Takeaway: “We have been told our entire lives that we should be leaders…but the truth is that the greatest way to create a movement is to be a follower and to show others how to follow. Following is the most underrated form of leadership in existence.”
I am completely convinced of the basic thesis of this book. The evangelical church in particular, is too focused on leadership, organization and numbers. What we should be focused on is following, discipleship and modeling faith.
Len Sweet gives a good defense of why our focus on leadership actually counters the gospel (that Jesus Christ is King and Lord of all). Sweet does not suggest we should have anarchy, but that we need to focus on Christ (and not any other human) as our one true leader. All others are just ‘first followers’.
One of the metaphors (about how a duck imprints on the first moving thing they see, not necessarily their mother or father) that Sweet uses at the end I think really focuses on the problem of why we need to make sure we are following Christ and not others.
There are some Christians who think they are following Christ, when really they have simply been imprinted by a culture that calls itself Christian. As a quick tour of religious history will reveal, following some accepted line of pious behavior is not necessarily the same as being a true disciple.
One of the things I really like about Sweet’s writing style is that he is very quotable. He know how to boil his points to great memorable phrases. So I spent a lot of time highlighting this book. I will not share them all, but here is one last quote that really gets at the point of the book:
The essential element of Christian truth is that the risen Christ is not something you mimic but someone you manifest…This kind of following is less an imitation than an implantation and impartation. It is truth as incarnation.
There are several problems with the book. One, it is pretty much impossible to get away from the language of leadership inside the Evangelical church. So talking about ‘first followers’ and discipleship become a bit convoluted because of his desire to redefine some of the terms. I agree with the point, but the result is a bit clunky. And it is clear from reading the New Testament that there is room for leadership within the church. This does not nullify Sweet’s point, because Sweet is calling us back from a leadership culture that has gone too far. But there are some readers that will ignore that greater point because they disagree with part of it. Sweet’s point is that our current obsession with entrepreneurial leadership tends to be more focused on getting away from others that might ask legitimate questions and not as focused as it should be on creatively following Christ.
Second, Sweet loves to quote people and play with words. He is a good author and he draws from a huge range of sources and ideas to make his points. He synthesizes from an incredibly wide range of areas of thought and this is a strength. But he needs help editing that wide range of thoughts down. This book could have easily been 30-50 pages shorter and would have more effectively made his point. I love the quotes he uses, but he uses too many of them.
In spite of this, I highly recommend the book. He communicated the point much better than what I think many others have. This is not a screed against the church, but a loving call to refocus away from ‘efficiency’ and modern cultural business practices and toward real life-giving discipleship. The section on the centrality of living life together as discipleship was probably the best section of the book.
I would also recommend another book as a follow up to this one. Dan and Joy Mayhew have a new book Sword of Submission that really focuses on how we appropriately embrace submission as a calling. Until we learn to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and King, then we are not really following God. I have read two early drafts of Sword of Submission and I will review the final version soon. There are also several other books that get at different aspects of a similar idea. Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection is a very good book about how and why discipleship and spiritual growth must be done in the context of the church. Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, while not particularly about discipleship or following Christ, does have a significant theme about what the church is missing out by not being more inclusive with introverts. I believe that introverts tend to make better followers because they are less focused on being out front. Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel does a good job refocusing the church as a whole away from the act of evangelism to the continuous action of discipling people to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and King. As with many other things, the problem is no the idea, but actually following through and doing something about it.
Personally, while I have been hearing similar things for a while, I am trying to figure out how to implement this more in my life. I need to seek out people to disciple me. I attend a mega-church and while I agree with many of the problems that Sweet mentions about mega-churches, it is the place where I am, and where I will continue to be. So in that context, how do I intentionally work on facilitating community where discipleship is important. I believe my church does this better than many mega-churches, but it is still difficult. This is also a call to remember that our job is to be around non-Christians. Submission to and following Christ mean saying no to things that are good, but leave us too busy to participate in community or be active in discipleship.
A digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.