Many of us are old enough to remember when that phrase was all the rage among American Christians. For those who were not alive or paying attention in the 1990s, it is hard for me to over-exaggerate how many people wore bracelets with “WWJD” stitched onto them. (I was reminded of that trend when speaking to church member Lee Garrott on Sunday morning. Thanks Lee!)
Few people remember that cultural phenomenon of the ‘90s was launched when a youth leader in Holland, Michigan, encouraged her students to make that acronym their personal motto. The grassroots movement which emerged from that moment encouraged Christians to consider how Jesus would act in whatever situation they found themselves in and act as he would.
What even fewer people remember is that youth leader drew inspiration for her idea from an 1896 novel by Charles Sheldon, entitled “In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?” That novel sold over 50 million copies worldwide, making it one of the top 50 bestselling novels ever!
Let me say for the record that there is nothing wrong with someone asking, “what would Jesus do?” In fact, I encourage all of us to include that in our ethical decision-making….IF (AND THIS IS A BIG “IF”) we are reading and studying the Bible enough to actually know what Jesus taught.
In the 1990s, I found that most people wearing that bracelet would find themselves in a situation where they would need to make a decision, ask themselves WWJD?, and then do what they thought was best…without considering the actual teachings of Jesus. If we have learned anything over the last 2000 years of the Church’s life, it is that “what would Jesus do?” is absolutely not the same as “what do we think is best to do?”
After all, Jesus taught us to not be angry, not insult people, love our enemies; cut off our hand if it causes us to sin; embrace the marginalized; fast and pray; not store up treasures on earth, not judge others, dine with those labeled “sinners” by the culture; sell everything we have, give it to the poor, and follow him on the path! The majority of people I knew did not DO those things after consulting their bracelets; they simply responded with whatever our culture had previously told them was how nice, polite people act.
That tendency is not surprising considering how biblically illiterate most Americans are. In 2016, researchers George Gallup and Jim Castelli discovered that fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. 82 percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Bible verse. Those identifying themselves as “born-again Christians” did better–by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
I am sure there are more recent statistics available, but I imagine they are just as discouraging.
In an age where people are more than happy to tell you what they believe Jesus would do, I encourage you to spend time researching his teachings yourself. Read the four gospels (which are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, by the way). Pay attention to how Jesus acted. Who knows, that “WWJD” question might turn out to be helpful for you, after all.