Forty Years of Following Jesus


Forty Years of Following Jesus
Brian Zahnd
November 9, 2014

It was November 1974. I was fifteen and it was my year of discovery. I was awakening to the world around me, forging an identity, becoming a self. I was drawn to the counterculture. I had discovered music — not my parents music, my music. Led Zeppelin was magic for me. I still remember the first time I heard Whole Lotta Love. That opening riff channeled my lust for life. I would sit for hours in my basement bedroom listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Mountain, Deep Purple, Allman Brothers. Soon I would discover Bob Dylan and he would provide the soundtrack for my life. My mom was worried about my long hours alone in my bedroom with my music, black lights, and incense. But she needn’t be. I was just making discoveries.

You can live a whole lifetime when you’re fifteen. I don’t remember that much about being twenty-six or thirty-eight or forty-three, but it seems I remember every week of being fifteen. It was 1974 and people were reading Jaws. President Nixon resigned in August and Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t care — “now Watergate does not bother me” (Sweet Home Alabama). The Rolling Stones told the truth: It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It). Oh yeah, I remember that year. Every week was a new discovery.

Then came November 9, 1974. It was a Saturday. A crisp autumn day. I woke up to David Essex on the radio. Rock On

Hey kid, rock and roll
Rock on, ooh, my soul
And where do we go from here?
Which is the way that’s clear?

Good question.

I spent the day playing basketball. Endless one-on-one games with my best friend. I met a Harlem Globetrotter. He was dating my best friend’s sister. He taught me how to spin a basketball on my finger. True. That night I met Jesus. That too is true.

Saturday night, November 9, 1974 — forty years ago today — I met Jesus. I don’t know how else to put it. I had grown up in church. I knew the Bible. I could have told you “the plan of salvation.” But that night I met Jesus. For real. That was my biggest discovery of 1974!

I had gone with my church youth group to a David Wilkerson youth rally at Missouri Western State University. I knew what it would be like — much God-talk. I wasn’t that interested, but it was something to do. To my deep surprise I found myself responding to an invitation to follow Jesus. I hadn’t planned for that to happen, but it did. Jesus had crashed into my life. When I got home around midnight and walked into my bedroom it was filled with a strange light. It was Jesus. In Savannah, Missouri. In my bedroom. With Led Zeppelin posters on the wall. I fell to my knees in worship. That was the beginning.

My day had begun with a rock and roll question:

Hey kid…
Where do we go from here?
Which is the way that’s clear?

By midnight I had my answer. I was going to follow Jesus. Which also meant I was going to be a pastor or preacher or something like that. I just knew it. I knew it from the first hour. People ask me when I knew I wanted to be a pastor. It was the moment I decided to follow Jesus. I was all in from the very beginning.

My friends called me Fry — a nickname I’d had since the fourth grade — and Fry had become a Jesus freak. At school I talked to everyone about Jesus. I’m sure there were times when I was tremendously annoying, but it came from a place of deep authenticity. It was the days of the Jesus Movement and I was leading other teenage followers of Jesus almost immediately. Four months after my encounter with Jesus I preached my debut sermon at the First Baptist Church…which is crazy. Seven years later I was a pastor…which is even crazier.

But, as Bob Dylan said, time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.

Today it’s been forty years since my journey with Jesus began. Forty years. The iconic “long time” in the Bible. So now I’ve officially been following Jesus for a long time. What have I learned? Maybe this: Forty years is barely enough time to get started. I’ve also learned that I chose a difficult vocation for following Jesus. To be a Christian on a journey with Jesus and to be a pastor leading a church at the same time is almost impossible. In the American context pastors must please a constituency (which is more properly the work of a politician). If a pastor changes as a result of continuing to follow Jesus, it’s often not respected as spiritual growth, but condemned as the political “flip-flop.” Nevertheless I’ve stayed on the journey of discovery. It’s been thrilling and cost me plenty. But it’s been worth it.

What has changed over the past forty years? Much.
My eschatology has changed. (Completely re-worked.)
My soteriology has matured. (More holistic, less afterlife-oriented.)
My ecclesiology has grown. (Embracing the Great Tradition.)

But one thing hasn’t changed. The unchanging constant has been my absolute fascination with Jesus Christ. That hasn’t changed, it’s only increased. When I was fifteen I caught a glimpse of Jesus and it altered the course of my life. Today, forty years later, that first glimpse has grown into a deep, rich faith. I believe in Jesus, not in the giddy and somewhat naïve way of my early youth, but in a sober and quite serious way. In our increasingly secular age the Son of God has never been more relevant. This is what I believe. This is what I preach. This is what I write about. This is what I dream about.

Forty years on I press on.

I’m probably just getting started.

Rock on.


(The picture is from my high school yearbook when I was fifteen.)


I’m listening to this song right now. It seems apropos.