The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Life together: Fans and followers

Posted by Ron George on May 15, 2013

Church art by John Rizzuto

Church art photograph by John Rizzuto
An architectural vision of heaven

Our Sunday school class has been spending a lot of time lately discussing degrees of devotion. We studied Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together last fall, and now we’re plowing through Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan. Both works challenge conventional Christianity but from entirely different perspectives.Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian and pastor, wanted to reform the state church of Germany, which he saw not only as complacent but as compliant to national socialism, which resulted in a takeover of the church by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party. Bonhoeffer loved the church and he loved Germany, but he was a severe critic of what both had become. He was persecuted for his criticism – banned from teaching and preaching – and he was executed for participating in plots to assassinate Hitler. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer proposes a communal solution to what ailed the church of his day.

Idleman wants to fix the church by fixing its members one by one. He’s teaching pastor for the fifth largest Christian congregation in the United States, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. He is said to address 20,000 people every weekend. In Not a fan, Idleman maintains that it’s not enough for Christians to be Jesus fans – a word, by the way, derived from fanaticbut that all ought to become followers, people who take up their cross daily. Fans are on the sidelines; followers are in the game, according to Idleman. Jesus, he says, consistently calls on his disciples to be followers not fans.

Kyle Idleman Not a Fan

Kyle Idleman
Author of Not a Fan

Bonhoeffer Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Author of Life Together

Bonhoeffer and Idleman tackle issues that are as old as Christianity itself – older, actually, because Judaism continuously struggled within itself to bring the fervor of the few into the lives of the many – the most of us who, in Idleman’s view and probably Bonhoeffer’s as well, would rather watch than play. I have no doubt that this is a conversation in every faith tradition ever devised by humankind. Devotion, like so many things in this life, from politics to college athletics, spans a continuum of commitment ranging from pure indifference to total fanaticism. (At Texas A&M University in College Station, for example, “true Aggies” look down their noses at “two-percenters,” referring to those who are not committed to whatever passes for tradition on campus and who don’t refer to themselves as “bleeding maroon.”)

Reform always takes aim at complacency, indifference and hypocrisy. Jesus was such a reformer who loved God, Judaism and everything it stood for – the law, the prophets, the wisdom, the Temple – but he clearly despised the superstructure of governance that had controlled these religious institutions for centuries, the vested interests of a religious establishment as well as the epidemic ignorance of the masses. Jesus wasn’t the only reformer in first-century Palestine. Sectarian movements of various kinds – religious and political – flourished in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ movement might have come and gone, forgotten, except that he took it to Jerusalem and got in the face of the religious establishment and the Roman Empire.

Stabnaw Country Church

The Country Church by Wayne Stabnaw

Reform seeks to revive something original about the tradition it seeks to repair. Church reform invariably admonishes us to recall the fervor of Jesus’ first generation of followers, those who were willing to die for the gospel as did all of the apostles; and yet, we must also recall that not everyone of that first generation was willing to die – and that they were admonished by reformers (Paul, for example) to live up to the aspirations of their faith.

Paul complained to the church in Corinth that “when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1 Corinthians 11.20-21) First-century Christians were vain, petty, gossipy, quarrelsome – some were fans, others followers. Jesus himself turned away would-be disciples who weren’t ready to commit unconditionally to his movement. He is even said to have taught that some who were disciples also were worthy of condemnation: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven …” (Matthew 7.21)

The need for reform seems to be inevitable, so much so that I wonder whether we ought to think about it less as intervention than as a continuous, evolutionary process calling for self-examination and willingness to change. Now, that sounds familiar, a little like Lent.

Reformation is simply part of our DNA, and it requires all of what Bonhoeffer and Idleman have to offer by way of critique but also an interior disposition within members of the body of Christ – as a group as well as individually – to let ourselves be changed by degrees into better versions of ourselves.

The question is, what will that look like?

Bonhoeffer’s vision was that of a discrete community of people willing to engage the Bible and each other, corporately and individually, through confession, prayer, worship and study. He established a small, unauthorized seminary in protest to the Nazi takeover of the Lutheran church in Germany and insisted that its students embrace a disciplined routine composed of these elements. He wrote Life Together based on this experience. The book challenges Christians to throw off conventional notions of what it means to be a Christian and to reform the church as a community devoted to justice and peace based on biblical values.

