What should we make of the WWJD movement—What Would Jesus Do?—of the 90’s?
Proponents of that movement updated Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? They also borrowed from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis of the 16th century.
I’ve been a skeptic. My hesitation has nothing to do with the underlying premise that a Christian ought to be Christlike. We are, certainly, to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1 & more). But how do we get there?
Sin is able to redirect even that good ambition. In the case of WWJD we can turn faith into a responsibility in place of a response. Religion then becomes a performance, with followers seeking to be good—imitating Jesus—in the eyes of a given audience. But real goodness is something that comes from God and not something we bring to him.
The trap is obvious once we see sin as self-love. As sinners who focus on behaviors—as is true of WWJD—we are religiously looking in the wrong direction: at self. Jesus serves as our resource with some of his Bible lines excerpted to become a script for improving performances. He then serves as a utilitarian icon rather than as a captivating companion.
This form of behavioral faith is both moralistic and tiresome. Tiresome because it is hard work to pretend to be moral if our hearts are distant from God. So the question is one of motivation.
The actual call of Christ is to receive a new heart—offered by the Spirit’s ministry—and then to do what is increasingly natural as his love moves us. So the true imitation of God is to have a heart moved by his heart: to love what he loves. We begin to walk in step with the One who is loved—not as a performance but as a response.
But back to the WWJD theme. Despite the concerns just noted it seems to me there is a proper place to ask what Jesus did during his first century ministry. But the question should be broader—community-based—and affective. In other words, what were the social settings or activities Jesus used and affirmed? And HDJL—How Does Jesus Love?
Let me sketch some potential lessons by briefly comparing how we function as churches today over against Christ’s first century ministry.
For one, Jesus spurned a headquarters-based ministry in favor of itinerant processions, mainly through the regions in and around Galilee, but also to the Jerusalem region for Jewish feasts.
Jesus did return to Capernaum and to Bethany in pauses between his travels but not much is made of these settings. Peter’s mother-in-law lived in Capernaum. This suggests the town was Peter’s home as well as the home of the other fishing-industry apostles. But nothing much is made of the community or its synagogue apart from Christ’s dire warning in Matthew 11:23.
Churches today, by contrast, are invested in place and permanence. Material settings receive huge resources while investments in missions often lag. One lesson here is that Jesus loved to engage people wherever he spent a given day, yet did little to create spaces and places for ministry. His was a “go and share” vision rather than a “come and settle” model.
Jesus offered himself to the poor and needy instead of the privileged and powerful. His mission was notably upside-down in this regard—something he needed to restate even among the disciples—as he came not to be served but to serve. He knew the meek are always more responsive than the mighty.
In contrast to this, business growth models and numerical goals often shape modern churches. Pastors are CEO’s in structures that mirror the values of their given community. Bible colleges, in turn, adapt their teachings to remain aligned with cultural demands.
Jesus was also a controversialist. He stirred a hornet’s nest by his Sabbath activism. He also confronted religious leaders with his uncomfortable parables and his “woe to you” statements. He forced audiences to realize there are only two masters: we either serve God or the world.
The church today, by contrast, is often placid and accommodating—acting as if most of our culture is spiritually neutral. Therapeutic coaching and training in creedal compliance often displaces a passion for Christ and a sacrificial love of neighbors.
Jesus was also boldly relational. His closest companions loved him, with only one exception. They were ready to die for him, as they did in the end, because they knew he loved them.
As part of this Jesus was conversational. He offered himself to his followers during their long treks to and from Jerusalem. His disciples asked him hard questions without fearing a rebuke. He also stirred their thinking—and elicited more talk—whenever they were passive or confused. He loved them and he told them that their mutual love is a signal of authentic faith. It was this group who then carried Christianity into its explosive growth.
The church today, by contrast, elevates teacher-centered education rather than student-centered conversations. Engagements tend to be top-down—or podium-based—rather than face-to-face and interactive. And deep-seated love is replaced by admiration and affirmation.
More can be said. It’s enough for now to invite the Spirit’s inspection: how well do we listen to Jesus these days?
If we fail to walk as he walked and to love as he loved the church becomes moribund. Isn’t it time for us to return to our first love? And then to respond to Christ’s love as our proper motivation? If we do our churches may once again begin to have an impact on the world.