What does it mean to both lead and follow? We need only to look to the Gospel to find out.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
The answer, according to the dictionary, is straightforward. A Christian is “someone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.” A Christian is a follower of Jesus. Who could disagree?
Well, I would disagree.
But before you brand me a heretic, let me clarify: Christians certainly are followers of Jesus, but “follower-ship” is only half the story. Christians are also leaders: We’re following and leading, every day of our lives. “Following yet also leading” may sound paradoxical, even a contradiction in terms. But if we explore the language associated with our calling, we’ll grasp these twin dimensions of Christian living.
For example, every Christian has a “vocation” and can consider him or herself a “disciple.” Both of these words reinforce the notion of follower-ship. The word “vocation” is rooted in a Latin word meaning “to call.” If I call you, you come to me, as in the early Gospel scene where Jesus calls out, “Come after me,” to two fishermen — Peter and Andrew. Right away, the two “left their nets and followed him.”
The word “disciple,” along the same lines, means “learner” or “pupil” — an apt description of all those who followed Jesus from town to town in the first century, or for us today who follow and learn from Jesus.
But there’s far more to Christian life than following. Consider two other words that describe our calling: “mission” and “apostle.” Those words have exactly the opposite connotation from the words above. The Latin word missio means, “I send,” and if I send you somewhere, you’re not following, you’re going! You’re out in front, finding the way forward, a notion that’s further reinforced in the word “apostle,” from a Greek word for “sending” or “sending forth.” Recall, for example, that iconic gospel scene where Jesus “sent out these twelve,” telling them to “go.”
And off they went, not tagging along behind Jesus and listening to parables, but now heading out to proclaim the Kingdom, cure the unwell, and proclaim peace to all they met.
All of which helps us to understand how we must think of ourselves as “leaders.” Most of us will stereotypically associate “leadership” only with those in charge of institutions or organizations. We may think of popes, cardinals, and bishops as leaders, but not ourselves.
Yet one of the core definitions of leadership is, “to point out a way and to influence others toward it.” And, those early Christians were embodying that definition of leadership: They were pointing out the way of Jesus and influencing others to embrace Jesus’ values. And that’s precisely what we modern Christians are called and sent to do.
So which is it? Are we Christians predominantly “followers” or “leaders”? We’re both. In equal measure. Of course we’re both, as encapsulated in a single verse of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus, “called the Twelve and began to send” them (Mk 6:7). Called and sent; following and leading.
We go astray whenever we neglect one dimension or the other of this dynamic calling. Something is missing if we do not understand ourselves as “on mission,” showing leadership, embracing all the opportunities that life gives us to “point out the way,” in our families, communities, and workplaces. And something has gone wrong when the “way” we are pointing out turns out to be our own selfish agenda. We’re called to point out Jesus’ way, not our own.
So, the next time you’re described as, “a follower of Jesus,” say to yourself, “Yes, so it is. And I’m a leader too.”