Checklist Christianity vs. Following Jesus

Posted in discipleship, guest post by Nathan Creitz on June 8, 2009

Picture 1 Jeremy is a pastor in Jackson, Michigan and he blogs at He writes most often about progressive faith and the intersections between faith, culture, and politics. Jeremy and I got connected through conversations on Twitter. Through 140 character conversations or less we found that we sometimes disagree on minor points but often are fighting for the same thing: relevant and authentic followers of Jesus. It has been a productive and ongoing conversation so I’ve asked him to write a guest post here at ChurchETHOS for your benefit:


My thinking about the topic of following Jesus led to the first real conversation Nathan and I had on Twitter, so I’m thankful for it. I’m also thankful we grow spiritually by a variety of practices. But I’m always afraid of an overemphasis on what I call “Checklist Christianity.” “Checklist Christianity” is that form of religion that teaches, either directly or indirectly, that our spiritual growth, or even our worth as a Christian, is tied up in what we do. Specifically, the more bible studies you attend, the more extra-curricular “Christian” activities you are involved in, the more you read your bible and pray on your own, the more you are growing spiritually.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the forms of Christianity that we teach in the church. Perhaps I’ve given something away even in my description because if the emphasis in “church” is on “teaching” then the primary intent of our form is information transmission. This doesn’t mean we don’t connect with people and other things aren’t done; just that we view the primary reason for gathering as transmitting information about the bible.

The idea is this: The more you know about the bible, the more you will be equipped to live a Christian life. But the result is often very different from this.

I know Christians who have sat through more than 4,000 bible studies and sermons in their lives but who are no different today than they were a decade ago. I know Christian men who have sat through this same number of bible studies but couldn’t teach one even if their life depended on it!

This gives the appearance of the activity itself adding value. Instead, value should come from the transformative change that should occur through the activity.

So there is a clear disconnect (for me, at least) between how much and how often biblical information is transmitted…and how it is received. Instead, the activity serves as a checklist that, once checked off, indicates to us that we have “done our duty.” But the result is far worse: we have fooled ourselves into thinking that spiritual growth is about accomplishing things rather than being changed.

Being a Christian is about following Jesus. It seems to me, then, that a good barometer of our success would be in how well we follow him. Checking things off a list will never bring us close to Jesus, but actually following him, his teaching, and his example, will.

Jesus said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). We are called to be followers of Jesus. A follower, well, follows! So we should be doing the same things Jesus did.

But when we treat our Christianity as a checklist rather than as a relationship we view our relationship with God not as a true relationship but as a list of things we must do or a set of requirements we need to fulfill. We wait for others to take the initiative. We don’t connect with each other away from the church building because it’s not on our list.

If Jesus did not seek to be served by others, why do many of us? Why do we criticize the minister or someone else for not visiting us when we never bothered to pick up the phone or make an appointment to spend time with someone else?

Jesus served others. He added value to the lives of others. The best question we can ask ourselves is not how we can fill a building with people, or how we can get others to do what we want them to do, or how we can make sure the minister “does his job.”

The best question we can ask ourselves, to be a true follower of Jesus, is:

Who can I love right now? And how?

That’s what it means to follow Jesus.


15 Responses

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  1. Jeremy Hoover said, on June 8, 2009 at 8.08 pm

    Thanks for the invite, Nathan! I’ve enjoyed writing this article, and I’d be happy to discuss this with any of your readers! I look forward to the conversation.

  2. John Pantzer said, on June 9, 2009 at 5.44 am

    Interesting article, Jeremy. What makes it interesting to me is that when “following Jesus” is described that way, a lot of people who wouldn’t be considered (nor consider themselves to be) Christian actually look a lot more like followers of Jesus than those who think they are because of all the bible studies they attend. I think you’ve said something that really needs to be heard.

    • Jeremy Hoover said, on June 9, 2009 at 8.35 am

      Hi John,

      You’ve hit the nail on the head for something I’ve been thinking about recently. We actually discussed this in the teen class. There are what I consider to be “fake” Christians. I do not mean this to imply they aren’t saved, but that they misrepresent Jesus by claiming bible knowledge instead of a changed life.

