I sat in a coffee shop in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It was raining. I looked into my Americano and pondered some earlier conversations I had listened to; many of the comments and questions had been echoes of others I had heard when I asked about the challenges of following Jesus.

The major point that came across was that it’s not easy to follow Jesus. The challenges are large and many. The benefits of His presence are huge. His grace and love and power are indescribably wonderful. But trying to stay close to Him and live in the radical manner He described is not easy.

If you are struggling to follow Jesus, if you sometimes feel like giving up, if you struggle with the pressure to conform to the cultures we live in, you are not alone. As we seek to follow Jesus, we find ourselves more at odds with the prevailing narratives that dominate culture. To believe in a mega-story and follow the call of God challenges the worlds of secularism, individualism and consumerism. By challenging these cultural norms and the lifestyles they lead to, we can find ourselves being marginalised. It requires courage and wisdom to follow Jesus. It can feel like a lonely place — if you’re the only Christian in a staff room, on your shift or in your university group. Life can feel rubbish.

This is why themes like community and identity, and courage and grace become so significant. In some ways, we are feeling what every radical follower of Jesus feels: we are out of step, misunderstood, our story is sometimes met with suspicion; yet, during the challenges, the love of Jesus floods our hearts. Being a follower of Jesus is life-changing, serious business.


The one who calls

In Matthew 9, we have the personal account of the call on Matthew to follow Jesus as a disciple. He is a tax collector for the Romans. He would sit at a booth all day, probably in a busy area, waiting to collect cash. He is regarded as a traitor, a cheat and impure. He would be despised by his own people. If anyone knew what it was to be marginalised and ignored by his own people and culture, it is him.

For Jesus to call Matthew shows the radical nature of grace and acceptance and the power of Jesus to surprise and shock. Matthew is not your typical apprentice. I wonder how the zealots and nationalists in the group felt about this?

Jesus just approaches Matthew and tells him to follow me”. Matthew is to get up, leave the past behind, get in step behind Jesus, and start to journey with Him. It is so simple: no road map, no joining ceremony, no college course to get through.

Everything is about the one who calls. It is a personal invitation. It is to enter a relationship of trust and love. At that point there is no room for questions – there is just Jesus.

Let me state as boldly as I can: disciple- or follower-making is always about Jesus first. It is our response to Him. He leads, we follow. He speaks, we listen. He teaches, we learn. But ultimately, by becoming a follower we are saying we are submitting our lives to the one who has invited us to follow.

It is not signing up to a 12-week course and thinking we have got it, that we’ve arrived. To be a follower is to enter a life journey where we stay as close to Jesus as we can. For the whole of life, we are followers, always trying to watch listen and learn from Jesus.

It is maybe ironic that Matthew left a place of cultural marginalisation to ultimately be part of a group that would be marginalised by his world. Matthew just got up and started to follow — the old life behind him and the new one just a few paces behind his saviour and lord.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that following is less about the follower and more about the one we are following. Jesus calls each one of us, not to religion or even church but to Him. We are submitting our lives to a relationship with Him which is about trust, submission, grace and mercy.

It is interesting that the last words of this tax collector’s story of Jesus is for all those who follow to make followers based upon the call, authority, power and presence of Jesus.

Walking with others

I became a Christian with no prior church connection and very little understanding. I met Gordon, an older Christian who was my barber. I told him of how I had met with Jesus. Immediately he told me I should come for tea on Thursday. When I got to his house, I was invited in by his wife Nancy. She had a table prepared with food, and the three of us ate together. After the plates were cleared, Nancy left us and went to watch TV. Gordon brought out his Bible and we read the beginning of Mark’s gospel together.

Every Thursday for over a year I had tea at Gordons’s house. He answered questions, taught me to pray and introduced me to other young Christians, including my future wife. He mentored me in the ways of Jesus.

When things get difficult, I still remember those Thursday nights of prayer, simple Bible study and talking about Jesus. They helped shape my journey and showed me how much we need others and how wonderful Jesus is.

We need each other; all of us, no matter the stage we are at on our journey, need others to walk with. We need people to pray and cheer us on. We need those who will ask difficult questions and keep us close to Jesus. We all need mentors.

Thinking caps on

We all need to think, chat and listen as we plot to tackle the discipleship deficit or follower fallout. I believe that as church we will need to make some difficult decisions about what we think is really important. Here are some questions to reflect on and maybe discuss: Is discipleship-making really one of our major goals? Do we teach and prepare people for the world in which they live? Do we create space for people to share their mistakes, sorrows and pains? Are we demonstrating grace and forgiveness? Do our presentations of the good news of Jesus focus on decisions or discipleship? Are we being mentored, and who are we mentoring?

"Disciples were called to be dusty, covered in the dust of their rabbi — that is, to walk so closely behind their teacher that the dust kicked up from his sandals would fall on them."

The call of Jesus takes us into a wonderful though sometimes challenging life journey – it is beautiful, enhancing and exciting. But to go the way of Jesus is to also face misunderstanding, pain and alienation to the world.

We are walking against the storm of the cultures and kingdoms of the world. Senior pastor Peter Morden wrote, If someone was a committed follower, it shaped their whole lives. Disciples were called to be dusty, covered in the dust of their rabbi — that is, to walk so closely behind their teacher that the dust kicked up from his sandals would fall on them. Being a disciple was serious business” (The Message of Discipleship, IVP 2018 p. 4). And it still is.

Where next?

Check out What kind of follower? a reflective, easy-to-follow study guide to inspire every believer to have the space for honest conversations about walking with Jesus.