Saturday Book Review: Len Sweet

This review is by Andy Holt, who returns again to our blog with another review of Len Sweet’s book, I Am a Follower. Andy is pastor at Ember Church.

The Church has a leadership problem. So argues Leonard Sweet in his new book, I Am a Follower. The problem, however, is not that we don’t have enough leaders, or that our leaders have lost their way.

The problem is that we have become enamored with leadership culture, obsessed with leading, and supremely focused on raising up the next generation of leaders. The trouble is, Jesus never told us to lead. He told us to follow.

The evangelical church has bought into a brand of leadership that, since the economic crisis of 2008, has gone bankrupt. But the lonely, trailblazing, genius-coming-down-from-the-mountain model of leadership is not what Jesus had in mind for his bride. The picture of leadership in Jesus’ mind was himself, and the rest of us are called to follow him. “What the world defines as leadership is not the way God works through his people in the world. …Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” (28-9)

Christians are not to be leaders, Sweet argues. They are to be followers. First followers. In other words, Christians should find where Jesus is going, discover where he is at work, and then take up their crosses and follow him there. “In posing the paradox of the ox with an easy yoke and a light burden, Jesus is inviting followers to ‘walk alongside me. Just be with me, and the doing will come naturally.’ …Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” (39-40)

I Am a Follower is a prophetic call to abandon the culture of leadership, with it’s cultic practices of celebrity-worship and the fruitless pursuit of power and fame. Instead, we must take up the position of a sheep, humbling ourselves, and permitting Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of us—yes, even us church “leaders”! Sweet’s call is one to return to a position of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and to forsake our position of function within the institution of Church. “All too often these days, the church’s stories are about success, leadership, justice, happiness. When ministers become social workers, preachers become motivational speakers, and evangelism becomes marketing, the result is a gimcrack gospel that is tawdry, tacky, and cheap. Asked, ‘What story do you love to tell?’ a first follower’s first answer is, ‘I love to tell the story of…Jesus and his love.’” (144)

I Am a Follower is a necessary, if imperfect, book for our times. Evangelicalism is swimming deeper and deeper into the ocean of celebrity and leadership. But there are sharks here, and there is blood in the water! If our primary aim is to focus on leaders, then who will care for the flock? If the image of the ideal Christian is a leader, then what hope is there for followers?

The truth is, we are all followers, and Christ will be more glorified when we learn to accept that reality and let him lead.


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  • Adam shields

    I read it and strongly recommend it. Sweet loves quoting people a bit too much but the message is an important one.

  • I have heard this teaching against strong leaders before. Many times. There are many reading this blog who, like me, have seen certain themes run through Christianity like perpetual reruns: Validity of leaders, use of the Spirit Gifts, role of discipleship, need for a building, etc.

    The question I always pose when we talk about the validity of human leadership is this: In the Bible, when did the church ever exist as a leader-less group of followers? In Church History, when did the church ever sustain a growing ministry without leaders? (Apart from a few Waldensian communities and some superficial treatments of the Moravians, even egalitarian communities still had strong leaders).

    In all of life, if we do not designate leaders, the strongest personalities will always take over. Always. History is replete with examples. It is why Communism only works on paper. It is why America has a three-pronged system of leadership, each balancing out the hegemonic tendencies of the others.

    The question is not “should we have leaders” but “what kind”? I completely agree that the cult of the Mega-Church leader only inherited the mantle of the televangelist, slightly improving on the broken model.

    A new kind of leader, a biblical kind of leader is a follower, but also a leader. Make no mistake of that.

  • John W Frye

    “Remember your *leaders*, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”

    “Have confidence in your *leaders* and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
    –Hebrews 13:7, 17

  • Dan Jones

    The problem in my opinion isn’t the leadership culture per se…it’s the lack of a submission culture. No where is this more apparent than in the churches that idolize leadership development, so perhaps that’s why the target of the book. I haven’t read it.

    Evangelicalism does seem to have a real problem in this however, a problem rooted in protestantism in general. Am I truly under authority and submitting to the leadership in my church, if at any time the history of my faith expression says it’s ok for me to simply leave and go start another church community more to my liking? So I submit to a pastoral authority or not? The tired axiom of ‘Jesus is my pastoral authority’ simply doesn’t cut it, either. It’s simply not biblical.


  • Nate

    The point well taken, and a very timely book in terms of the direction of the celebrity/marketing misdirection of leadership in the church.

    It’s not that we shouldn’t have leaders- the question is what kind of leader are you, or better said what kind of leader are you following? Too often the focus is on “man” and pragmatic outcomes. The focus should be on Jesus, for leaders and followers alike.

    In God’s economy, Gal. 5:22-23 matters. If your “leader” subscribes to an economy of leadership that contrasts with Jesus definition- it doesn’t matter how good a preacher or teacher or church CEO he or she is…for goodness sake, let’s get a mic on Donald Trump, let him memorize a sermon. I bet we could fill stadiums. Does that count? If you can communicate to a crowd? Does that make him a good leader? He certainly is “successful”. I bet he could run a great building or capital campaign for a church. What makes (or should make!) a Christ following leader different? Does it matter who you are away from the crowd? It matters.

  • Chad Bresson

    I’m always a bit amused when these kinds of books show up on the bookstore shelf. Thomas Nelson knows exactly how many books having Sweet’s name on the cover is worth. Sweet didn’t reach that kind of “bankability” in book sales by being a “follower”. By publishing with Thomas Nelson, which in turn utilizes a heavy marketing campaign for the author, Sweet capitulates to the very celebrity animal he critiques.

