In 2000 my family and I started a new church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When we arrived I wanted the first dollar our church spent to make a statement about our values. So I took every penny we had in our church’s checking account, which wasn’t much, and blew it all in one day.
I called the police station in our area and asked, “Where is the most drug-infested, crime-ridden neighborhood in our entire region?” Without hesitation he named a neighborhood twenty-five minutes away. He said, “We send a car there every night, why?” I said, “I’m a Christian and I thought I would buy groceries for the entire neighborhood.” “Why the %!@+% would you want to do that?” he said. “Knock yourself out.” That afternoon I drove to a wholesale grocery outlet and filled every inch of my van with boxes of groceries.
When I arrived it looked like a scene from a war zone. Broken windows. Graffiti everywhere. People passed out on the sidewalk. And here was this young suburban kid looking like Barney Fife with his arms full of pancake mix and peanut butter.
“Okay God,” I muttered as I knocked on the first door, “work through me, your chicken.” I was taken back by the response. For the next few hours I gave away groceries and prayed for a prostitute, a drug addict, and a dozen or so others. As I moved slowly through the neighborhood I touched and hugged and prayed for as many people as I could.
When I finally got in my empty van I recalled my conversation with the police officer and got angry. “Why would that cop be surprised that a Christian would want to do this?” I asked myself. That word “Christian” has become as tantalizing to our culture as a warm soft drink at a summer picnic.
Rethinking the Term Christian
So what’s the problem with the word Christian?
One problem is it’s not a real popular term in the Bible. In fact, it only occurs three times in the entire New Testament. It never crossed Jesus’ lips. Paul never used it. On every occasion when it does occur the biblical author quotes a non-Christian who used it to describe followers of Jesus. “Christian” comes from the Greek word “Christianos” which means “belonging to Christ.” Not a bad word. But for some reason it stuck.
The biggest problem with the word “Christian” is our culture has concluded there is virtually no difference between the way “Christians” and “non-Christians” act. Upon completing a poll for U.S. News and PBS’ Religion & Ethics Weekly, the researchers stated,
“…Evangelicals—their distinctive faith aside—are acting more and more like the rest of us.”
I’d like to suggest we use the word Jesus used to describe his followers: disciple.
Identifying as a Disciple
In fact, I want to challenge you to use the word “disciple” every time you are about to use the word “Christian.” At first it will seem awkward. Your neighbors might think you’ve joined some strange chicken sacrificing cult. But that’s precisely the point. Jim Jones and Charles Manson stole this word from us. We’re stealing it back.
“Disciple” occurs not three times, but over two hundred and sixty times throughout the New Testament. As philosopher Dallas Willard in Spirit of the Disciplines says,
“The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus.”
Derived from the original Greek word “mathetes,” which means “a student,” a disciple is someone that learns from a teacher. But according to Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, His followers not only learn his teachings, but obey his teachings.
With the word disciple, life change is expected. When we use the word “Christian,” discipleship is treated as if it is optional, like honors courses in high school. They’re not essential for graduation but a good thing to do. According to Jesus, discipleship begins at conversion.
People notice disciples. Disciples do not blend in very easily. Disciples do not just believe differently, they behave differently. They are compassionate. They have convictions. They go against the grain. They love people and use things, not the other way around. They jar people to evaluate their lives, even without uttering a word.
Isn’t this what Jesus did? Why would His followers be any different?
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