Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Human beings are born followers. Christians are followers of Jesus. In the gap between those sentences, in the small but dynamic space between the period and the capital C, is where the work of passing on the faith takes place. It is the space in which we fall in love with following Jesus or in which we stumble over obstacles until our God-given ability to follow Jesus is damaged beyond recognition. Passing on the faith requires at a minimum an understanding of how to avoid placing too many obstacles in that space and it may even be that the minimum is all God requires of us. After all, Jesus has already accomplished the rest.
If you are still reading, it may mean that you weren't too scandalized by the opening sentence. Or that you were scandalized and your anger has driven you forward. I say this because in our culture of hyper-individualism to be a called a "follower" is rather insulting. We value leadership in ourselves and in our children. No self-respecting parent wants their child to grow up to be a follower. Christian preachers and teachers are no different, encouraging our children to stand up for Jesus, to stand apart from the crowd, and to be persuasive defenders of the faith. Yet it is quite literally true that rather than being an insult, being a follower is the essence of what it means to be a human being. Each of us is who we are today as a direct result of our inborn childlike capacity to follow others.
The great innovator in early childhood education, Dr. Maria Montessori, observed nothing less more than one hundred years ago when she said, "The child is not born with a little knowledge, a little memory, a little will power, which have only to grow as time goes on... we are not dealing with something that develops, but with a fact of formation; something nonexistent has to be produced, starting from nothing" (Absorbent Mind, 33). In other words, we can think of a human infant as having come with a platform for growth, a bit of hardware if you like, that enables us to download content from the world around us. Rather than independent, self-starters, we are from the beginning born to be led into becoming ourselves.
Yet somehow the thought of being a follower pricks our pride, despite the obvious fact that not even our incarnated Lord was exempt from this ordinary human reality. What we often overlook is his extreme honesty and total lack of shame about his humanity. Not falling into the trap of denial (pride), he could openly live the reality that his identity was received from the Father. No delusion of being an individualistic self-starter for Jesus. He came from the Father, returned to the Father, and in the life lived in between, he did nothing but what the Father willed. Jesus was not scandalized by being a follower but he knew too well that we are, that we are ashamed of our lack of originality and to conceal it from ourselves and others we pretend self-sufficiency. Our mantra and orientation to others is a petulant cry of self-idolatry. Rather than openly seek models worthy of imitation, we insist that others imitate us.
When the disciples fell into self-idolatry, Jesus responded with a child. Recall this familiar passage from Matthew 18:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."
Jesus rightly cautions his disciples against putting too much value in seeking after greatness, but why didn't he just remind them of one of his sayings about humility? He had quite a repertoire to choose from—the first shall be last, don't take the seat of prominence at the table, the greatest among you is the servant, and so on. I think it's because he realized that the disciples' problem was not that they lacked a proper theory of humility; their problem was grasping after leadership and shame at being followers. Jesus invites them back into followership with what they no doubt found an insulting suggestion—that they follow a child. Becoming like a child means to be healed from your shame at being dependent on others, at your utter lack of originality, and to find joy once again in your inborn God-given ability to follow.
A dire warning follows this invitation from Jesus, a warning that all those who seek to pass on the faith need to take to heart.
"If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!"