive in a negative way e.g. they can encourage you not to smoke or not to do drugs. However, when I asked them about specific friends the story changed. I happened to be asking them about Muslim friends but I suspect you’d find some more positive answers whatever the background of the friends. In this situation the Christians talked about how they were inspired to pray after seeing the example of their friends, and some said their friend’s confidence in Islam made them more confident to speak out about Christianity and so it went on. The lesson that emerged was that peer pressure is not all a negative force to be feared but that it
can lead to positive attitudes and behaviour. In our teaching, rather than condemn peer pressure - thereby making the natural born followers feel inadequate - we need to give our young people the skills to critically assess who they are following and whether they are good people to follow.
I’m sure we all have people in our groups, like the lad I described, who are natural followers. My concern is that so much of our teaching focuses on leadership and standing out that we rarely consider how we effectively disciple the followers. Yet following is at the heart of discipleship. Affirming following is biblical, encouraging to the followers and a challenge to those of us who like to lead and feel confident being individualistic and striking out on our own. The followers can become our teachers if we are willing to attend to their needs and listen to their wisdom. Jesus said ‘Come follow me’ - let’s obey that command together with our young people.
DR ANDREW SMITH is the director of interfaith relations for the Bishop of Birmingham.