Years ago I was invited to speak at a church about our ministry in Europe. Before the service began, the kindly and somewhat nervous middle-aged pastor took me aside and asked me what I was going to speak about. After I briefly shared my key points with him, he told me that he approved my outline, but he would prefer that I not use the word Christian while speaking to congregation. He explained to me that he used the phrase Christ follower so as to not offend anyone. I complied with his desire, but I have long since thought about this conversation.
The term Christ follower is perhaps the most popular of several phrases that people use to replace the word Christian. Though Christian is used in the Bible to describe followers of Jesus, it is not the only word that is used. The early Church was also called The Way and The Sect of the Nazarene among other names. There is nothing sacred about the word Christian, and there is nothing wrong with going by another name. In fact, the word Christian actually means Christ follower.
Yet I have to wonder; why do Christ followers reject the nearly 2000 year old name Christian? Though I cannot state the reasons for everyone who has switched terms, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority do so out of fear.
In the case of church leadership, the name is often changed out of fear of lowering attendance numbers. A church with empty seats tends to close, and there is little that pastors fear more than seeing their specific church shut-down. The name change is intended to give the impression that this particular church is different from the universal Church that others find so offensive. It makes them appear relevant (unlike their brothers and sisters in other churches). I have to wonder if such leaders honestly think, “People will come to our church because we are not Christians.”
How many times has anyone walked into a church and been surprised or offended to find Christians there? Were they expecting Hindus? In your fear of failure you have distanced yourself from your brothers and sisters in other congregations by proudly proclaiming that you are not like them.
Church leaders are not the only ones who have changed the term. Individual believers do the same thing. The belief is that people are more open and less offended by Christ followers than by Christians.
If using the term Christ follower opens the door to share the Gospel, then I’m all for it. Yet, I would seriously question how often this happens. More often, I have seen Christ follower used as a means to distance ourselves from our fellow believers and present ourselves in a good light to our non-Christian friends.
Coworker 1: Bill in accounting is talking about Jesus again. You aren’t one of those crazy Christians are you?
Coworker 2: I prefer the term Christ follower. I’m nothing like Bill.
Coworker 1: What’s the difference?
Coworker 2: We are not so extreme.
Coworker 1: Oh that’s cool. I like you then.
Coworker 2: Great!
(Opportunity to share the Gospel missed.)
Non-Christians are not stupid. They know what you are. They also know that you are too afraid to talk about what you believe and you are ashamed of your fellow believers. Is this really the message you what to convey. Are you not just changing the name out of a fear of unpopularity?
The message of the Gospel is offensive to most who hear it. Jesus predicted persecution to those who follow Him (John 15:20). Paul implied that the Gospel will make you look like a fool (I Cor. 1:18).
If you are truly a Christ follower, persecution and dishonor await you regardless of what you call yourself.
If you are not, then perhaps you should change your name.