      In Matthew 1-2, Matthew continually points to the bible to indicate that the message of the Messiah was always there…for those who could discern it! Since Jews were reading it, the key example for them was Herod and the magi (2:1-12). Herod was a Jew, but apparently knew nothing about the bible. Not only did he have to be instructed about where the Messiah would be born (2:4-6), but he also missed the rest of the clues in the bible (which Matthew called fulfilled prophecies: 1:22; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23). The magi, on the other hand, were Gentiles who knew little, if anything, about the bible.

      But who found Jesus? And who was obedient to God? The “bible-knowing” Jew, or the seeking Gentile?

      As Jesus says, Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear!

  3. Jason said, on June 9, 2009 at 8.04 am

    I don’t think any Christian would argue with the truth that our lives are to “active” in the world; if true faith is not “dead” as James says, then it will manifest itself in the lives of those who have been “born again”. And this is necessarily true because the Spirit will not be denied His purpose–to conform the believer into the image of Christ. The Christian is “active” in her faith because she is guided and directed by the Spirit; not always, of course, and not to the degree that she is called to in the Scripture because she is still affected by the remnants of the “flesh” and the “old man” (sin still is an issue) until the consummation at the return of Christ; but the work of the Spirit will not be absent in her.

    So the issue is not so much whether or not we’re called to an “active” faith, but what is the motivation for this active faith. And I’m not comfortable with the WWJD mantra. If we set out to “do what Jesus did”, even as we consider ourselves “followers of Christ”, we can still be setting up “to do checklists” and judging our faithfulness or our relationship with God based on whether or not we did the things today that Jesus would do, or if we did ENOUGH of the things that Jesus would do. This can be every bit as self-serving and self-righteous as the person who finds his righteousness in how many days a weeks he’s in church, or how often he reads his Bible and prays, etc. And thinking that we’re “following Jesus” because we actively set out to do the things that Jesus did (WWJD) can even be as damning as those who consciously refuse Christ (Matt. 7:21-23).

    I agree with the author’s last statement, “Who can I love right now? And how?” But even here, there is a danger of having our “love” be “of the flesh” instead of Spirit-directed. The “emergents” are right to call us to actively express our faith through “love” as Jesus directed (of course, without a doctrinal foundation for our faith we simply don’t know who this Jesus is…”postmodernism” is blatantly self-refuting), but our activity of love is birthed NOT because WE ARE TRYING to be like Jesus but because WE ARE LIKE Jesus. Love is not something that we do, but what we are.

    Let me put it this way: I agree that as followers of Jesus we are to be like Him. But to be like Him is not something that we do but something that we are. We’re to be like Jesus in His “sonship”. We’re to imitate Jesus (and even Paul and Peter, etc.) in living as “sons” (Children) of God. Jesus didn’t set out to DO anything, per say, but to BE WHO HE WAS. Our Lord didn’t have to consider from day-to-day what He needed to accomplish, He didn’t bring a copy of the OT around to check off all the things He needed to do to fulfill the Scripture; He simply lived out the reality of who He was as the Son of God. In other words, He was simply true to His nature. The things He did were the product of who He was. He didn’t have to think, “Now, what would the Father have me do in this instance.” He did the Father’s will because it was His own will as well.

    This is how we’re to be followers of Christ. We’ve been “born again” to new life by the Spirit who now indwells us. His job is to conform us into the image of Christ–and He will do it! We are now Children of God, new creations in Christ…and even Christ is referred to as our “brother”. If we want to live lives of active love, if we want to show ourselves to be followers of Jesus, then our imitation of Jesus is to be true to WHO WE ARE as sons and daughters of God. We are like Jesus not when we consider the WWJD mantra and then do it; we are like Jesus when we live out the reality of our “sonship” by the power of the Spirit.

    Like Jesus, we don’t have to DO anything but BE true to who we are as Children of God. If we’re faithful to BE WHO WE ARE, then our lives will look very much like Jesus’ life and we will show ourselves to be His disciples.


  4. Jeremy Hoover said, on June 9, 2009 at 8.43 am

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for sharing. I especially this line from your response:

    “We are like Jesus not when we consider the WWJD mantra and then do it; we are like Jesus when we live out the reality of our “sonship” by the power of the Spirit.”

    I agree. In fact, I think the WWJD mantra actually creates a checklist mentality (as you mentioned above) because it focuses on action. But to me, following Jesus IS about getting your motivation right. We create checklists mainly because we’re trying to decide what minimum commitments we need to have to “be faithful to God.” There is no relationship in this, only an attempt to “get to heaven” by keeping commands.

    On the other hand, following Jesus is about lifestyle and orientation. If I want to be a “good Christian” then I know what to do: attend church services, study the bible, pitch in once a month to serve (maybe), and live a good, moral life.

    But following Jesus–well, that’s a whole different story! As you said, we ARE like him. I believe this is true in a “justified” sense, but not in a “sanctified” sense. We are still being made like him. And we become more like him when we follow him., when we do what he does.

    When I see Jesus pray for guidance, I pray for guidance. And I listen. And I follow the leading of God. And I become more compassionate and loving and willing to set my agenda aside to help someone (at least, I hope so). But this won’t happen if I’m focused on my checklist.

    What happens, in a ridiculous example, when I’m on my way to bible study but see a stranded motorist? Do I stop? Well, my checklist is going to have a blank on it for bible study if I stop, so is that how I make my decision? Or has my decision already been made because my life-orientation is to follow Jesus?

  5. Jason said, on June 9, 2009 at 12.42 pm

    Thanks for the response, Jeremy. I think we’re basically speaking the same language, so-to-speak. 🙂

    I had a loooong response back to you, but as I was proof-reading it I accidently hit a wrong button and poof!…it was gone. I’m a firm believer in God’s sovereignty, so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that He had mercy on everyone else and decided to “delete” what had turned into a book-length response. 🙂

    So, I’ll try doing this again…

    I guess my main point, in a nutshell, is that we are like Jesus when we live out our calling as children of God as He lived out His calling as THE Son of God. The Old Testament spoke of Jesus, it painted His portrait; but Jesus didn’t have to pore over the Old Testament to discover what He was called to do. He knew who He was and simply lived His life. He didn’t set out to DO anything, per say, He simply (pardon the grammar) BE. All Jesus did was to live out the reality of who He was. And we are like Jesus (practically) when we live out the reality of who we are—not when we DO, but when we…BE.

    We are rightly called to follow Jesus; He is our example. But He’s our example NOT in what He did, per say, but in who He was. The things that Jesus did were simply the manifestation of who He was. So we imitate Jesus by having a constant awareness of who we are as children of God in Him and allowing that reality to manifest itself in our lives by the power of the indwelling Spirit. To be like Jesus is to BE who we are in the same way that He BE who He was. Jesus lived as a (the) Son of God—not in what He did, but in who He was. So we too are to live as “sons” (children) of God—not in what we do, but in who we are. If we’re like Jesus in being true to who we are, then what we do will manifest the reality of who we are…and our lives will look very similar to Jesus’ life (and the world will see Him in us).

    It’s really as simple as that…though that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We still struggle with the flesh, we still struggle with sin because we’re a work in progress. But, praise God, the Spirit will complete His work. We’re progressively being conformed (back) into the likeness of Christ (our original design as “image-sons”) NOT by what we do but by the work of the Spirit in us. What we do is either a work of the flesh which doesn’t please God, or a work of the Spirit as He continues our transformation into Christ likeness.

    Our lives in world are governed biblically by the reality of our union with Christ. We’ve been joined to Christ by the Spirit. We are “sons” of God “in” THE Son of God through the presence of the indwelling Spirit. This truth is so important that Paul attributes the life that he lives to life of Christ in Him by the Spirit. Paul says it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”

    It’s this union with Christ in the Spirit that is the source for any good thing that we do. And the language that Paul uses is not be confused with determinism, as if Paul has ceased to exist as a self-conscious being and now Christ is moving his arms and legs to do His will in spite of the person of Paul himself. No, Paul understands his union with Christ in such a way that if he, Paul, would simply live out the reality of who he is as a “born again”, Spirit indwelt “son” of God, that his life would manifest the essential character of the life of Christ. To “be” God’s “son” is to be led by the Spirit which is to “be” like Christ. Isn’t this what Paul tells us in Romans? “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” And Paul recognizes the presence of the Spirit of God as presence of Christ Himself (Rom. 8:9-10).

