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What It Really Means to be a Christian

  • Nick Hall President and CEO of The Table Coalition
  • Published Jun 14, 2016
What It Really Means to be a Christian

“Spiritual?” Yes.

“Religious?” No way.

Prayer?” Yes.

“Church?” Not for years.

“Jesus?” He’s cool.

Christian?” It’s complicated.

Ask a millennial about their faith and you will likely find some mixture of the answers above. Barna recently polled millennial practicing Christians and found that most felt misunderstood (65%) and marginalized (59%). I should know since I spend time with about a million of them each year. It is my dream to see this generation reset to know Jesus… and the term Christian is getting in the way.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus' followers were called Christian (Acts 11) by others because they shared Jesus’ words and followed his teaching. The term didn’t originate with Jesus, or even his followers, but rather was a public attempt to name people living their life just like Jesus. Today, over half of the American population claims the title Christian and people around the world think of America as a Christian nation.  

Regardless of your religious conviction, I think we would all agree that if 50 percent of our population was living like Jesus, our world would look very different. 

Christian today seems to be very far from its original meaning.

“So am I a Christian?”

While many may call me a professional Christian, I avoid using the term. If your definition of Christian is picket signs and politics, judgment and division, then I will avoid the designation at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of my faith, I just can’t say the same for the faithful. It’s actually a beautiful irony that the best thing about following Jesus is also the worst thing… and that is that Everyone is Welcome. This is amazing in that it means that even people like me and you are invited! It’s not so amazing in that it means that even people like them are invited …  and sometimes they are not as cool as us.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that after 2,000 years of meetings, Christianity has a few awkward associations to wade through. But the focus was never supposed to be on our perfection, rather that imperfect people are welcomed by the perfect one. Sometimes I wonder if the term Christian is getting in the way of people meeting Jesus rather than assisting the introduction.  

Jesus told us that his life mission was to love the world, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17). He told his followers that he was the way, truth and life—and that he came to open the doorway to God (John 14:6). He served endlessly, loved selflessly, and gave joyfully—even laying down his own life as payment for our brokenness.

I’m not sure Jesus would even want to be known as Christian in our world today. Some say that Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” And rather than turning this into a discussion on proper sourcing, I think the truthful sting of the quote is what’s made it stick. Jesus wasn’t the poster boy for the religious establishment of his day and every time his followers wanted to organize into some kind of organizational scheme, he flipped over some tables and told them he was working toward a Kingdom coming.  

The truth is, Christian often means the opposite of the message Jesus carried. Jesus told us to love our enemies. Most define Christians by who their enemies are. Jesus opened the door to heaven. Christian often refers to the bouncers trying to keep people from getting in. While I once looked for a fake ID like every other adolescent, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the kind of club we hoped to get into. The fact that close to 60 percent of young adults are leaving the church only reinforces my point. 

"So am I a Christian?”

I love Jesus and believe he is the only leader in human history truly worth following. But Jesus never invited anyone to be a Christian. So why should I?

If Christian describes voter blocks and those standing against certain people or issues, I’m not sure any of us should claim the title. If Christian refers to those who have it all figured out, then I definitely don’t belong—I am simply trying my best to look to Jesus.

I don’t believe the world needs more Christians. I do believe it needs more Jesus.

In an era of politics and posturing, bullying and judgment, plastic smiles and social memes, Jesus stands alone. He made "campaign promises" and backed up his words in blood, dying on a cross to open the door to a better world. After three days in the grave, Jesus rose and invited his followers to live for, and tell the world about him.

Jesus is not intimidated by our skepticism or questions because He has nothing to hide. He welcomes everyone, from all backgrounds, religions, creeds, origins and orientations to "taste and see” that He is good, that He is love, that He is holy, that He is worth following. If you need a place to belong, Jesus welcomes you.

Again, Jesus never called his followers Christian, but simply invited them (as He invites us) to learn from and follow Him. This was (and still is) the most amazing and empowering invitation on earth. Unlike leaders who manipulate, Jesus lived for the least and even affectionately referred to his followers as “friends”—something those of his stature didn't do. 

“So… am I a Christian?”

While I avoid using the term, I am one of the many doing my best to know and follow Jesus. I believe he offers the leadership we need to anyone willing to come.

Religious or not. Spiritual or not. Christian or not. There is room at the table for you.

Nick Hall is the founder of PULSE, which is calling for one million Americans to gather on the National Mall at Together 2016, and is the author of RESET: Jesus Changes Everything (Multnomah, June 2016).

Publication date: June 14, 2016