Reimagining “Church” and “Christians” as the “Jesus Tribe”

This may be unsettling to some, but the earliest followers of Jesus did not refer to themselves as Christians. I am rather glad about this because the word “Christian” has too much baggage attached to it. It has come to mean a type of religion, or it is used as an adjective to describe music, politics, or schmaltzy merchandise. In the first century, those outside the community of Jesus coined the word “Christian” to describe people who had adopted the words and way of Jesus as their own. The first believers in Jesus referred to their pursuit as “The Way,” a much better description.

Being a “Christian”—a word used only three times in the New Testament—is not Jesus’ goal for his people. But making a community of revolutionary followers or “disciples”—a word used nearly three hundred times in the New Testament—seems to be exactly the goal. The church must return to these roots. The church must become a way of life, an alternative lifestyle, a counter-community of Christ followers. Church must once again become a people who are on “The Way” formed by the words and way of Jesus.

Most of the time we call this community of people the “church.” But that is another word that doesn’t seem to work anymore, at least not for me. Oh, I still believe in that living thing known as the Body of Christ. I still believe in the ecclesia, those whom Jesus has “called out” from the world. I still believe in the local congregation and its Spirit-infused witness that can transform individuals and communities, but I have lost faith in the English word “church.” In the imagination, the word too often conjures up pictures of somber robe-clad clergy, of closed and suffocating systems of legalism, of places where the doctrines and the pews are screwed to the floor, of angry picketing Christians, of multi-million-dollar mega-façades or cold, damp, deteriorating cathedrals.

Going further, many people think of church as nothing more than a place—a building, something constructed with brick and mortar, stained glass, tiled floors, pointy steeples, and heavy wooden furniture. This does not take into account our two-millennia history littered with moral failures, doctrinal squabbles, dissension and separation, crusades and inquisitions, bloodshed and war in the name of the “holy.” But if you really want to know what pops into people’s heads when they think “church,” conduct an interview on any street corner (make sure that blood pressure medicine is still in your hip pocket). Likely, it will not be a pleasant experience.

Most of us can accept the failures of the church, as it is filled with flawed, imperfect people and it will never be a utopia. That is fine, as the church does not exist for that purpose. It does, however, exist to bear witness to the words and way of Christ, and we cannot accept less than that. When bestselling author Anne Rice made a public departure from Christianity, her words—“Today I quit being a Christian . . . . I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being Christian”—rattled around the Internet like marbles in a tin can. Some defended her. Some attacked her. Some were confused by her. Some took the opportunity to preach her a sermon. But one thing was clear through all these conversations: the disconnection between Jesus’ way and the church that bears his name produces a dissonance that some people simply cannot hold in their minds, including me.

For this reason, and because of all the baggage cataloged above, I am introducing here a less common metaphor to describe the church. That word and metaphor is “tribe,” specifically the “Jesus Tribe.” Seth Godin defines a tribe as a group of people connected to one another, connected to an idea, and connected to a leader (Godin). Jesus is our leader, the Kingdom of God is the idea, and those of us who have heard and heeded the words “Follow me” form the people connected one to another. This is the Jesus Tribe.

This metaphor is not my invention. It is actually found in the Scriptures. Our ancient tribal roots run all the way back to Father Abraham. The Jesus Tribe has been forged in the fires of slavery, struggle, and adversity. Our forbearers were a people who played hide-and-seek under the canopy of the Old Testament prophets, whose voices echo through the history and songbooks of old, and whose identity rings out in the Apostles’ preaching. Simon Peter articulated our heritage, character, and coming challenges when he said,

You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession…. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. (1 Pet 2:9-12)

Promised to our forefathers, anticipated in the Christ, and fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, this Tribe has a lineage that endures to this day. While we must live in this world, we do not belong to it, for our citizenship lies within the Kingdom of God as we join him in his creative work of redemption. But until that Kingdom completely comes, we are compelled to live as aliens and strangers in a world we can no longer call home—even a world called America.

If you read on, you will find this book to be about

• waking up to the opportunity now before the church, the opportunity to reclaim our unique tribal identity as followers of Jesus in the shadow of the Empire;
• forsaking our addiction to, dependence on, and dangerous handling of the seductive powers of the world;
• the “category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire but was considered by those in power to be dangerous” (Yaconelli);
• and committing to a life of radical discipleship that graciously resists and defies “how things really work” in the world.

Imagine what could happen if any of this takes root in our hearts! If we finally decide that the Dow Jones Index is not god; that the winner of elections, now or whenever, is not Lord; that the rules and stories that control our society are wrong; that the way into the future is not paved with more and more possessions, with higher and higher standards of living, or with the blood and corpses of our enemies. Imagine if we could be free from the materialistic, pleasure-driven, individualized, greedy rules of the world. Imagine what would happen if we held intensely to our identity-shaping, life-giving commitment to Christ, rather than being anesthetized by the sedative of the religious status quo. Imagine a place where we offer others a powerful, life-changing, life-forming story of what it means to be the people of God on mission in the world.

Imagine a day when followers of Jesus do not choose the path that leads to the highest corporate salaries, the greatest personal success, or the most profitable bottom line. Rather, they learn to become men and women of “The Way” who will care for the poor, work to heal and help others in Jesus’ name, and refuse to participate in systems of abusive power. Imagine a people who understand that the most radical and world-changing thing they can do is “stop believing in the dominant systems and rules of this world,” for these are all passing away. Imagine a church that exists not to sustain the world around us but to live as “a contradiction full of hope and promise” (Barth). If we can begin to imagine some of this, we can imagine life in the Jesus Tribe.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark Publishers, 1961) 4.3.2.

Seth Godin, Tribes (New York: Portfolio, 2008) 1.

Mike Yaconelli, quoted by Becky Garrison, Jesus Died for This? (Grand
Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2010) 11.


This post originally appeared in the Introduction of The Jesus Tribe: Following Christ in the land of Empire by Ronnie McBrayer.

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