What does it mean to be a follower? In modern English, we sometimes use the term to mean "interested". We speak of someone following a political campaign, or the career of an athlete or television personality, or a musical performer. In the coming weeks, you might encounter someone - or you might be someone - who is following the Olympics.
In talking about leadership, we're not interested in interested. Someone can be interested in Christianity, for example, without being a follower of Christ. Someone can be interested in a political campaign without being a follower of the ideals espoused by a particular politician. You can be confident that both Obama and McCain have individuals on their staffs whose sole job is to be completely interested in the campaigns of their opponent. These folks may be following, but they are not followers.
Let's consider what it means to follow - to be a follower.
Rule 1: Followship is Personal
To follow - to be a follower - implies that there must be someone providing you with directions. It all comes back to a person. Even if someone claims to be a follower of a political ideal, or a religious or social movement, that ideal or movement has its roots in some person. A person who says they are a follower of Marxism is, in fact, a follower of Karl Marx. A person who says they are a Christian is, in fact, a follower of Christ.
The personal aspect of followship has important implications. The primary consideration is that you simply cannot follow more than one leader. You may think that you can manage it, but in reality, it's impossible. Head out to the mall, pick two people at random, and try to follow both of them. They may travel in the same direction for a while, but sooner or later, they'll split... and you'll have to decide which one of them you will continue to follow.
Jesus made this point when he told his disciples, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Mt 6:24). If you try to follow two leaders, sooner or later, you will need to decide which one of them you are really going to follow, because followship is personal.
Rule 2: Followship is Intelligent
Have you ever heard the term "sheeple"? It's a derogatory term used to describe people who don't give any thought to who they're following. It's an interesting slur, because it gets to the heart of a truth about followship: to be an effective follower requires being an intelligent follower.
My wife and I have spent some time with our girls teaching them what it means to be an intelligent follower - though not quite in those terms. We have tried to teach them to be discerning in choosing who they will follow. If you're a parent yourself, you've probably done the same thing, with the goal of teaching your children about "stranger danger". I want my children to be aware of the fact that not everybody is a nice person, and that they need to be careful and above all think about who it is they are going to follow. This is a good lesson for children to learn, and for adults to reconsider - to be an effective follower means that you need to be a thinking follower.
Deciding who you will start to follow is an important choice, and one that requires thought and consideration. Effective followship demands more than that initial consideration, though; it requires constant re-evaluation of the position of the leader, the position of the follower, and the direction in which both leader and follower are headed. An effective follower knows where they want to go, and chooses to follow a leader because doing so will get them to their final destination. An intelligent follower will realize when they've gotten off course because they're focused on getting to their destination, and not just on following someone blindly.
As a practical example, let's say that I find someone who says they are heading somewhere I've never been before - maybe Chicago. I've got a vague idea where Chicago is, relative to Pittsburgh, but I've never been there, so the idea of following someone makes sense to me. We hop in our cars, set out, and a few hours later, I see a sign that says, "Welcome to New York".
What do I do at that point? Well, if I'm an unthinking follower - one of the sheeple - then I continue following them, wherever they may be headed. However, most people at that point would probably either turn around, or stop and ask the person they're following, "Do you really know where you're going?" An effective follower is one who is is thinking not just about who they're following, but where they're going and how they're getting to the final destination.
In the book of Acts, Luke commends the Berean believers for being thoughtful, intelligent, and discerning followers of Christ. They earned this reputation because they were careful to check and make sure that what Paul was teaching them lined up with what they already knew about God and the Messiah (Acts 17:11). They knew where they wanted to go, spiritually, and were careful to make sure that the leaders they followed were taking them there.
Rule 3: Followship is Active
So - let's say you have some idea of what your final destination is. You also know that you can't get there on your own, so you've be careful and discerning and looked for someone to lead you to where you want to be. You find what looks like just the right person, and say, "Yes - this is the person I'm going to follow."
And then, you sit there, and wait. And wait. And wait some more, because the person you've decided to follow is just sitting there, going nowhere - and now, you're going nowhere with him.
To be a follower implies motion and activity. If a leader isn't moving, he can't be leading; and if a follower isn't moving, he can't be following. There's something very wrong in the relationship between a follower and a leader if one or the other isn't doing their particular job. Imagine a major league baseball pitcher who was unwilling to throw the ball, or a catcher who was unwilling to catch the ball once it was thrown! A leader who is unwilling to or unable to lead isn't a leader, no matter what they might call themselves; and a follower who is unwilling or unable to follow isn't a follower, no matter what they might want to think.
Whether you are walking along behind someone or following them spiritually, there must be some form of activity on both your parts before you can actually claim to be leader and follower. Unfortunately, while we desire excitement and interesting activities in our lives, the day-to-day activity of leadership and followship is often mundane. In crossing the continental United States, Lewis and Clark overcame hostile Indians, endured harsh weather, and made their way through seemingly impassible wilderness. While doing all this, they and each one of the men with them each took about 9 million steps. If they had ever lost their will to take that next, boring, mundane, stupid step, then they never would have completed their journey. An effective follower needs to recognize that while activity is neccesary, it is often routine - and that it is the dedication to the routine activities that is critical in followship.
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. One of the key verses in the book is Nehemiah 4:6, where Nehemiah simply notes, "So built we the wall... for the people had a mind to work." Nehemiah was the leader of the effort, but their achievment - the building of the wall - was the result of the fact that both the leaders and the people had a mind to work, and were willing to take all the mundane steps that were required in order to reach their destination.
In the next few posts, I'll be expanding on these three rules of effective followship, and we'll look at what the Bible has to say about Christians and followship in particular.