Follow and Lead

January 9, 2005

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”  – Mark 1:17

A while back I was picking up some fries from the McDonald’s inside my local Wal-Mart. While I was waiting, I noticed that a wildly dressed teenage guy and girl were standing across from me also waiting for an order. I guess they were of the grunge variety or alternative or maybe punk. The hair was very extreme. The pants did not fit, and there were some awkward looking piercings visible. In spite of the extreme appearance, I probably would not have given them a second thought except for the white imperative on the guy’s black t-shirt: “Conform to no one.”

Well, I was intrigued. Here was a guy who wanted others to know that he was not a conformer. He nevertheless appeared very similar to a hundred other teenagers who I had seen in similar settings. Even his companion was another teenager who dressed just like him. I was intrigued because this “non-conformist,” who no doubt dressed to be distinct, had unwittingly conformed to a large segment of teen culture.

Come to think about it, he didn’t look so different from me either. We both happened to be wearing t-shirts, pants, and shoes in basically the same places on our bodies. We were both waiting on french fries while standing inside our Wal-Mart. We both had just returned our wallets to our back pockets after swiping our debit cards. To top it all off, we both had just ordered in English. Here was a person that I had never seen before in my life, and yet we were so similar. And all of these similarities came from the conformity of our personal choices to societal influences. Of course, he might say, “I didn’t choose to learn English.” But I would say, “Yes, but you chose to order in it.” My point is simply this: He was a walking illustration of a basic truth. Actually, we were both a walking illustration of a basic truth: “Though humans want to be individuals, we cannot escape conformity.”

So after I received my fries. I politely approached him and challenged his shirt. He responded, also politely, by saying that he had never really thought about the shirt; a friend had given it to him. I said, “Oh,” and went shopping.

When I had finally meandered my way to the express check-out, I couldn’t help but notice a teen magazine’s bold red letters: “Be More Popular.” Again, I probably would not have given this second imperative a second thought except for the first imperative from my first purchase. This new thought was startling in relation to the other because inside this magazine was a list of tips for teenagers to follow in order to “fit in.” It was a conformity list! This magazine advocated something completely different from the philosophy of my fry-counter encounter. Before it was: “Conform to no one!” Now: “Conform to everyone!”

What especially intrigued me was that the girl on the cover was so distinct. She certainly didn’t look much like me. She didn’t even look like any other females around, especially the one in line in front of me. In fact, I had never seen a face just like her’s before . . . ever. Apart from her looks, reality told me that this girl has desires, personality traits, talents, and relationships that make her quite unlike anybody else. She was the magazine’s choice to epitomize conformity to its list, yet she was unmistakably distinct, one-of-a-kind. No girl in Wal-Mart could have possibly conformed to her. Then I realized that she represented another basic truth that is completely opposite to the one mentioned above: “Though humans want to be conformists, we cannot escape individuality.”

So we appear to have a catch twenty-two: It is desirable to be both a mold-breaker and a group-fitter. Move toward one desire; get nailed by the reality of the other. These realities are especially harsh in the ruthless world of teenagers where they are used as weapons. Try to fit in and someone is sure to yell, “Wanna-be!” Try to stand out and someone mutters, “Freak.”

Well, obviously we all do something with this perplexing human issue because we’re not all frozen in thought over it. What is it? Well, there is a middle ground which I think people must inevitably walk even if on a subconscious level. This middle ground finds distinctiveness not in the ability to avoid conformity, but rather in the ability to embrace particular types of conformity. That’s what the guy at McDonald’s was really doing, and that’s what the magazine was really promoting. It’s ironic I know, but people conform so they can feel special. When they feel special, they feel able to influence. Therefore, in reality we cannot simply lead, nor can we simply follow. Rather, we lead in our following, and we follow in our leading.

It seems to me that the human problem of sin flows out of the improper handling of this reality. The problem is not that people want to be followers nor that people want to be unique leaders. The problem is that people follow unworthy things and then lead toward those unworthy things. Proverbs 14:24 says it like this: “The folly of fools yields folly.” This observation provides us with a pretty simple definition of sin: Sin leads others into negative types of conformity. Think about it. A sinner focuses on things that are not worthy of emulation and runs after them with his friends. Sinners follow sinners while believing that they are doing something special and unique. Sin chooses the small instant gratifications that come from following deceived leaders while sacrificing the fulfillment that comes from right conformity and right leadership. Sin follows the world, Satan, and self while leading to destruction.

I thank God that there is an alternative, Jesus. Jesus offers his own imperative, but it is quite different from “Follow no one,” and from “Follow everyone.” He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Those words are bold. They claim that he is worthy to be followed, and they also claim that he is capable of making unique leaders. In essence, Jesus says, “When you follow me, men will follow you. When you conform to me, I will make you dynamically distinct. When you pursue my image, I transform yours.”

Jesus’ way is not of this world. His is the way of confession, the way of repentance, the way of obedience, the way of righteousness, the way of the cross. He explains his imperative later in the Gospel of Mark: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). Denial? Cross? The world knows very little of these things. Christ’s expectations move far beyond worldly origins which means that conformity within this world could never be as radical as conformity to him. This world could never produce a uniqueness that surpasses the uniqueness of Jesus’ disciples. It could never produce leaders like Jesus can produce.

I wonder what would happen in the heart of my McDonald’s neighbor and the heart of that teen cover-girl if they came to realize that the distinctive marks of Christ exist on a far deeper level than that of clothing and popularity. A person will not follow Jesus as long as he embraces the mentality that thinks he can “conform to no one.” This idea is pure deception, and only the duped conformist believes it. A person is also not likely to follow Jesus if he is searching for the quick road to popularity. Popular people don’t hang on crosses. However, a person is likely to follow Jesus if he sees the folly of naive individualism and of human popularity.

He is likely to follow Jesus if he recognizes that the most powerful distinctiveness comes from the most radical conformity.

The closer behind Jesus that a man follows, the more he will feel the over-spray of rejection being spewed at his leader, but he will also better feel the warmth of love that radiates from his leader. From a distance, most think he’s crazy proclaiming the glories of the mist, but some will fall in line. These learn that a man who joyfully follows the Savior powerfully leads among the lost.

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