I wonder what the modern person’s fascination is with living a life of high, visible impact, or at least what we would consider high impact?
Why do so many of us insist on finding our worth and value in the widely recognizable “big splash” we make during our time in our short existence? Why do most of us opt for the bigger and the better rather than the small and reserved?
I guess it makes sense.
The celebrity culture that we are immersed in routinely reminds us that we are not much unless we are not known by many. We desperately crave “likes” and “views” on all of our social media platforms, and we feel lonely when we get only a few. If an employee spends fifty years in the same profession, having never worked her way up the chain, she would likely be seen as a mediocre employee at best, and a failure at worst. Men or women who leave the work force in order to raise their children are tempted to feel like professional failures; while others are out making money in the daily grind, they are stuck at home in their pajamas, earning only the approving notice of a small child who loves them.
The bigger the better. Be all that you can be. Go big or go home… I wonder why the small and quiet life tends to be seen as a negative and felt sorry for, or worse… looked down upon?
This easily bleeds its way into the church as well. In an age where many churches are run via a large, high octane, business model, if it is not making a big splash in the community or the world, it can easily be seen as a failure of a church, often in our reserved opinion. It is a relic of a bygone era. The largest churches, offering the most services at the most locations are seen as “winning” and doing something right, while the small church on the corner, with the broken-up parking lot and untidy lawn, is likely to be seen as a looser of a church, if we even notice it at all. The small church is not up to speed as the “successful” ones. They are not as modern or culturally engaged. We wonder what the larger churches are offering that the outdated ones are not. We wonder if it’s a moral issue or a breakdown in leadership. We may assume the pastor is not as culturally relevant, as good a speaker, or as powerful leader.
Henri Nouwin, in his classic In the Name of Jesus, wrote,
The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
These words are so very soothing to introvert like myself and should ring true to most people familiar with Scripture, but we often struggle to live as if they are true. In our Western culture, and more precisely, our American ethos, we can easily muddle God-pleasing spirituality with a “take the hill” attitude, an engaging personality, or a great, business-minded leadership.
The best leaders seem closer to God. We assume they have the answers. We long for their advice and approval more than anyone else at our church. We do not tend to go to the volunteer in the orange vest and beanie, helping to direct cars on Sunday with our spiritual conundrums. We prefer the people that stepped on the stage that day for some reason, and are prone to compare our spirituality to theirs. They are the leaders. They are the God-pleasers. They are the ones who are called to greatness in the Kingdom… and we quiet ones? Not only are we not achieving great feats on behalf of our God, not only do we not lead thousands to Christ annually, every ounce of energy we have may be spent struggling to keep a marriage together, kick a destructive habit, or raise a troubled child…
Or perhaps we are just quiet. We want to, and do, lead a quiet Christian faith. Are quiet people and quiet churches less excited about God than the loud ones?
I would answer with a resounding No.
But when we’re surrounded by so many people who are so very intense on social media, in the workplace, and on stage about their faith, we’re tempted to feel like a less-than other.
This of course leads to the inevitable trap of comparison between us and the loud, energetic Christians: Am I not as motivated about God as he or she is? Why am I not as loud about my faith? This guy apparently shares his faith with everyone he comes in contact with, how many people did I share the gospel with this year? Have I ever shared the gospel with anyone in my life? How many times have I read through the Bible? Have I ever read through the Bible at all? What if I’d rather go to lunch with my co-workers than place church invites on the window shields of cars? And so on… It’s tempting to feel like a less-than-motivated Christian when we compare ourselves to such hyper-active spirituality.
In a book I highly recommended called Friendship at the Margins by Heuertz and Pohl, the authors write,
Because a business mindset is so prevalent in our society, the work of mission is sometimes recast in very economic terms. Missional language like “target audience” and a focus on results-driven measurements echo a scale approach that see people first as potential consumers – in this case, consumers of the product we’re offering a particular version of Christianity.
As much as our culture might need the high-octane, business models of our church right now and the extrovert staff that run them, we also desperately need the soft and quiet types… the soft and quiet types whose ministry are kept in the shadows, between one or two people and God. They are going to reach the corners that the brooms of the mega-church will never be able to sweep up. If we get too caught up, comparing ourselves to a high octane, take-the-hill Christian life-style, we are prone to overlook the Broken and the Undesirable in the margins of our society, who would get steamrolled by such numbers-driven, results-oriented ministries… When we are tempted to reduce all those in our prevue to stats, invites, conversions metrics, cards filled out, commitments, and any other reductive way we can break them down, we will miss those who are outside our camp, the Sick, the Despised, the Quiet… the very Ones that Jesus intentionally sought out.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of people who followed Jesus during the first century never had their names memorialized in Scripture. They simply heard his words, fell in love, and changed their hearts. Their lives were so small and boring that the only one who knows their name today is the Savior they served.
Now, I am obviously not anti-large churches with high octane business models. I have worked for a few of them and am in awe of what they do for the Kingdom. And I am certainly not anti-having a great leader as a pastor or someone having a loud, boisterous personal faith. I look up to several prominent people like that today. Many people have experienced God through large, organized churches with a solid business plan and great servant-leaders on their staff.
