When I was 4 years old my mother asked me what I would do about Jesus. More than six decades later, I'm still asking myself that same question. What does it mean to say that my life will be defined by his?
In seventh grade, when I was leaving in the morning to walk to Lincoln Junior High School, my mom would pray with me each day at the front door: "Dear Father, help Wes today to put Jesus first, others second, and himself last."
It's a prayer I've often dissected, and never forgotten. The various paths I've traveled since then are ways that I've wandered and searched to discover what to do about Jesus. The evangelical subculture in which I was raised was infiltrated by pernicious racism, captured by right-wing nationalism, absorbed with rampant materialism, and defended by haughty self-righteousness. But it taught me to ask the right question. What about Jesus?
Early in my journey, my responses to that question began to challenge my subculture's answers. The ensuing dialogue, however, echoed my mother's prayer: What does it mean to put Jesus first? Our problem is that we have domesticated Jesus and lost the radical challenge that question poses.
The central task of North American congregations, denominations, and Christian institutions in our day is to resurrect who Jesus is. We need to hear anew the call of what it means to be a disciple of his in this time and place. And then we must create and nurture communities of those who are claimed by this call and are willing to follow, traveling to unexpected destinations anticipated only by God's providence.
Frequently people ask me if there's a future for denominations, or specifically for the Reformed Church in America. Every decade or so a new crop of speakers and consultants discover that denominational leaders will actually pay them a lot of money to come speak at church conferences about the demise and death of denominations. The best answer I ever heard to this question came from H. George Anderson, when he was presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "People ask me if denominations will survive," he said, "and I say, have you ever tried to close a single church?"
Denominations, in one form or another, will endure. That's certain. The real question is whether they will do things that are useful and good. To do so will require their transformation. Their purpose and structure will be realigned around equipping congregations for their missional calling, rather than functioning as regulatory agencies and benefit services providers.
This will depend on recovering a radical sense of what it means to follow Jesus, and then creating structures that connect, strengthen, and resource communities of disciples called to participate in God’s mission. The question isn’t, "What about denominations?" It's "What about Jesus?"
My journey to resurrect the person of Jesus was helped by the pilgrimage I took a couple of years ago to where he lived, died, and rose. It was no ordinary Holy Land tour, but rather a deep exposure, through hours of hiking, reflecting, and praying, to the places that shaped Jesus' life. This was interwoven with the biblical narrative and the historical realities happening in that land today.
It turns out, for instance, that Nazareth at the time of Jesus was a town of only a few hundred people, and Jews had settled there as part of a movement to establish their presence and culture in this area. So it was not unlike Jewish settlements today on the West Bank.
I always wondered why the people of Nazareth wanted to push Jesus off a cliff after his inaugural sermon in Luke 4. There I learned it was, most likely, because of his references at the end of that passage of how God had blessed, healed, and used non-Jews for his purposes. Jesus was condemning the narrow nationalistic and ethnic exclusivity of his hometown, and the people became furious. That made it clearer to me where a follower of Jesus should be led in our current debates around immigration, and our perpetual appeals to nationalistic pride.
I sat at the pools of Bethesda recounted in John 5. The lame and the invalids were there, hoping for healing, because they were refused entrance into the temple. And Jesus chose this route to the temple to make a point about the worthy sons and daughters of Abraham who were being excluded from fellowship and worship because of cultural prejudices and, most likely, a poor interpretation of a scriptural text.
Such epiphanies were revealed throughout those days in Israel and Palestine. They reawakened a hunger within me to know the life of Jesus of Nazareth in order to follow him more faithfully as my Lord and Savior. To decide what to do about Jesus, we don’t need to know a theological formula; rather, we need to know about Jesus.
This simple but radical call to follow Jesus gets beyond the last half-century of Protestant warfare between evangelical and ecumenical worlds, or the gospel of conversion versus the social gospel. This dichotomy has been widely decried, yet some institutions on each side still find it in their fund-raising interests to perpetuate this false conflict.
Personally, I have no time for those building a new form of fortress Christianity, attaching a right-wing political ideology to new expressions of biblicism, and highlighting hot-button issues like homosexuality. Ironically, the essential failure of these folks is that they ignore Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, I am disillusioned by seminaries whose fascination with textual criticism and academic prowess replaces the simplistic faith of their students too often with cynicism, or even no faith, rather than a mature attachment to the person of Christ.
What excites me in seminaries, parachurch movements, campus ministries, and congregations is a fresh fascination with Jesus, as a radical servant leader of a transformational movement, embodying the fullness of God's love. In other words, God incarnate. I see those in a younger generation drawn to this authentic presentation of Jesus and challenged to live as his disciples, knowing that this means working for God's justice in the world. This also means learning the spiritual practices that create the space in one's life for the work of God's Spirit to transform our inner being. The old dichotomies are left behind as we decide what to do about Jesus.
Following this Jesus leads us to the frontiers of world Christianity. For those of us in North America, being his disciple beckons us to look beyond the framework of our national and cultural life. So much of the peculiar baggage we carry from American culture obscures the startling challenge that comes from saying Jesus is Lord. It's the nonWestern world today that is witnessing the explosive power of the gospel and the expansive growth of the church. In some of those settings, putting Jesus first leads to persecution or even martyrdom. But in those crucibles of discipleship we catch unique and holy glimpses of the resurrected power of Jesus.
Enriched by the privilege of listening to the stories of Christians from around the world, my journey continues as I ask what to do about Jesus. I don't know when I was born again -- whether at 4, or 24, or both of those times and many more. All that is safely in God's hands.
What I do know is that the gospel took on flesh. In each of our lives, grace tries to intrude continually, attempting to shape our story into an infinitesimal but uniquely valuable part of God's story. God can certainly do very well without any one of us. That's a message that the Reformed heritage has proclaimed with vigor. But God also delights in each one of us. When we ask what to do about Jesus, we are invited into an inner, transformative journey that allows the unique combination of DNA that shapes our being to be joined with foundational movement of God's love. This seeks to shape the world into the home of God’s glory. And for any one of us, that is a story worth telling.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Adapted with permission from Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity, by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson © 2011, all rights reserved, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI.