26 Years of In His Steps

What comes to mind when you hear or see “WWJD?,”  the now famous acronym that stands for “What would Jesus do?”  The question was the focus of Charles Sheldon’s classic, In His Steps, written back in 1896. It has been popularized in recent years, showing up on bracelets, bumper stickers, tattoos, and a whole host of magazine articles, songs, and books.  The question, once meaningful to many, has become a fad and been trivialized and even mocked.  That’s what happens when something becomes a part of popular culture. Many who use the acronym have no idea of its origin.

Since 1984, long before WWJD? became a fad, I began performing my adaptation of In His Steps.  The story is a powerful one, and proves its status as a classic over and over again.  I have been amazed at the number of people who have shared with me how the book and/or my presentation of it, has impacted and even changed their lives.

The book has always had its critics.  When it was first published, it was unpopular with more conservative evangelicals who labeled it “social gospel.”  In more recent years, it is  commonly embraced by evangelicals and often criticized by the mainstream as being too simplistic or dogmatic.

After performing this play for 26 years and well over 1,000 performances, I have considered retiring the show.  I sometimes think maybe the story has lost its place, its relevance to today’s audiences and the church.  But just when I begin to think those thoughts, I get a wake up call.  It seems the story still has a place, still needs to be told. For the last couple of years, I have been performing my newest drama, Not The Way I Heard It, almost exclusively.  Being new, it has been easy to promote that presentation over my others.  In His Steps sort of got pushed to the proverbial “back burner.”

Over the last two weekends I have performed In His Steps again.  After one performance a man shared how he has been considering becoming a pastor.  He said the play had been a confirmation to him that he was to “accept the call.”  Then last weekend I received a standing ovation from a congregation of about 300 in a Sunday morning worship service.  That doesn’t happen very often.  In addition 19 children were sponsored after the service with World Vision. It seems that God was doing something through this story yet again.

Over the years I have been privileged to see how stories can impact and move people.  This story, in particular has been an instrument to challenge and change thousands of lives.  I am privileged to continue to share it and see how God uses art, story, and performance to draw people to Himself.

What would Jesus do?  This actor, for now at least, will keep performing this play and encouraging audiences and individuals to ask that question for real in their lives.

The Story of “In His Steps”

The following article is reprinted with permission from Guideposts Magazine. Copyright 1996 by Guideposts, Carmel, NY 10512. One of the most-read books in the world, this classic story was written by a man with an amazing history of his own.

A book that may have changed more lives than any other outside of the Bible has a fascinating history. In His Steps is a novel written by Charles M. Sheldon in 1896. As it celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of its publication, experts have ranked it as the tenth-most-read book in the world.

In simple style, In His Steps tells the story of self-satisfied congregants of a midwestern church who are challenged by a tramp during a Sunday service to live up to their declaration of faith. The tramp then dies in their midst. So moved are the minister and his parishioners that they pledge to live their lives for one year asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Their example how they suffered, faced ridicule and emerged victorious inspires other churches throughout the country to do the same.

Reading In His Steps wrought such a profound change in my own life that I, being an actor, was inspired to adapt the book to the stage. I was also driven to delve into the background of this classic. Fortunately, I found a recent biography of Charles Sheldon called Following ln His Steps, written by Timothy Miller (University of Tennessee Press). Much of the information in this article is taken from Millerts fascinating book. I was deeply moved by the life of Charles Sheldon and his remarkable influence.

Charles Monroe Sheldon was born in 1857 and grew up in the Dakota Territory, where his parents homesteaded in a log cabin he helped build. His father was the Territory’s first home missionary superintendent, founding 100 churches in 10 years. Young Sheldon “hunted with the Dakotas, fished with them, slept with them on the open prairie, and learned some of their language.”

The Sheldons had daily Bible reading and prayer, and Charles gained a deep love of books and learning. After his conversion in a Yankton church, he began writing at age 12, selling his work to a Boston newspaper. It was the beginning of a prodigious lifelong output resulting in dozens of books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. In his freshman year at Brown University, he came to know Lee Wong, his Chinese laundryman,and founded what he said was “the first Sunday school for Chinese laundrymen in Americad.” They learned English by studying the Bible.