    Following must be part of the DNA of a Christian. Evangelicals are obsessed with celebrity. Sweet is right on those counts. We would do well to practice following others, even in leadership roles. But it does not follow (ha) that the model of “church” should be leaderless (esp. when one can point to numerous places in the text where leadership is encouraged).

  • What if leadership wasn’t about vision, prediction, control, gates, and staging — but about shaping an environment in which God’s people gain increased capacities to discern and participate in God’s initiatives around them, especially in their contexts? The leadership discussion sometimes parallels the critiques of religion (both are bad, right?) — and we lose because important frameworks are lost.

  • There are two kinds of leader.

    Leonard Sweet is himself a leader, he inspires and encourages, he builds up and challenges, he mentors and sets an example. There is a sense in which we should ALL be leaders of this sort. We lead but we also follow.

    Then there is positional, institutional leadership. This king of leadership is usually hierarchical.

    I haven’t read the book but perhaps now I will. However I have a strong hunch that Sweet accepts inspirational leadership while abhorring the positional kind.

  • Chris: I think inspirational leadership that will not allow themselves to have institutional responsibilities is playing chicken. There are always scores of people who will tell government how to run, but few will have the courage to step up and run it well. The same is true of the church. There are thousands who take pot shots at institutional leaders, but few who will put their reputation on the line and lead BOTH by example and within structure.

    Leaders cannot all abhor structure and institutions or all we will have is the sentiments of an Occupy movement.

  • John W. Frye

    The quote in the post is too absolute: “Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” No, I disagree. Non-kingdom of God leadership may be about position and power, but kingdom LEADERSHIP is about love and trust.

    As suggested in the above comments, *leadership* is not the problem; what *kind* of leadership may be the problem.

  • This is not a screed against leaders as many of the comments assume. The point of the book is that the best way to create Christian leaders is to teach people to be followers of Christ and how to submit to leadership. Instead, what we normally do is concentrate on teaching people leadership and what happens is we create factions with everyone doing their own thing. Human methods of leadership training have their place, we need organization, directions, etc. But scripture leaders were always marked by their submission to God, not their human leadership qualities.

    Sweet is not against leaders (although he would like to call them ‘first followers’ which is a bit ridiculous). He believes that leaders naturally come to the fore when they are doing what God has called them to do.

  • In my review I tried to simply present the general thrust of the book without adding my own thoughts–as much as that is possible. Upon reflection, I think Sweet is right in identifying that evangelicalism, in general, has made an idol out of leadership. We put our hope in our leaders’ ability to lead. But our obsession with leadership culture has obscured our vision of Jesus as True Leader, i.e. King. Just as Isaiah couldn’t see YHWH until the great oak Uzziah was cut down, so we can’t see Jesus as Leader because of our obsession with the power and promises of our leaders.

    As a pastor, I am put in the strange position of being a “leader” in my local church. But the reality is that Jesus is the True Leader of the church, and that my responsibility is to be the first one to follow him wherever he is. In fact, what I’ve found is that I’m not always the first one to follow him, and so there are others in my congregation who lead me in various ways and at various times. If I fundamentally identify myself as “Leader”, then this would present major internal problems for me that would turn into major external problems for my church. But if I fundamentally identify Jesus as “Leader” and myself as “Follower, sometimes First Follower”, then my identity is not wrapped up in my functional position, but rather in my relationship with Jesus.

    Sweet is not advocating for Ecclesial Anarchy. He is telling us to abandon our idol of leadership and cling to our Savior and King, Jesus, the True Leader. And to that I say a hearty “Amen!”

  • @ John W. Frye #10… I agree with you, there are people called, gifted, and anointed to be leaders in the church. So as you say, “*leadership* is not the problem; what *kind* of leadership may be the problem.” I would say this is the question of leadership the church must ask. Are the leaders in the church people who exercise leadership that is the practice of self-sacrificial love and service or one that is self-centered, valuing status and power? Secondly, what sort of leadership will the followers of the church follow? The answer to those question are very crucial to what sort of church will there be in the future among North America.

    Grace and Peace,

    – Rex

  • Mike (9) writes ‘I think inspirational leadership that will not allow themselves to have institutional responsibilities is playing chicken.’

    Responsibility is good, but to an institution? I rather feel that is part of the problem. Surely we should not follow an institution but the King and our great High Priest. I am so glad I do not serve an institution!

    Thanks Adam (11) and Andy (12) for clarification.

    Are we in charge or is Jesus? I wrote on this earlier today based on Acts 1 – . The second half of the post is the relevant part.

    Do you think the remaining eleven disciples were right to appoint Matthias? Were the seeds of institution in the discussion on who to put forward? Would Peter have led better or worse if he had encouraged them to wait?

  • Rick

    A quote from a church leadership guru, referring to “sacred” aspects of church:

    “This one doesn’t commonly make the list, but it’s big for us. Because we intentionally develop a leadership culture, and believe that everything rises and falls on leadership, we take the trust of the people as a sacred trust. The congregation trusts us to guide their faith development, wisely steward their financial gifts, and on a very practical level, invest in their kids and teens in a way that makes a difference. That’s a huge trust. That trust is sacred to us. Jesus is Lord, and each person is responsible for their own faith journey, but when they choose a church they are saying, “We choose this community of believers in which to find our way spiritually.”

    Does “everything rise and fall on leadership”?

  • As Jesus Himself said in Matthew 23:10 NASB, we are not to seek being called leaders because there is but one Leader among us – Christ.

    That the “leadership” focus in the church has not become more of a scandal among those of us to love Christ is an indictment against the temperature of our love for Christ.