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The earliest followers of Jesus would be greatly baffled by what it means to be “Christian” today.

The ever-changing lists of “essential” beliefs and organizational expectations would certainly be unfamiliar to those who encountered the radical love and grace of Jesus and, in response, left their familiar and comfortable ways to follow in his risky footsteps.

Oh, it took belief to heed the call of Jesus to “follow me.” But Jesus never required a test of orthodoxy, put them through a six-week doctrinal course and then gave them a membership card to The Jesus Club.

He simply told them to throw down whatever they were doing and to come along. Their belief and their faithfulness were expressed in their “followship.”

Baptism marked their faithful responses and their willing steps toward a new life in contrast to the cultural calls for self-preservation and the easy tagging of enemies.

Today’s Americanized Christianity gives little to no attention to following Jesus. It is about affirming some human-formed list of “essentials” that tend to leave Jesus out – and often require attitudes and acts of exclusion at odds with how Jesus actually related to others.

Pollster George Barna keeps misidentifying what it means to be a faithful, practicing Christian – and what survey results really show about Americans, particularly younger generations, responding to such misrepresented Christianity.

For research purposes, the Barna Group defines a “practicing Christian” as someone who attends religious services monthly and considers their faith to be important. The early disciples and many of us since would define a practicing Christian as someone who follows Jesus.

There’s just something about a Jesus-free definition of a “practicing Christian” that should be more alarming to us than statistics, such as the percentage of millennials who read horoscopes, as Barna likes to emphasize.

Because affirming a list of beliefs is easier than denying oneself and taking up a cross, this latter-day definition is more appealing within Americanized Christianity. One can identify as “Christian” without having to fool with all that stuff Jesus said a follower should be and do.

You get to keep all of your goods, your prejudices and your sense of superiority while still holding a first-class ticket to heaven and assurances of God’s favor in present times.

Barna offers some helpful data on religious affiliation but then extrapolates alarming conclusions, such as claiming that only a small percentage of Christians has a “biblical worldview” (of his own making) or that “the millennial generation in particular seems committed to living without God …”

These conclusions are based on survey responses that show millennials less likely to rely on the Bible for moral guidance and to attend religious services. And for some odd reason, Barna loves to throw in belief that “Satan is real” to be a defining element of Christian faithfulness while following Jesus is not one.

Perhaps millennials, like many from other generations, have seen enough of America’s “practicing Christians” who claim high allegiance to the Bible and then use it to justify obscene acts of injustice. And they’ve witnessed how those who congregate are the ones most likely to advance discrimination and embrace society’s biggest lies and liars.

The great evangelical screw-up that needs to be surveyed is how this particular movement of white conservative Christianity has largely ignored the basic call to follow Jesus.

Belief – even with a healthy mixture of doubt – is required in the sense that it takes enough trust to give up one’s selfish motivations and interest to follow Jesus down the road of sacrifice, service and inclusion. But Christian faithfulness is not defined by anyone’s supposed list of orthodox beliefs, but by one’s “followship.”

It’s getting to the point that many are finding that following Jesus is done more faithfully outside the structures of Americanized Christianity than within, where Jesus often gets a nod as a salvation-inducing mascot and then is largely ignored in favor of a baptized political ideology at odds with all Jesus revealed.

It takes trust to follow. So, in order for followers of Jesus to trust and engage in “Christian” churches or other organizations, it might be wise for those to offer as much evidence of “followship” as fellowship.

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