    I know it may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but I think the distinction between “doing” and “being” needs to be made. Anyone with enough motivation can do anything that he thinks will be of benefit to him—even “following Jesus”. But unless our “following Jesus” is the natural result of who we are as children of God (being led by the Spirit), then our doing is simply another manifestation of sin-the sin of unbelief and autonomy. Our motivation for godly living is ontological—we’re to be who we are.

    Of course, to “be” who we are it is necessary that we “know” who we are. And since this post has already approached the length of my previous “God-ordained” deleted post (and is fruitful as another topic), I’ll simply say this: We live into the reality of who we are only to the extent that we grow in knowledge of who we are. And we grow in knowledge of who we are to the extent that we grow in knowledge of WHO Christ is and WHAT Christ has accomplished in this great redemption that is found in Him. Love of God and knowledge of God are inseparable (not identical). The more we know our God and Savior (who He is and what He has done), the more we, as God’s children, will love Him and live as Jesus lived—as “sons”.

    Well, so much for my “in a nutshell” comment or my assumption that God had caused me to delete the previous post because of its length (unless I hit another wrong button before posting this!). Sorry this became so long, I just get excited when I “talk” about these things. Now you all know how my wife feels when someone stops us after church to ask me a question! 🙂

    I’m sure I haven’t been as clear as I probably can be regarding the distinction between “doing” and “being”, but I hope you all get what I’m trying to convey. Good luck!

    Thanks for indulging me…


    • Jeremy Hoover said, on June 9, 2009 at 3.23 pm

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks again for responding. I don’t think we’re saying the same thing because I think we’re addressing different issues, but I largely agree with what you’re writing. There is an aspect of “being” but also of “doing.” This is very clear in scripture.

      My only point in the original post is this: are we pursuing our faith by works (a checklist) or by trusting Jesus’ leading in our lives?

      Thanks for the discussion. I’m really enjoying it.

  6. Nathan Creitz said, on June 10, 2009 at 7.06 am

    Alright, great discussion so far and I appreciate your post Jeremy. Let me join the conversation and say that I agree, we need to move past checking things off a list. Relationships are organic. My relationship with God is something that’s on my heart and in my thoughts so I naturally think about Him and serve Him and worship Him.

    However, the discussion about sitting through 4,000 Bible studies and sermons seems beside the point. I agree that there are some ministries that are not producing any change in people’s lives. I have to admit, as one who is called to preach and who strives to do so effectively, I don’t think every sermon I preach is going to effect transformation in every life every week. But I do think I can deliver each person a “home cooked meal” (so to speak) every week and strengthen their faith. Every day, we eat about three times. Not every one of those meals is going to be caviar or lobster but they keep us going. Who knows what that person would be like if he or she had not sat under those 4,000 Bible studies. Sometimes transformation happens over time and sometimes it happens in a moment.

    Having said all of that, the “following Jesus” vs. “checklist Christianity” is a good concept for reflection and there are definitely people who think they have now found favor with God, simply because they showed up at church or volunteered in the nursery. There are others, however, who love working with children and THAT’s why they volunteer in the nursery. Let’s let our actions be motivated by a true relationship and a sincere desire to follow Jesus.

    • Jeremy Hoover said, on June 10, 2009 at 7.28 am

      Nathan, your last paragraph hits the mark and is what I was getting at with the 4,000 bible studies comments. Relationship and desire are the guiding factors in following Jesus, which are things that cannot be checked off.

      My only point with the 4,000 bible studies was that I can check off 3-4 bible studies each week for over 20 years and not be any closer to Jesus as a result. The quantity of bible studies isn’t as important as the quality–measured both by the content being delivered and by the desire of the one receiving to apply it.

      Thanks for stopping in to “rebuke” me!