Idleman is less clear about what it takes to be a fan not a follower of Jesus, but he makes quite clear what a follower is not: the kind of Christian most of us are. We’re easy targets because our churches are not structured to lead us into sacrificial ways of life. We’re believers without a cause, except to support our congregations with our prayers, our presence our gifts and our service. We’re joiners, and we prefer to join with others like ourselves; in my case, that would be white, middle-class and reasonably law abiding. We’re shoppers: We expect something in return for our investment of time, talent and treasure; a decent youth group and Sunday school program, perhaps, or an entertaining worship experience that affirms my values and secures my destiny.

Idleman is right: It’s hard being a follower of Jesus, harder than most are willing to take on; but I’m not so sure it isn’t almost as hard to hear, in truth, just how far short of the mark most of us have fallen. Some of the most committed Christian people I know in Sunday school, sure-fire followers in my book, have had their head in their hands reading Not a Fan.

I wonder whether the church has fallen so far from what seemed to be its calling 2,000 years ago because it did not see clearly the kind of world it lived in, a world coming to an end, soon, with Jesus neatly separating the sheep from the goats. Whatever the church was then – and we’re not exactly sure although Acts of the Apostles gives us a somewhat refined image – its world did not come to an end and so began the long haul, millennia of one reform after another, trying to discover its true form.

It’s sobering but true that most Christians most of the time, content with their faith and spiritual practices, are not true to what the gospel of Jesus requires of its disciples – self-sacrifice in witness to the world of the love of God in Christ Jesus. It doesn’t mean we’ll burn in hell, but it makes more likely that the only life we’ll ever have in the only world we’ll ever know will be more hellish than it ought to be.

Don’t take my word for it. Just look around.


3 Responses to “Life together: Fans and followers”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    So nice to find another of your very thoughtful and thought-provoking reads in my emailbox. Like the others earlier, this one will require my reading and re-reading several times; It is so dense and I find myself discovering some notion that I hadn’t seen the first or second time through. Keep it up.

  2. Anonymous said

    Jim, I totally agree. Dad, that last paragraph actually caused a fear to rise up in my heart. The whole post has put me in a state of reflection about my own faith and how I act on it. Michelle and I are faced with finding another church due to ours (The Commons) shutting it’s doors for good. When we talk about it, I find us discussing the very things you mentioned here:

    “We’re believers without a cause, except to support our congregations with our prayers, our presence our gifts and our service. We’re joiners, and we prefer to join with others like ourselves; in my case, that would be white, middle-class and reasonably law abiding. We’re shoppers: We expect something in return for our investment of time, talent and treasure; a decent youth group and Sunday school program, perhaps, or an entertaining worship experience that affirms my values and secures my destiny.”

    We’ve discussed looking for the one place that has the best ministry, the most active service opportunities, a great children’s ministry (for when we get to that point), and the list goes on. It begins to sound more like a talk about joining the newest and coolest social club than a church. The discussions last for awhile, involving all of what I just mentioned and then I begin to think about what we just talked to each other about. I realize that we’re talking of taking the safe route into a church, the safest ministry opportunities that church may provide, and the most milquetoast approach to sacrifice and service.

    I’ve thought to myself privately about what it means to be an “active Christian” (what I like to call it) and how I could go about doing what Jesus intended for us to do. I’ve even come up with solutions. But fear always gets me in the end. I’m a little afraid to have the discussion with Michelle. I fear that I may actually have to WORK for my faith. I fear that I may be beaten back, in the non-violent kind of way, to a corner and forced into the white, middle-class, and safe environs of the modern church.

    This is what I miss about this blog of yours. It is so insightful and informative and it gets me thinking heavily. Intelligent writing is the best writing!


  3. Jim Abbott said

    Ron, Wow, the last paragraph blew me away. I have been struggling with the “consolation of heaven” – after re-starting NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and some comments from our local Episcopal priest. This post deserves some real thought, and a longer reply. Be at Peace.

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