After graduating from Andover Theological Seminary, he became minister of a church in Waterbury, Conn., and met a young woman, Mary Merriam, who would become his wife. In Waterbury he helped promote neat and attractive housing, small-business assistance and a good local newspaper, as well as Bible study groups. He organized a reading club for young people, ending up with some 100 participants. They read A Tale of Two Cities aloud the first winter and interest ran so high that Sheldon launched a successful drive to create a town library. When more than two dozen townspeople died of typhoid many called it providence but Sheldon, working with a young physician, demonstrated to local folk that the real problem was their wells were too close to pigpens. With clean water, the typhoid epidemic ceased.

In 1889 he moved west to become pastor of the fledgling Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kan. He announced he would preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and poor, the ignorant and learned, the old and young, the good and the bad . . . a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.”

For Sheldon this was not just rhetoric. Topeka was in a depression, and full of disheartened men searching for jobs. Determined to know more about the unemployed, Sheldon put on old clothes and spent a week hunting employment. He tried stores, coal yards and mills to no avail. Finally, he joined laborers shoveling snow from the Santa Fe rail yard tracks at no pay for “the simple joy of working.”

He took his experience to the pulpit and realized there was much more he needed to learn about the working man. He decided to spend a week with laborers and professionals, “living as nearly as I could the life they lived, asking them questions about their work, and preaching the gospel to them in whatever way might seem most expedient.”

And so Topekans found him riding with streetcar operators one week, attending classes with college students the next, traveling on freight trains with rail workers, attending court with lawyers, going on rounds with doctors, working with businessmen, and pursuing a beat as an unpaid reporter for the local paper.

Not only did this deepen Sheldon’s empathy with workers, but it also helped his largely above-working class congregation understand them better. And since he invited everyone he worked with to his church the following Sunday to hear his report on them, many came and some stayed.

Probably his most moving experience was one that awakened Sheldon to the ugly reality of racism. He spent three weeks visiting black people in Topeka, learning firsthand the prejudices they faced. He also became acquainted with Tennesseetown, a destitute community just outside Topeka of freed slaves and their children. It was there he launched an innovation that had an effect not only on Topeka but the nation.

In 1892 the idea of kindergartens came to America from Germany. A year later, with the help of his parishioners, Sheldon started two kindergartens, one at his church and one in Tennesseetown, the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. It proved a boon for Tennesseetown mothers desperate for day care. Some of the alumni became leaders in the community. Probably the most prominent was Elisha Scott, whom Sheldon helped attend law school. Scott became a respected Topeka attorney as did his son, Charles Sheldon Scott, who in 1954 argued the winning side of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

By 1897, Central Church had built a laboratory for one of the first kindergarten-teacher training schools in the nation. Soon its graduates were eagerly snapped up by schools from Maine to Texas.

Sheldon’s church continued to flourish as well; by 1891 there were four meetings on Sunday, including an evening service. Sunday evening services attendance was weak, however, and to build it up Sheldon wrote “sermon stories” from which he read a chapter, always ending with a cliffhanger to draw people back the following week. These proved popular, and soon Sunday evening services became crowded. Then in the summer of 1896 he began to write In His Steps. He read the first chapter to his congregation the night of October 4, 1896.

In His Steps proved immensely popular; The Advance, a weekly religious magazine, bought serial rights and in November 1896 began publishing it chapter by chapter. In 1897 The Advance published it as a book and sales skyrocketed. Some critics complained it was too simplistic, but its simplicity seemed to have a powerful effect on readers, many of whom vowed to follow the book’s title.

Over the years In His Steps appeared in millions of copies of news papers, comic books, magazines, and was translated into scores of different languages and produced in countless plays. But because of a mix-up in copyright, the book went into public domain, and Sheldon received practically no royalties, what little he did receive he gave to charity. When he was informed by Publishers Weekly that the book had a greater circulation than any other except the Bible, Sheldon said, “No one is more grateful than I am, as it confirms the faith I have always held that no subject is more interesting and vital to the human race than religion.”

