Kyle Idleman. Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 224 pp. $14.99.
When was the last time you obeyed 2 Corinthians 13:5?
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
I guess it’s not surprising this verse feels unfamiliar. After all, exams just don’t seem to possess that Micah 6:8 ability to rev the engine. But like it or not, the apostle’s assignment to the Corinthians stares each of us in the face today, demanding a response.
I have to admit that Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus isn’t the book I was expecting to read from the teaching pastor of America’s fifth-largest congregation. With weekly attendance eclipsing 20,000, Southeast Christian in Louisville, Kentucky, is a megachurch of megachurches. But Idleman’s book is about as seeker-insensitive as they come. In fact, he opens with a confession:
Too often in my preaching I have tried to talk people into following Jesus. I wanted to make following him as appealing, comfortable, and convenient as possible. And I want to say that I am sorry. . . . The truth is, if you are looking for a book about following Jesus that lays out a comfortable and reassuring path, you won’t find it here. (14, 15)
That’s for sure. Not a Fan is anything but a safe and soothing read. From beginning to end, Idleman brings us face to face with some of our Lord’s most unsettling demands.
Followers, Not Fans
The book’s basic premise is that Jesus wants followers, not fans. In Part 1, “Fan or Follower? An Honest Diagnosis,” Idleman shows that Jesus requires lifelong commitment rather than a mere one-time decision (chapter 2), intimacy rather than mere knowledge (chapter 3), exclusive devotion rather than competing loves (chapter 4), pursuit of himself rather than pursuit of religion (chapter 5), and Spirit-filled effort rather than self-empowered striving (chapter 6). In Part 2, “An Invitation to Follow (The Unedited Version),” Idleman demonstrates from Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23 that “anyone” implies an open invitation (chapter 8), “come after me” a passionate pursuit (chapter 9), “deny” a total surrender (chapter 10), and “take up your cross daily” an everyday death (chapter 11). Finally, in Part 3, “Following Jesus—Wherever. Whenever. Whatever.,” Idleman anticipates responses like “What about there?” (chapter 12), “What about now?” (chapter 13), and “What about that?” (chapter 14).
Jesus has enough enthusiastic admirers. He’s looking for men and women willing to submit their lives wholly and unreservedly to him.
Not a Fan is a welcome corrective to the cotton-candy Christianity that predominates in many churches today. Idleman is intent on trashing any razor that would tempt us to shave rough edges off Christ’s words. “Scripture tells of a day,” he writes, “when many who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus will be stunned to find out that he doesn’t even recognize them” (20). Idleman wants to hold a microphone to Jesus’ mouth and make us grapple with the “unedited version” of his words.
Followers are in it for Jesus, Idleman insists, whereas fans are in it for themselves. He writes:
My concern is that many of our churches in America have gone from being sanctuaries to becoming stadiums. And every week all the fans come to the stadium where they cheer for Jesus but have no interest in truly following him. The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren’t actually interested in following Christ. They want to be so close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them. (25)
Unlike true followers, fans tend to confuse their adoration for devotion (27), their knowledge for intimacy (44), and their feelings for faith (105). But Christ will have none of this. He summons us to relationship on his terms, not ours, such that it’s impossible to say yes to him without saying no to oneself. So if you feel Jesus is interfering with your life, then, well, welcome to Christianity. And if you find living the Christian life easy, then perhaps it isn’t the Christian life you’re living.
Not a Fan is, on the whole, a solid book. It’s vividly illustrated, appropriately humorous, and often underlineable. I was provoked on several occasions to freshly assess my heart and life in light of the all-encompassing demands of my King. I’m grateful for Idleman’s humility and transparency, for his lack of patience for any Jesus-is-my-Savior-but-not-my-Lord nonsense, and for his recognition of the urgency of repentance (35, 95, 147, 162, 165) and the necessity of grace (76, 80, 104, 109).
There is indeed much to applaud in this book. However, I do have two concerns.
First, with rare exceptions (chapter 6, for instance), I’m inclined to think the vast majority of Not a Fan could have been published in AD 31 or 32—that is, before Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The emphasis is so heavily tilted to the front half of the Gospels that I was left wondering, “Okay, but how does the fact that we’re living on this side of Easter weekend uniquely inform our understanding of the call to follow Christ?” Calvary’s shadow, after all, looms large over the Gospels (see, e.g., Matt. 1:21; Luke 2:11; John 1:29)—even such that they can be described, in Martin Kahler’s famous words, as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Everything we read in them, therefore, must be interpreted in light of the redemptive-historical, epoch-shifting, new covenant realities inaugurated by the Messiah’s blood (cf. Matt. 26:28).
Moreover, I would have liked to see a stronger accent on the fact that the gospel is for followers, too (see, e.g., Rom. 1:15; 1 Cor. 15:1-2; 2 Cor. 8:7-9; Gal. 2:14; Eph. 5:25-32; Phil. 1:27). What is its role in fueling Christian living? How do the realities of our union with Jesus and indestructible acceptance before the Father propel us beyond fandom in this age? I can follow my Savior because he perfectly followed his Father and died for my failure to do so. I’m energized to obey him unto death because he was obedient unto death for me (Phil. 2:8). My standing before God, even when I slip into fandom, is grounded in his unshakable approval of me because of my vital union with his Son. As Sinclair Ferguson puts it, “My security as a Christian does not reside in the strength of my faith but in the indestructibility of my Savior.” So, as crucial as it is to regularly expose our hearts to the mirror of Luke 9:23 and 2 Corinthians 13:5, followers are finally secure not because of our radicalism for the cause but because of the gifted righteousness of the King.
Ultimately, we’re not students following a rabbi but Christians following a Redeemer. There’s a big difference.
Incidentally, Idleman’s underemphasis on Jesus’ accomplishment for us (beneath and beyond what we must accomplish for him) reveals itself in his exposition of Jesus’ call to carry our crosses:
It’s only by dying to ourselves that we truly find life. . . . In fact, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul wrote: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . Dying to yourself doesn’t make sense for the fan, but the follower understands that dying is the secret of really living. That’s why we sing about the wonderful cross. (170)
Well, not quite. The wonderful cross we sing about is Christ’s, not ours. In the context of 1 Corinthians 1, the “message of the cross” is the gospel of Christ’s death, as the preceding verse makes plain: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel . . . lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Second, I’m afraid Not a Fan is ecclesiologically inadequate. While Idleman tips his cap to the importance of fellowship, he does not underline the utterly indispensable role of covenant community in our pursuit of Jesus. Christian life and growth is not a solo sport but a community project, a team effort. More specifically, our discipleship to the Lord Jesus is designed to be anchored in a local church. We submit to him on earth by submitting to a church, just as a child submits to her parents by submitting to the babysitter or a professional athlete submits to the team owner by submitting to the head coach.
I wonder if, in the end, Idleman’s ecclesiology perpetuates the very thing he’s aiming to counter and therefore fails to be a robust rebuke. Fandom, after all, is a symptom of anonymous church participation. Without careful structures of meaningful membership and discipline in a church, discipleship lacks teeth and fandom is free to flourish.
So sell out for Jesus, yes, but do so through formally committing to a healthy church, submitting your life to the oversight of its leaders and the accountability of its members.
I was challenged and blessed as I read Not a Fan—an undeniably needed word in our day. Despite a couple of significant reservations, I am thankful for Idleman’s boldness, clarity, and unvarnished call to examine our motives, pick up our crosses, and pursue the One we profess to love. May God grant us all grace to be followers of Jesus, not fans.
Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.