Today in Sunday School, my group was discussing the role of Barnabas to the early Church as noted in the book of Acts. Barnabas is lesser known to most Christians, but one act in particular is remembered. Early in our history, Barnabas welcomed a newcomer to the Church who others found difficult to accept. Before his conversion, this man was a former tax collector of Rome and a notorious persecutor of Christians. This individual was deeply feared and mistrusted by early Christians for his past sins and grievances against them. Barnabas, though, welcomed the man as an equal, encouraged him, and in time, became one of his first followers. Empowered by Barnabas’ encouragement, within this man’s lifetime, he would eventually become instrumental to spreading Christianity into modern day Turkey, Greece, North Africa, and even to the very steps of the Empire itself, in Rome. This man was the Apostle Paul. Without Paul, Christianity may have forever been viewed as just another sect of Judaism, and may have never reached outside of Israel in the way that it did. We certainly wouldn’t have the Christianity we do today without the acts of Paul, but perhaps more importantly, we wouldn’t have had Paul without the acts of Barnabas.
Speaking about how Barnabas encouraged Paul reminded me of a TED talk I once saw about the importance of the First Follower (in class I called it the Second Leader, but now we are just arguing about words.)
The video showed a goofy dude, we’ll call him Shirtless Dancing Guy, dancing wildly at a concert. For the longest time, he is just a weirdo dancing in a field. He gets weird looks and strange stares. Then someone joins in. It takes guts for someone to stand up and join in. You face the same scorn, shame, and stares of judgmental onlookers in the crowd. Green Shirt Dude bravely joins along, anyway. In doing so, he gives validity and acceptance to others of that leader’s effort. Shirtless Dancing Guy, like a good leader, welcomes him as an equal and with that, the first follower feels valued and appreciated, calling others to join the movement. In recognition of his good leadership, Green Shirt Dude calls up others and continues in the merriment, absent thought of all those staring. Through mutual encouragement, they endure the long and difficult times when they were just two weird guys dancing in a field, together but otherwise all alone. Then some special happens. A third comes along. Three’s a crowd, but soon, it goes from a few guys dancing in a field to a true movement where, in the matter of seconds, dozens are dancing, cheering, while hundreds flock to join in, and follow along. People look to people like Shirtless Dancing Guy for being a visionary, and a bold leader for standing up when no one else was, in spite of their eccentricities. We know, however, that without that first follower, the normal guy who decides to follow along, no one else would have given him a second thought. They wouldn’t have joined in and we wouldn’t be talking about either of them today.
It’s the same today as we see in the story of Barnabas. Barnabas was a necessary figure in the early Christian Church, but not like the other Apostles. Barnabas isn’t remembered like Paul is. Many can’t really place him in the historical record, but his purpose is crucial in the role he had in others’ stories. He was a respected member before Paul joined, but unlike others, he saw a leader in the repentant sinner others overlooked because of fear, mistrust, and apprehension. He welcomed Paul into the Church, allowing others to gain trust in him as well. He provided Paul encouragement during his early efforts. Because of this encouragement, Paul’s teachings were appreciated and he was empowered to go and become the most important single missionary in the history of Christianity. Today, we should observe to the overlooked leaders like Barnabas to serve as our role models. They teach us that, often, the most important leader to a movement isn’t the one on the pulpit, or the one holding the microphone, or the person in the corner office. Often it’s the supportive leader, the servant leader, the first follower who is the first to openly show support to that one with the vision and drive to the motivate the rest. Barnabas is a story of encouragement. It’s a story of people seeing the potential in others and being brave enough to be the first to innate action in others from the audience. Just like the story of Green Shirt Dude and Shirtless Dancing Guy – Barnabas teaches that the most important leaders to any movement, are really just the first people brave enough to follow.
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