By Justin Rossow
What do you need to follow Jesus? That question came back to me again this week as Pastor Neuendorf and I were preparing to preach together on the Sunday before another school year begins; the Sunday of the Blessing of the Backpacks. As students pack their supplies for a new year, what might I pack that would help me be prepared for another year of faith and life? What do you need to follow Jesus?
On the one hand, the answer to that question is, quite simply, nothing. You don’t need anything more than you already have to begin, continue, or begin again the great adventure that is following Jesus.
In fact, Jesus has already been shaping you, guiding you, serving you, and equipping you. The Spirit of Jesus has already been calling you on and shaping your next step and holding you when you fall. Everything that has happened up to the point of you reading this paragraph in a blog about following Jesus has happened under the umbrella of God’s grace. You are not alone. You have never been alone. You will never be alone on this journey.
So on the one hand, you don’t need anything more than you already have right now to follow Jesus, because you have Jesus, and that’s all that really matters.
On the other hand, the deck seems stacked against the kind of joyful and engaging adventure I think Jesus had in mind when he said to the first disciples—when he said to you—“Follow me.” When I look at my life and my culture and the lives of the people I have loved and served, following Jesus often feels like standing on a people mover in an airport, but facing the wrong way: you can make progress, but moving forward is way harder than it’s supposed to be. And standing still is moving backwards.
Of course, according to my own sinful nature, I am blind, dead, and an enemy of God; and a corpse will only, always move in the direction of the people mover.
But I have also been joined to Jesus and his death and resurrection; I am already beginning the adventure of New Creation life now, ahead of time. I am not my own, I was bought at a price, and I have the Spirit of the Almighty God dwelling in me.
Even so, taking a small next step following Jesus can still seem like an insurmountable task. Faith can still seem naïve. Faithfulness can seem silly. And standing still is moving backwards.
In some sense, that duality between faith and unfaith in my life will remain until Jesus comes again and I no longer struggle with sin in the world or sin in my own heart. At the same time, there are concrete ways to support my faith adventure that can help me find new delight in following Jesus, motivate and equip me to take a next step, and be more aware of what the Spirit is shaping in me.
In fact, there must be concrete ways to motivate and equip following Jesus, because the opposite is clearly true: we have all kinds of ways to motivate, equip, and reward not following Jesus in our everyday, ordinary lives.
The average church attender knows, at least theoretically, that engaging God’s Word on a regular basis fuels, propels, and shapes the adventure of following Jesus. But when it comes right down to it, when was the last time you personally had fun reading the Bible or enjoyed spending time in prayer?
One reason time with God feels like a burden instead of a delight is because we often feel like we don’t have any options to choose from. We train people in only one way of reading the Bible—start somewhere, read for a while, then stop—and our prayer portfolio seems limited to reciting the Lord’s Prayer from memory or imitating what you see in worship when you go to church or attend online.
Without tools and options, you don’t have much choice in how you read and pray, so you lack the personal delight and motivation that leads to regular, expectant Bible study and prayer.
When it comes to motivating you to NOT follow Jesus, your family and friends are probably a big help. Since our culture makes religion a private affair, no one in your circle of church friends talks about their struggles and joys when it comes to faith and following. They, like you, assume following Jesus must be natural and obvious, and they must be the exception, since everyone at church puts on a good face and relegates the real struggle (and adventure) of following Jesus to their private world.
The models you have for engaging people who don’t know Jesus in faith conversations feel more like combat than anything else; you are trained to defend your faith or point out the flaws in their atheist logic, but you don’t find either companionship or joy in that. In fact, when it comes to faith and following Jesus, you are pretty much left on your own; and left on your own can feel pretty lonely.
Take stock of your external motivations and your physical surroundings and you begin to see that even your personal economy and your environment are stacked against following Jesus. You are rewarded for “productive” time by being paid for your “work” hours. Bible study, prayer, faith conversations, and service are all designated as personal (religion is private), leisure time activities (only what produces is “real work”). Then your consumer culture trains and rewards you for spending personal leisure time on entertainment (or, better yet, shopping).
The specifics of the physical world around you—your phone, your car, your desk, your computer, your TV, your kitchen, your tablet, your living room furniture, your bedroom layout—the specifics of your physical world are intentionally designed to enable (1) busy productivity and (2) constant entertainment.
It turns out, (1) busy productivity and (2) constant entertainment kill faith. Or, at least, they work actively against faith formation.
From your personal motivation and ability, to your relational support and equipping, to your external motivations and physical environment, your world is structured and organized to prevent you from finding joy and meaning in following Jesus.
So what do you need to follow Jesus? On the one hand, nothing; this journey of discovery is an adventure of grace, and the Spirit is working in you both to desire this journey and to live out your faith, one small step at a time. You don’t need to bring anything more to the table than you; and you can rest in the assurance that even coming to the table in the first place was the work of the Spirit in you.
On the other hand, your faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The momentum of most of your minutes and hours and days pulls against taking a small next step following Jesus. Standing still is moving backwards.
While struggle will always be part of the journey, we can also begin to change the momentum of personal ability and motivation. We can intentionally affect the way our relationships support and encourage faith formation. We can even take stock of the personal economy and physical environment that make some actions easy and other actions really difficult, and use them as servants of the Gospel. We can change the direction of the people mover to make small next steps in the right direction seem not only doable, but fun.
There is no simple, silver bullet answer for how to make a regular habit of finding joy in following Jesus. But there are some things we can actually do that help following Jesus seem more obvious and natural.
You can’t replace the work of the Spirit in your life. You can notice how the momentum of your regular life is pulling you in the wrong direction, and begin to shift some of that impetus to help you more easily take a small next step.
What do you need to follow Jesus? If you’re going on an adventure, you’ll need (A) a travel pack. Just like our kids need gym shoes and crayons and other school supplies, we could make a supply list of personal skills and values—the attitudes and aptitudes—that equip you for the journey of faith.
You’ll also need (B) a “Plus One.” Following Jesus can, at times, feel like a solo quest; but discipleship is designed to be massively multi-player. You need people in your life that help support your next step, people who will run a small experiment with you or join you on a small reconnaissance mission to get the lay of the land. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. And God designed us that way.
Every journey needs direction and sustenance. In the same way, discipleship needs a regular connection to (C) God’s Word and prayer. Your interaction with God’s Word doesn’t have to look the same as mine, and we have almost endless possibilities when it comes to engaging Scripture and prayer.
And, just like any journey, the practice of following Jesus is made up of a series of (D) small next steps. Put one foot in front of the other. Check for direction, but keep moving.
How do you identify (and take) a small next step following Jesus? How do you evaluate or recalibrate your journey based on your next step? How do you find the rhythm of a repeatable process that moves you forward, and how do you plan for the detours or roadblocks when you inevitably get off track? How we answer those questions will shape the kind of people we are going to be.
Jesus is not in a hurry. Jesus loves you and loves spending time with you. Jesus is absolutely delighted that you even want to consider the possibility of figuring out how to more regularly take a small next step in his direction. And Jesus is faithful; he won’t leave you alone to figure this out all by yourself.
Come, Holy Spirit, and shape a life of faithful following in me! Amen.
Editor’s Note: this blog was adapted from the Introduction to the book Your Next Step: A Personal Guide to Following Jesus by Justin Rossow, Next Step Press, forthcoming.