Sheldon kept on working indefatigably, writing sequels to In His Steps and continuing to put his faith to work. When the owner of the Topeka Daily Capital offered him full rein editing the paper for one week “as Jesus would do it,” he labored 13 to 16 hours a day. The Capital’s average daily circulation was just over 11,000, but during Sheldon’s week it shot up to more than 362,000.

He kept up his community work, even voluntarily spending a week in jail, which resulted in local prison reforms. His fight against prejudice was highlighted in 1939 by his outcry against the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Sheldon retired from his pulpit in 1919, but continued working, becoming editor-in-chief of the Christian Herald in 1920. As he grew older, he spoke with great anticipation of his new life to come: “It is not death but life I greet . . . when he who loves me calls me home.”

On February 24, 1946, two days before his eighty-ninth birthday, Charles Sheldon, after suffering a stroke, died peacefully in bed. As I closed the book on his life, I realized Charles Sheldon left us all an enduring legacy with his powerful question, one which I ask myself each time I face a crossroad: What would Jesus do?

Chuck Neighbors

In His Steps Lives On

“Mr. Neighbors, I’m the pastor of a church in Ohio. One of the members of my congregation saw your performance of In His Steps last weekend and their life has been changed. . .”

“I’m a missionary, home on furlough. When I came into the church tonight I had determined that I would not be going back to the mission field. But after seeing your presentation of In His Steps . . .I know now that I have to go back. . .”

Comments like these and others too numerous to mention are not at all unusual after people have come in contact with the story told in Charles Sheldon’s Christian classic. In His Steps. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this book that is credited with being one of the best selling books of all time. It has been translated in many languages and while no one knows the exact number it is estimated by some sources that there have been over 30 million copies sold. Few books have had a stronger impact on Christians in this century than In His Steps.

Since 1984 I have been performing a one-man drama adapted from the book. Having given over 600 performances throughout North America it has been a privilege to hear countless stories of how people have been influenced by this powerful book. Many pastors and missionaries have stated that reading In His Steps was pivotal in their decision to go into the ministry. Even after 100 years it is still amazingly relevant to our world today. It has been made into a movie, more than one play, retold in updated versions, adapted for children, and the theme of numerous Bible studies on Christian growth and discipleship through the years.

In His Steps is a work of fiction written at a time when Christian fiction was not nearly as popular as it is today. The story is of a group of Christians that take on a one year pledge to always ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” before every decision or action that they take–and then to follow through on that basis. The book leaves the reader to wrestle with that decision in real life. What would the world be like if we all lived this kind of radical Christian discipleship? While at first glance it may seem simplistic it quickly becomes complex when applied to real life circumstances. My own experience in adapting this book into a live theatrical production is but one example.

My Story

I’d been acting professionally for 10 years. I felt blessed to be able to make a living in a vocation that boasts something like a 95% unemployment rate and for most of my career I’ve been able to do this in the context of ministry. As a youth I felt a deep desire not only to act but also a desire, “a calling,” if you will, to full time Christian ministry. I considered it a gift from God that I was able to fulfill “the desire of my heart” in a ministry that also enabled me to pursue my passion for theatre.

I met my wife, Lorie, while we were touring together with a repertory theater company. After over 9 years with this company we were feeling it was time for a change. These feelings, we are convinced, were God directed. We were also at a place in our lives were we wanted to start a family and the desire to “nest” was strong, especially for Lorie. The road life to which we had become accustomed would no longer be an option.

But a change to what? Acting was my life. It was the only thing that I really knew how to do–the only thing I wanted to do. I was also determined that I would stay true to my calling and active in ministry. The reality of providing for a family and leaving what little job security I had with the repertory company was frightening to me, to say the least.

It was against this backdrop, on an evening in December in 1983, that God used In His Steps to transform my life. I had read the book a number of years earlier but it was certainly not on my mind when I went to bed that night. Call it a dream, call it a vision, or even something that I’d eaten for dinner–but “it” awoke me at about 3:00 am. My mind was abuzz with a “concept” of doing In His Steps as a one-man drama.

