Following vs. Leading:
Since the rise of the digital age, the formation of a global village culture, and the subsets and influences that this global culture has within cultures, it is important not to make general assumptions about groups. We must be cautious not to throw blanket statements over people groups and ethnic cultures. People are people, we all struggle with similar core issues.
However, cultural anthropologists agree that there are specific large and general differences between the western worldview and the majority of the rest of the world’s point of view. Our family of origin influences how we view the world. Our cultural upbringing has a way of programming our subconscious with biases that we are unaware of.
With that in mind, for the sake of time and purposes of this article, I write in general terms to get a point across, so please forgive the sweeping statements that follow. Also, having spent half of my life in a western context and most of my life shaped by western worldviews, I will be writing as someone heavily formed by western culture, even though I didn’t technically grow up within the western world.
To start off with, think of the diagram you have just seen above. I would like you to reflect on it by imagining each of those shapes representing a single person.
In the West, individualism is so ingrained into our subconscious and seen as a virtue worth pursuing, fighting for and protecting at all costs. The individual's choice to be different is celebrated and communities that do not affirm this choice are seen as oppressive. We see individuals who don't practice individualism as weak-minded or pushovers, conforming to a larger group. Most westerners who view the diagram appreciate the fact that one is not conforming. One person is being themselves and “going their own way”. In the west, conforming is a sign of immaturity, a failure to be “true to oneself”. Therefore, viewing the diagram might inspire us a little. This, of course, implies some of us will need to set aside the desire for a symmetrical diagram.* But overall, most westerners feel a little empowered by the diagram.
Contrary to that, many other cultures around the world** are Collectivist Cultures, and (in general) when looking at the diagram feel uncomfortable. The majority of non-westerners view individualism and independence as unhealthy, selfish and in many ways dangerous.
These cultures hold conformity as the virtue.
In the East, an individualist is described as a trouble maker, as someone who can’t get along, breaks harmony, seeks his or her own glory or is self-important. They are the people who “ruin it for the rest of us”.*** These cultures tend to see everything through the lens of how one affects the whole.
The point here is not to say one view is right and the other is wrong. In fact, there are time Westerners hold to collectivist values too. Take team sports for example. The goal is to work together for the benefit of the team, not one individual. So instead of a player being selfish, she will make assists to other team members who are in a better position to score. I think we instinctively dislike the players who are all about themselves and reject the notion of teamwork.
The point is that we come to certain words or themes in the bible with unseen and often unrecognizable assumptions.
The word “Follow” is one of these words for most westerners.
Therefore, it must be acknowledged that for at least some of us, the titles of both this section (Follow the Leader) and of this book (To Follow), can come with potential baggage; baggage that we might not even recognize.
The idea of following someone else is harder for us as westerners to get on board with.
Most of us don’t want to “follow the leader”, we want to be the leader. You might remember playing the game as a child. At some stage, every child wants to be the one who gets to lead, who makes the decisions of what strange and funny thing they do next. Almost every young child, at some level, wants to be the one that chooses the direction we go in, the one who gets to say what others will do behind them.
That desire continues as we become adults. At some level, we want to be the leader. Maybe we don’t want the responsibility of the leader, but we definitely want the control.
A western culture affirms that to lead is to mature. A need to be told what to do is seen as immature, it can be seen as lazy and unhealthy just to be a follower. Therefore, the logical implication (or at least assumption many of us hold) is that you don’t want to follow forever, eventually you will need to “grow up” and take charge. There is a resistance to following, because it is ingrained in us that following is weak.
This is where the wisdom of knowing the balance of following and leading, is crucial. Knowing when to take ownership and responsibility, and knowing when to listen and obey.
There is a massive difference between following and consuming; between conforming and being brainwashed; between being led and being spoon fed.
The wisdom comes from knowing who you are following and why you are following them.
It is wise to follow the lead of someone who has already experienced what you are going through, and come through the other side. It is wise to follow someone who has studied and mastered the subject you are curious about. It is wise to follow a person who loves and cares for you and would be willing to die for you if need be.
I can follow the lead of someone I trust and know personally. Someone who knows me and has my best in mind. Isn’t it good for a child to follow their parents loving direction. Isn’t it good for a child to obey their parents leading even when, in the child’s small worldview, it makes no sense. This following is wise.
So when Jesus says to each of us “follow me”, our first questions must not be “why should I follow you?” or “what do I get out of it?”.
The wise questions would be, “Who are you?” and “what are you like?”. Searching the answers to those questions will tell us if we should or should not follow Jesus.
Who is Jesus? What is he like?
Has Jesus walked a similar path to mine? Did he come out the other end better? Has he experienced similar pains, hurts or had people misunderstand his good intentions? Did he ever feel rejected, alienated or even betrayed? How did he deal with that? Is that worth paying attention to?
Has he mastered something I am unable to master? Did he live in a way that reflected what he believed or was he hypocritical? Is he trustworthy? What evidence is there that he cares for others? What evidence is there that he would care for me? What lengths did he go through to show his care? How did he use the influence and power that he had? And could he just maybe, have a clearer view of how things are, compared to my small view?
A foolish person blindly follows someone they know nothing about. They repeat words they’ve heard yet words that have no real meaning to them personally. They take up apprenticeship with someone who is not a master in that trade, only to learn wrong ways to do good things.
These are the sort of questions we must ask. This is called wisdom.
The goal is to know Jesus personally, not just through someone else's explaining or someone else’s faith and beliefs. If you only know Jesus through creeds, facts, and doctrines that you have been told are true, but you don’t know Jesus as a person. Then I would encourage you to stop right now, turn off this screen and spend time getting to know Jesus for yourself... then come back to this article later.
I have spent time addressing some of these questions in a small book I wrote called “Picture The Story”, it may be helpful to read as you seek to answer who Jesus is and what he is like.
All of that to say, when Jesus tells us to follow him, if there is a slight resistance to the wording, we must listen to what lies behind it. Many of us have been culturally programmed to have a bias, negative lean to being a follower.
Can we look past that and see the beauty and freedom in following a good, just and compassionate leader? Can we see the wisdom in listening and obeying the words of the one who has mastered and conquered every struggle we will know?
Is Jesus worthy of following, listening to, learning from and becoming like?
For me and for people in every culture around the world and in every generation, past and present, the answer is YES, Jesus is very much worth following!
Question is... will you follow the leader?
Written by Seth Emery