What is an 'active follower of Jesus'?

HillsongHillsong is one of the churches that does attract hundreds of young people.

Last week, new statistics claimed that around one in five British young people follow Jesus. It was an extraordinary figure which seemed to contradict the experience of most youth workers, and provoked huge and healthy debate in the Christian community. At first glance, the idea that 21 per cent of young people describe themselves as 'active followers of Jesus' felt like a large-scale glitch; a demonstration of the limitations of quantitive research. A second stat – that 13 per cent described themselves as 'practising Christians' – was equally puzzling. These numbers just don't relate to our experience.

Except... what if they're actually describing a completely unpredicted phenomenon. What if something else is going on?

We're confused because there clearly aren't millions of teenagers in the UK who fit the pattern of behaviour we understand for Christian belief.  It is the case 21 per cent of young people aren't in church – except perhaps for other reasons from Scouting to school assemblies – and 21 per cent aren't engaging in the 'Christian youth' subculture by attending conferences, buying books, downloading podcasts and following Mike Pilavachi on Twitter. The researchers were commissioned by two organisations which would understand Christian practice in quite a traditional way: prayer, Bible study and church attendance being central markers of it. But are those the things that make someone an 'active follower of Jesus?'

If we look at the very first group to have held that title – Jesus' own disciples – we don't actually find direct references to those things. Of course, they were talking with God daily, so that covers the prayer part, and there's no doubt they'd have known their Old Testament (which at the time was just a Testament). Church didn't exist yet, so for them, being an active follower was a much more practical, hands-on pursuit. They listened to Jesus' teaching, they presented him with their questions, they went around helping him meet need, and they became so devoted to telling others about him that after his death they would not stop doing so until people killed them for it. So is that what a Christian should really look like?

Jesus gives his disciples a few simple guidelines to follow if they want to 'come after him' and become followers of his Way. Mainly, he compels them to love the world around them, and to continue the work that he has started in putting a bit of light back into a dark world. Paul then layers on all sorts of other stuff, a sort of New Testament guidebook to replace the Old Testament's rulebook. He tells us that there are certain marks of a Spirit-filled believer, demonstrated through 'fruit'; and warns against some of the behaviours which take us further away from his version of the Good Life. So does following all those instructions make you a Christian?

Those definitions are certainly very different to the one used in the survey. Prayer, Bible reading and church attendance are all good and important markers of faith, but as a list, they don't encapsulate 'active Christ following' as demonstrated in either of the above descriptions very well.

After the publication of my first article on these statistics, the artist Charlie Mackesy challenged me, suggesting that the rather narrow definition of Christianity that I'd presented didn't match up at all with his own teenage faith. In response to the idea that an 'active follower of Jesus' would be someone who prayed, read the Bible and attended church, he said he totally disagreed. 'It took me years to move towards those things even though as a teen I was deeply connected to Jesus,' he countered. 'We have to be careful how we choose to grade people. I'd have run a mile if I'd seen that as a description of a "Christian".'

So the question is, while 13 per cent of young people described themselves as practising Christians and even more as 'Christ followers', what kind of Christianity is it that they're practising? The evangelical version, where they're very much part of the tribe? Certainly not, unless all the other indicators are to be disregarded. So what about the kind described in the teachings of the New Testament, and particularly Paul, by which they're committed to a particular code of ethics, and working to eradicate sin in their lives and access the power of the Holy Spirit? Again, not in any terms that Paul would have been happy with.

There's just one option left then, and it's perhaps closest to the experience of those first disciples. Could it be that around 20 per cent of all teenagers in the UK feel a connection to Jesus, and see him both as a real person who's still alive today, and a leader worth following? Could it be that they are crying out to him with their questions and their deepest longings? They're not connected with church, or particularly interested in the Bible, but they know on a deep level that they can trust him, and privately they do. They're activists, and they're compelled to love others, at least partly because of the work God is doing within them. That might not have been the kind of Christian disciple that the organisers of this survey were looking for, but perhaps that's who they've found.

Before we get too excited, that definitely doesn't mean that they're all queuing up to jump into the box of evangelical Christianity, if only we could just 'reach' them. Many of those kids – like a teenage Charlie Mackesy – would turn and run if we came at them with a Youth Alpha invitation. Yet there is something potentially very exciting going on, and which we hadn't anticipated. In a classic demonstration of the ways in which we often limit God, it might just turn out that he's been working away in the lives of millions of teenagers completely without our knowledge. While we've perhaps understandably been focusing on the kids in church, he's been at work in the ones in our schools, communities and online spaces. What if there are literally millions of young people out there, connected with Jesus in some way, that we never even knew about?

All of which presents a number of challenges to those of us within the church. What then is our message, our offer to these young people? As more experienced Christians, we have a role to play in helping them on the journey, whatever that means. So what is the Christianity that we're going to help them discover? For the last 40 years or so, Christian youth work has been focusing its efforts on developing Christians who will join a church and start adopting practices (and buying Christian stuff along the way). What if instead, it simply aimed to create space for young people to explore the connection that they already feel with Jesus?

What is a Christian? Surely it's just someone who – like those first disciples – wants to follow the Jesus that they somehow know to be real, alive, and more important than anyone else in history. They want to learn from him, and slowly become more like him as they put his words into practice. That kind of stripped-back Christ-following might scare the church half to death, but perhaps it's the kind that an extraordinary number of young people have quietly embraced. Wouldn't that be exciting?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.