What you need to understand is that this was not an idea that I was immediately excited about. True, I was an actor, but I had no desire to perform solo–quite the contrary. I rather enjoyed acting in an ensemble. The idea of mounting a one-man show terrified me. I had all kinds of “excuses” as to why I could not do this. Not the least of which was: Who was going to write the script? I was not a writer–in fact, I detested every writing assignment I had ever received in school. The who, what, where, when, how and whys were overwhelming.

After some struggling and prayer, I finally yielded to the Lord and began to implement the very concept of In His Steps: “What would Jesus do?” into the situation. Upon surrender to His will all the obstacles began to be removed as the way I was to proceed became clear. After trying unsuccessfully to find someone else to write the script I finally said to God: “Lord, if this is really what you want me to do, then I’ll (hard swallow). . . give it a try.” (Not exactly a prayer bursting with conviction.) I sat down with the book and to my amazement it all became clear. I knew how to do this. What I had feared the most was no longer an obstacle. I wrote the script during the first few months of 1984, then began learning the lines and rehearsing. We resigned from the repertory company effective in May and I gave the first public performance of In His Steps in June. That first year I performed the play over 100 times!

I discovered that God had been preparing me for this moment for years. One of the benefits of our years in the repertory company was developing a good business sense. Not only was I able to do the job artistically, but Lorie and I together were able to do the other tasks necessary to make this venture work. Between us we would be booking agent, bookkeeper, secretary and travel agent.

We named the ministry Master’s Image Productions, in a spin-off of the In His Steps theme. The ministry is now into its twelfth year. The Lord has greatly blessed and the ministry continues to grow. We now offer five other one-man shows, but In His Steps is by far the most requested. It has been featured nationally on The Moody Broadcasting Network, “The Chapel of the Air” and the “You Need To Know” television program.

The lessons that I have learned through this adventure are parallel to those the characters experience in the book. Following “in His steps” is not always easy. It involves struggle, sacrifice and sometimes doing things that we don’t want to do. But I firmly believe God will not challenge us beyond our capacity. Sure we have gone through difficult times and often bounce back and forth between feast and famine but it has also been the most rewarding thing that I have ever done with my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There is no better feeling than when we are in His will, following in His steps. Sometimes those things that we think we like the least we learn to love. (I actually enjoy writing now.)

The Book Lives On

Having survived this long, it is no question In His Steps is an inspirational book that has truly earned the honor of being called a classic. An interesting side note is that Charles Sheldon, due to a faulty copyright, received almost no royalties for this work. Imagine writing one of the best sellers in history and missing out on all those royalty checks. It’s obvious he didn’t write the book for the money.

Through response at my performances I can see clearly that God is not finished with In His Steps yet. I have seen entire congregations model the challenge by standing together at the end of a performance and taking on the pledge of “What would Jesus do?” In subsequent conversations with the pastors of these churches there have always been indications of spiritual growth in the lives of those who participated. Sometimes the response is more personal rather than corporate. I cherish the words of those who have shared with me their stories of personal conviction and life change after reading the book or seeing the play.

Occasionally there are those who don’t seem to handle the challenge too well. One lady was quite upset with me after a performance–she couldn’t believe that I would actually suggest that we should put following Jesus ahead of our family, career, etc. She missed the point that if we put Him first these other things will not be neglected but rather fall right into place. There are others who speak to me dejectedly, “I’ve tried to follow but I just can’t do it,” they say. I ache for them to understand that the trying is what matters to Jesus–not whether or not we succeed or fail! Lastly, there are those who simply don’t want to deal with the challenge. They will compliment my performance and say wouldn’t it be nice if. . . It may be an over used cliche, but it is still true–not to decide is to decide.

I am grateful that Charles Sheldon was led of the Lord to write this wonderful book! In recognition of this 100th anniversary of In His Steps I urge you to read (or reread) the book. It has a message that we need to hear now perhaps even more than when it was first written. Let the book affect your life. Try out the pledge–if a year is too much try a month or a week–even a day. But a warning–you may never be the same again!

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