Review of “I Am a Follower”

Mine was a love-hate affair with Leonard Sweet’s latest book, I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.  The premise of the book, “It’s never been about leading,” (from the front cover) has been a growing interest of mine in the midst of all the business-model-leadership books I have been asked to read, chose read and forced to read.  None of them have taken seriously what it means for Jesus to be the head of the church, the Shepherd, the one in charge.  Sweet’s book comes close, but not without some baggage.

I Am a Follower opens and closes with two “Reel to Real” clips that ask the reader to go online and watch two videos.  Creative, but not helpful for the unmotivated.  The main body of the book is composed of four parts: place, way, truth and life.  Each section ends with a series of group questions (a group study guide of sorts).  The sections are broken down into small (2-5 page) mini-sections, which makes the reader at times feel like he or she is accomplishing much.  However, the short sections also lend to a sort of “scatter-brained” feel to the book.

The first section, “Vece: The Place,” sets the framework for the discussion.  Here, Sweet quickly browses the landscape of leadership models and supports the idea that the leadership myth is on its way out.  For him there are two fundamental, biblical categorical imperatives in this regard: (1) Jesus is the Leader; (2) We are his followers. (27)

The second section, “Via: The Way,” looks at what it means to live missionally as a follower of Jesus.  First-Followers (a term Sweet likes to use for authentic followers of Jesus) live a different way.  The life of a first-follower should be characterized by a series casting, setting something out in front to which one moves toward.  What first-followers cast is hope, heaven, love, joy, peace, patience, trust and rest.

The third section, “Verita: The Truth,” looks at what it means to live relationally as a first-follower.  Current leadership models tell us that we are the leaders and others are the followers.  A right relationship with Jesus (the Big J) puts us in the position of being a follower (little j) who points the way for others.  He challenges the current strengths movement, expert advice and the professional clergy model.  These, he argues, are unbiblical and create false categories (i.e. clergy vs. laity).

The fourth section, “Vita: The Life,” looks at what it means to live incarnationally as a first-follower of Jesus.  Such a life means a life of active discipleship.  There is no substitute for living life together and pointing others along the way.  One sign that the church has gotten it wrong is that very few pastors, let alone laity, can answer the question, “Who discipled you?”

I agree with Sweet that the church in the West has looked to Wall Street far too frequently for her guidance.  We’ve replaced Jesus with celebrities and have turned body of Christ life into entertainment.  His description of “casting” is a beautiful reminder of what it means to follow Jesus.  Followers of Jesus should be the most joyful, hopeful, trustful, peaceful, restful, loving, heaven-oriented people on earth.  One quote sums it up well, “Our guardian angels are bored.” (125)

I also agree with Sweet that what we should be are actual-event witnesses as opposed to expert witnesses.  “We often try to be expert witnesses for Christ instead of being actual-event witnesses to what we have seen and experienced in our own lives.  We prefer to talk theory of Christ rather than to talk about our life in Christ.” (156)

Perhaps the greatest moment of this book is found in the short section, “Implanted, Not Imprinted.” (240)  Sweet compares much of USAmerican (another term he is fond of) Christianity to the natural process of imprinting among birds.  A baby duck will imprint the first moving being it sees.  If it happens to be the mother duck, great.  However, if it happens to be a barking dog then its mother will “forever be a barker, not a quacker.” (240)  Too many Christians have implanted cultural Christianity rather than have experienced Christ implanted in them.

This book also had some down sides, both aesthetic and intellectual.  Shane Claiborne is quoted on the cover saying, “Leonard Sweet is a theological poet.”  If you happen to not be fond of poetry you will find some of his descriptions and anecdotes to be over the top.

He also has a habit of quoting widely in this book.  Now, there is nothing wrong with included a plethora of voices, but quotes without context can be dangerous.  For example, he quotes Pelagius, a well know heretic by many accounts.  He quotes a Sufi poet and makes a brief reference to the meaning of the name YHWH, which sounds dualistic and anti-Genesis. (233)

He also makes a biting critique of all things strengths related.  His argument his based on a misinterpretation and application of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and God’s statement, “My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”  As if his push against learning to operate within the unique talents God has given each person isn’t bad enough he criticizes those who seek to know and use their Spiritual Gifts.  He is of the mindset that these are automatically determined and one cannot help but operate in them.  And if that is not bad enough, he uses Joyce Meyer, another heretical teacher by many accounts, as an example of what God can do with weak people, “Her great weakness [(her voice)], the personal characteristic that most troubled her, was used by God to be her greatest strength once she turned over her entire self to God.” (165)

In the end, the book is worth the read for those who are interested in understanding followership more than leadership.  I’m not sure what long lasting impact this book will have on the discussion, but Sweet certainly has been an influential voice in the West and is worth considering.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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