Leonard Sweet’s I Am A Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus is another addition to the growing field of books pushing back against Western Christianity’s leadership obsession. From the outset, however, one can’t help wondering about Sweet’s argument against leadership and for followership when he contends “following is the most underrated form of leadership in existence” (14). Is Sweet really challenging the leadership obsession, or is this little more than a game of semantics in which the real issue is a different way of or means to leadership? Sweet tries to distinguish between leadership and followership by suggesting “leadership is a function” and “followership is an identity” (34). Yet while the distinction between function and identity may seem plausible in writing, it seems much less plausible in reality.
As a means of exploring what it might look like to be a follower, Sweet shares extensive meditations on the three metaphors of Jesus in his well-known saying recorded in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Unfortunately, these meditations read more like stream-of-consciousness ramblings than carefully thought-out ruminations on these metaphors. It is not uncommon for Sweet to make startling assertions for which he provides little if any warrant, such as his attack on the focus on spiritual giftedness (pp. 161-169), or his claim that “the new relationality of the localized and organic . . . is creating a web of strength and a fortress of freedom that won’t be broken or pulled asunder” (176), or his discussion of New Testament notions of priesthood and church polity (174-178), or his baseless contention that “the major fruit of the Spirit is joy” (252). Really? In the midst of these ramblings, Sweet rails against clergy, suggesting that “we have come to believe that most Christians cannot follow Christ on their own” (180), yet he not only quotes several members of the clergy thoughout the book, he himself by virtue of the written word is functioning effectively as a member of the clergy and making the very same assumption that his readers cannot follow Christ on their own. It’s difficult to miss the irony of someone who’s authored nearly 50 books attacking clergy for having “come to believe that most Christians cannot follow Christ on their own.” Moreover, the meat of Sweet’s meditations, seems to be lost in the pendulum-like swings between overly casual language (e.g. calling the Holy Spirit “Coach Ghost” and excessive use of the term “first follower”) and technical jargon (e.g. “semiotics” and “solipsistic”).
To be sure there are good nuggets in I Am A Follower, but these come mostly in the form of clever, if not sarcastic, one-liners. Unfortunately, one-liners and zingers are incapable of establishing the kind of faith or faith community, for which Sweet seems to long so deeply. As such, he fails, in my opinion, to add much to the ongoing conversation surrounding the importance of shifting from a faith obsessed with leadership to a faith intent on following. Much more helpful, and highly recommended, is Scott A. Bessenecker’s How to Inherit the Earth: Submitting Ourselves to a Servant Savior, which makes a much more compelling, not to mention cogent and concise, case for following as the primary paradigm for discipleship.