    • Nathan Creitz said, on June 11, 2009 at 9.39 am

      No rebuke…I agree with you and I think you’ve cleared up your point nicely. The same sermon, Bible study, or Bible verse can transform a person inside and out and it can fall on deaf ears with someone else. It’s not the message or the messenger, it’s the receiver of that message that matters. If we haven’t made a decision to follow Jesus then those years of studying the Bible are wasted because of a hard heart or a weak mind. Thanks for clarifying and sorry if it sounded like I was disagreeing, just trying to get at the bottom of what you are saying in your post.

    • Rick Cruse said, on June 14, 2009 at 5.46 am

      Let’s perhaps turn the 4,000 sermon issue on its head and ask the question from the other side: how is it that some very faithful (in attendance) people in our congregations are unchanged after years of faithful listening? Does this not, perhaps, direct us to Jesus’ closing story in the Sermon on the Mount? The issue is not in the knowing but in the practicing.

      Yet, in the final analysis, is the problem actually our tried and true Sunday methodology that relentlessly piles one sermon after another on those who are not given adequate time and help to digest? Imagine the indigestion in those who hear two or three sermons a week. Three meals each day is great…if the digestive system is active. Otherwise we end up with spiritual constipation: much food, little movement!

      What if we preached a sermon on the first Sunday of the month, then used the remaining Sundays to unpack, apply, emphasize, underscore. Use our times of gathering as aids to digestion. Only food that is digested gives strength to the body to live and to act.

    • Jeremy Hoover said, on June 15, 2009 at 7.27 am

      Hi Rick,

      You got what I was getting at! The problem I identified is measuring our spiritual growth by how many bible studies we attend. But what if our methodology is flawed, as you said? At my church, we have a Sunday morning bible study, a sermon, and a Wednesday night bible study. Of course, members are “expected” to be there because “studying the bible is a good thing and will help you grow in your faith.” I agree with that–but I also agree with you that it can be overkill.

      I’ve often wondered why, in a bible study, we don’t study a book of the bible, then take a break from studying so we can implement what we learned. Why not study for a month, then take the next month to apply? I wonder if this approach would “weed out” those who are focused on the checklist (mere attendance) and those who are focused on true spiritual growth.

      I really like your idea of preaching on the first Sunday, then unpacking and applying it the next weeks. I may try to implement something like that here.

  7. Jeremy Hoover said, on June 11, 2009 at 10.12 am

    I was just kidding about the “rebuke!” Hence, the quotation marks! I’ve really enjoyed the discussion on this post. I’ve added a little more about the “4,000 bible studies” on my blog at this link:

    Nathan, thanks again for the invite to guest post!

  8. Rick Cruse said, on June 15, 2009 at 3.50 am

    Jeremy: I’ve been pondering all weekend a statement you made earlier in this conversation. I admit it has me mystified, in part because of its presence here and in part because I’ve heard it over and over again in similar circumstances:

    “There are what I consider to be “fake” Christians. I do not mean this to imply they aren’t saved….”

    If, indeed, these are “false Christians’ (and I have no idea of whom you speak), why in the world would you feel the necessity to “not imply” something about their being “saved”?

    Why, just because at some point some person has expressed some sort of verbal assent to some list of things about themselves and Jesus, do we feel the need to “safe a seat for them at the Table”?

    I feel this perpetuates a “two-tiered” Christianity: the “entry level” Christian (who claims the designation on the basis of “praying the prayer”) and the “being transformed” disciple. We confuse the mediocre cultural imitation of Christianity (“it really is all about me/us”) with the authentic version where it really is all about Him.

    • Jeremy Hoover said, on June 15, 2009 at 7.32 am

      Good question, Rick. (By the way, I’m a fellow Canadian, too, from Windsor, Ontario.) I guess I meant “fake” in the sense that the message they represent about Christ is fake. That’s why I qualified it by saying I don’t mean to imply they aren’t saved. I definitely think there are some “fake Christians” who are not saved, but there are some hypocrites who represent a fake message that are probably saved (if they smarten up!), and there are some who don’t know any better, represent a fake message out of ignorance, but change once they learn better.

      Rick, feel free to continue this discussion here, or on my blog, where you can find contact details to reach me in other ways.

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