Saying he was speaking about his favorite things ― church, faith and discipleship ― best–selling author and futurist Len Sweet told leaders at a dinner here on Tuesday night (July 31) that the church  has made a mistake.

“We’ve fixated on leadership conferences, with most of the stuff being on the business of the church,” Sweet said in the first of two keynote addresses to the 2012 Evangelism and Church Development Conferences (ECG 2012). “Arguably you can’t find the word [leadership] in the New Testament.  The closest thing you get is an image about steering the vessel through the storm.”  

But one can find the word for disciple. Almost 300 times in fact. “It’s translated in three ways, as disciple, follower and learner,” said Sweet.  “We’ve gone awry.  There is a leader and it’s not me. It’s Christ. Let’s learn how to be followers.”

Lamenting that the church is often behind the secular culture, Sweet referenced a recent best-selling book The End of Leadership, which critiques both the state of American leadership and the “leadership industry” that produced it.  

So who do we follow?” he asked. “Culture says follow the story? But what story?” asked Sweet.

Pausing for effect, he added, referring to the opening lines of the gospel of John: “Story can be translated to sound or voice: ‘In the beginning was the story, and story was with God, and the story was fully manifest with Christ.’ We don’t know our story. We have the greatest story never told.”

Sweet spoke of reading a Cambridge university book on walking in early Roman culture. He learned that in early Roman civilization, the most important thing a teacher gave followers was a distinctive walk. Culturally people were known for the kind of walks they took: they were too fast or too slow; they wore a certain kind of clothing; they even had special sayings.

“The way they walked became an extension of who they were and who they were following,” said Sweet. “I started reading the story of Jesus again in a whole new way. The Christ walk, Jesus saying ‘I am the way, The truth. I am the life.’”

Sweet said he is learning three things:

  • to follow Jesus is to trust enough to get out of the way.
  • belonging comes before believing; and
  • it’s one thing to believe in God, quite another to believe. 

“Can our faith communities become ways to Christ ― to people on the way?” asked Sweet. “Because once you decide to walk in the way, you get the full life. We’ve got to realize the golden calf of leadership has taken us astray.”

Sweet, a United Methodist, acknowledged that his theology is growing more complex and nuanced, but his faith is becoming simpler. “Wesleyan (Methodist) theology kept coming back to hearts changing the world,” he said.

“John Calvin signed all of his letters with his personal seal ― an image of his heart on fire held in a pair of hands.”   Sweet said he’s learning what they knew: that “it’s all about Jesus.”