Ward Brehm doesn't call himself a Christian. "I just call myself a follower of Jesus," says Brehm, a Minneapolis businessman and former chairman of the U.S.-Africa Development Foundation. "It's a huge difference." Christian definitions used not to matter so much. People used to be Methodists or Lutherans, Episcopalians or Baptists. Each denomination had its own culture, its ownjokes. A Congregationalist friend once defined himself to me this way: "We're the ones who fold up the chairs after church to make room for the basketball court." Outsiders could—and did—make assumptions about their neighbors' personal habits and politics based on denomination. The United Church of Christ was left-wing. The Southern Baptists leaned to the right. Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans fell somewhere in between.
Then, in the 1980s, as nondenominational churches became the fastest-growing segment of American Christianity, a number of Christians cast off their labels. But with this freedom came a challenge: what should this new generation call itself? Initially, some chose "born again," but after Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell, the media always used the term with derision. "Evangelical" eventually came into fashion, but that had disadvantages, too. What kind of evangelical? A conservative evangelical, allied with the powerful religious right? Did that mean fundamentalist? A progressive evangelical? Over the past several years, as evangelicals strained to define themselves and the media strained to comply, Christians fell into narrower and narrower niches—until at last the niches were as narrow as the denominations once were.
Younger evangelicals, meanwhile, preferred to call themselves simply "Christian," as in "My parents are Lutheran, but I'm a Christian."
Now, as the Christian world continues to refine its identity, another label is gaining currency: "follower of Jesus." It is gaining among the young. On Facebook, more than 900 groups use some variation of "follower of Jesus." The tag is also popular among people in the so-called fellowship movement—small, collegial groups that regularly meet for ecumenical prayer. (The weekly prayer breakfasts in Washington—one for senators, another for members of the House—are the most prominent example, but such fellowships are common at corporations too.) "Follower of Jesus" has at least two advantages over "Christian" or "evangelical," its boosters say. First, it doesn't carry baggage. You can wear it abroad, in Islamic countries, or at home with your Jewish or Buddhist friends, without causing offense. Second, it distances the bearer from the culture wars that have made American politics so divisive. David Durenberger, the former Republican senator from Minnesota, puts it this way. "As my party in particular has begun to characterize its base as 'Christian' and to express its values as 'Christian' values … it has been really important to identify myself as a follower of Jesus." The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas adds that "follower of Jesus" has the virtue of reflecting biblical truth: the earliest Christians called themselves "followers of the Way."
While many Christians applaud this effort to transcend labels and history, some also worry that "follower of Jesus" diverts people from the fundamentals. "Two questions constantly come up," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. "The first is Christology. What about the full divinity of Christ? How much can you keep that in the background? Second, what's the role of the church in all this?" Brehm admits, guiltily, that he left his longtime church five years ago and is still shopping. For the time being, he finds communion in regular meetings with fellow followers of Jesus: "That's real church." To accusations that he's letting identity politics overshadow Christian tradition, Brehm delivers what he believes to be his knockout punch: Jesus, after all, said, "Follow me."