Leonard Sweet has done it again. He has an uncanny way of throwing a wrench into things only to cause us to stop and think and question everything about where we thought we were heading. It’s irritating and at the same time imaginatively evocative. Never bound by groupthink, Sweet has a way of calling out truth about the emperor’s new clothes, so that we can see what’s been right in front of us all along.
Leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership. The holy mantra of church revitalization for the last several years has centered around leadership. We’re presented with biblical models, business models, entrepreneurial models, educational models, ministerial models. In his new book, I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus (Nelson, 2012), Sweet maintains that for the last three decades, church-growth theory has created a “hyperpursuit for leadership muscle that has never been seen before.” (p. 17) Countering this, Sweet argues that our fundamental identity is instead that of a follower. Christ Jesus is the leader, he insists. We are followers.
We’ve turned it all inside out, Sweet maintains. Paul wrote: “follow me as I follow Christ.” Instead, he argues, we call for more and better leaders, have made an industry of training and re-training leaders, and have diagnosed the church’s problem as a crisis of leading rather than a crisis of following. Nowhere is this seen more clearly in my own denomination's much-debated Call to Action report, endorsed by the Council of Bishops for deliberation and action at General Conference.
Sweet’s love of the art of language and words comes through, as does his affinity for popular culture and emerging trends. As always, he employs refreshing creativity, shock, piercing insight and humor to make his case. (“…I can remember the exact setting when it dawned on me that Willie Nelson had a larger following than the entire United Methodist Church.” p. 29) You laugh because it hurts and hurt because you laugh. And in that opening, Sweet creates a space for new truth to drop in, unexpected and unannounced, yet so obvious you can’t see how you ever could have missed it, or let yourself wander so far astray.
We have been seduced, he argues, by cult culture and celebrity culture. Sweet calls the church back to Bonhoeffer and the cost of discipleship, following the One who has chosen you.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. This becomes the framework for I Am a Follower. To follow Jesus, Sweet explains, is to be in the right mission—the way: missional living; to be in right relationship—the truth: relational living; and to be in the right future—the life: incarnational living. (pp. 49-50). This is belonging, believing, and behaving, as Sweet organizes the life of the disciple.
Sweet’s eclectic mind roams around Greek word study, literature, hymns and gospel songs, the ancient prayers of the church, theology, and popular culture. The tapestry he creates paints a powerful critique of current church correctives. “The most important metrics we must rely on, the crucial ‘deliverables’ we can present, must focus on the newly formed lives of the disciples we are making, the followers who are following Christ into a place of serving him by serving others.” (p. 85) Having veered so far astray in the direction of assuming business leadership models, Sweet suggests the need for methodology trials to reaffirm what it would mean to recalibrate and reassert Jesus as leader and the rest of us as followers of the Way.
“Interactives” for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter make this a valuable book for group study. Sweet is sure to provoke you to think, to question assumptions, and perhaps to re-discover the fundamental Christian paradigm of discipleship. If he sounds like the lone voice of one crying in the wilderness, he’s not alone. Fellow followers are out there, preparing the Way, living the Truth, and embodying the Life.