As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. — Matt. 4:18-20
In many respects, it was a day just like any other. Simon probably spent that day as he had spent countless ones before, wrestling the wind and the water and the nets, hoping for a good catch. The work of a fisherman was a full-body experience, a back-wrenching, hard day’s work, a work that required complete devotion. We see Simon with calluses on his hands from pulling the line every day. We see the sweat on his face, a man in his element, at home in his work. We hear Simon as he barks out orders to his crew, a natural born leader of men.
Simon is a man at work when he encounters Jesus. He’s not expecting a sermon, not expecting his life to be interrupted. But with these words, Simon’s life is about to take a drastic turn.
Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
And the Bible only gives us this line of response, beautiful in its simplicity: At once they left their nets and followed him.
What strikes me most about this moment is that Simon responds to the call to be a follower.
In our modern culture, we are enamored with leadership. Conferences and podcasts on leadership abound. A quick search of the Amazon bookstore reveals nearly 180,000 titles on the topic of leadership. Some of the best-known titles are written by John Maxwell, Stephen Covey, Simon Sinek and Tom Rath; I’m willing to bet that many of you have a copy of something written by at least one of these authors. One of Maxwell’s most quoted lines is this: “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” And we believe it. We’re always looking for leadership advice; we study the effective habits of leaders, the proper thought patterns for leaders. It seems safe to say that we are in love with leadership.
All of which impacts us at the church level. Of the nearly 180,000 books on leadership found at Amazon, over 40,000 of these deal with church leadership! And this has to be a good thing for the church. Even here at our church, we preach the importance of spiritual leadership. We even have leadership training classes for our young men, equipping them to lead the church in worship. Again, this is a good thing.
But given our cultural infatuation with leadership, the call of Jesus in this passage is striking. Jesus says to Simon Peter, Come, follow me. With all this leadership language rolling around in our minds, you could forgive a modern reader for expecting Jesus to say, Come, and I will make you a leader. But that’s not the call. The call is to follow.
And immediately we have a problem. Just as much as we love the word “leader”, the word “follower” doesn’t have a very positive connotation for us. We tell our children, “Now, don’t you be a follower!” How many of you heard these words growing up: “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?” That’s like Parenting 101; it’s in the handbook! From the earliest of ages we learn that being a leader is a good thing. Followers end up at the bottom of the proverbial pit. Or in jail. Either outcome is not desirable.
But listen again to what Jesus says to Simon Peter: be a follower. In our cultural pursuit of leadership, I’m afraid we might have lost sight of an essential truth as it pertains to our identity. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. The word the early church used to describe the activity of a disciple more than any other was akolouthein, to follow behind. The Bible doesn’t share our disdain for the word “follower.” In fact, the Scriptures seek to ground our identity here, as a people who follow behind Jesus as our Lord.
In 2007, Lee Iacocca (former CEO of Chrysler) wrote a book entitled, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” Perhaps we should turn that question around and ask, “Where have all the followers gone?”
What if Jesus isn’t looking for leaders first and foremost?
What if Jesus is simply looking for followers?
Instead of asking how we can become better leaders, maybe we should be asking how we could become better followers.
Here is an essential tenet of biblical leadership: Following comes first. In a culture obsessed with leadership, the church exists as a culture of followership. This definitely cuts against the grain of our society, but that’s okay; that’s the nature of the gospel. Anything we have to say about leadership in the church is played out beneath the banner of Christ’s lordship. We need Christian leaders, yes, but the nature of that leadership is formed by the nature of discipleship, by following behind Jesus. The church needs leaders, but she needs those leaders to be followers first.
In order to put love first, we must begin by accepting the call to follow.
Following comes first.