But for those of us who prefer living a quiet life?… For those of us who struggle to talk to people in public, let alone share our faith?… For those of us who never know if the energetic people we meet in the church lobby are going to give us a hand-shake, a high five, or side-hug (and will probably screw it up regardless)?… For those of us who would rather sit quietly in a coffee shop rather than distribute our pre-rubber-banned church invitations?… We tend to feel different. We tend to feel less-than than the extroverts, who are loud with their faith. We do not feel nearly as excited about God, although we may long for him desperately. If we are not making a “big splash” for the Gospel, it is desperately tempting to feel like a spiritual looser.
My old pastor Larry Osborn wrote a book that I have come to love over the years called Spirituality for the Rest of Us – A Down to Earth Guide to Knowing God. In it, he covers many topics that introverts such as myself need to read; living a quiet faith definitely being one of them. In a chapter called Is it a Sin to be Average? Larry writes:
Somehow, somewhere, I picked up the idea that we’re all called to do great things for God; the godlier we become, the more we’ll be transformed into spiritual Bravehearts, serving God and marshalling others to do the same.
It sounds good. It’s motivational, as long as you’re the kind of person who dream big dreams.
But what if you’re the retiring types? What if you’ve never dreamed of turning your world upside down for God – or your neighborhood for that matter? What if your idea of a great life is a quiet life?
I loved reading that. I loved reading some of the very questions I have had about my own motivation and faith. I loved finding out there were more people like me out there. See, I have lived a very loud and engaging faith, but I have also lived a very small one, and tended to keep my relationship with Christ between myself and those only in my most inner-circle. I have had the wonderful opportunity of being on stage, in the bright lights and the soft music, leading dozens to raise their hands and repeat after me… but I have also sat one-on-one with an inmate in a cell, far away from any audience, shedding tears of sorrow after he missed out on another chance at parole. I have led large service projects, where I pre-coordinated videographers and photographers so that social media gets to see the best of my God-pleasing spirituality (and often still do), but I have also cuddled a small boy in my arms who I call my son, and taught him how to pray.
Now, I am not elevating one of these over the other. Some people are called to be in the spotlight, and are serving God on all cylinders while they are there. Our Faith needs them. And while I am certainly not praising my own deeds (as all my best deeds have normally been bracketed by some sort of lame depravity), I can honestly say that I have never been closer to God than when I was out of the limelight, far away from the accolades and the debriefs of my public performances… when it was just me, sharing in the brokenness and humanity of another.
Here I have experienced His presence the most. Here I have experienced the best that redemption has to offer. Here I have experienced the worst of humanity yet the very best of God.
Pastor Larry continues:
What if God didn’t want everyone to be turned into a leader and a hill-charging spiritual warrior? Could he possible be pleased with simple folks who loved God, loved their family and friends, then died without ever doing (or wanting to do) anything outstandingly significant?
He then answers his questions by writing about his parents:
They went to church. They hosted an occasional Bible study, and while they both adored their Savior, his mom often struggled even to get past Matthew in all her endeavors to read through the New Testament. Both his parents would start and stop spiritual discipline fads like a “fat man on a diet.” His parents were… well, they were normal. They were boring. They were average.
Yet, as Larry concluded,
All they did was live a life of obedience with grace and dignity. All they accomplished was raising three children who would walk with Jesus as adults – and who, strangely, would all have gifts of teaching and leadership.
All they did was love and know God… model a quiet life without hypocrisy… and bear the fruit to prove it.
Indeed, we need the teacher on stage and the quiet volunteer in the parking lot, but let us never assume that one is operating more within God’s will than the other.
While serving as an infantry Marine during wartime, I was dependent on the armed brother serving next to me. Yet I was also dependent on the Marines back on base, delivering my food and water daily. I was dependent on our air support who were only occasionally in harms way. I was dependent on Motor-Transport, and their ability to troubleshoot a broken down truck, and I was certainly dependent on those back home, praying for me, writing me, and sending me care-packages of melted candy. Not one position was higher than the other. If one was weak, we were all weak. The greatest warrior among us would have surely failed if the Marine cooking the chow would have stopped what he was doing, grabbed his weapon, and headed to the front lines. His place was not at the front lines. His greatest calling and greatest act of heroism during combat was to cook some warm food. As simple as it was, it was his highest calling, and of equal importance to my role in combat. They do not make movies about the guy that cooks the chow, but you’d better believe we celebrated him, and he got promoted just as quickly as we all did.
We Christians who tend to live a quiet, unassuming life are equally an important part of God’s Kingdom as the great saints of old, the current leaders on stage, the unknown but faithful prayer team in the back office, the single mom at home who is just trying to survive the next eighteen years, the truck driver on the road whose only exposure to church is their radio, the addict who is quietly finding God at a rehab center, the pregnant waitress who cannot afford a Sunday off, the blind senior who only hears the word of God via audiobook, smoking cigars on his back porch… their’s’ is a quiet Faith… and it’s an ok Faith to have… It won’t be celebrated in this life. They will never be asked to write a book or preach a message. Chances are they will never even be asked for any sort of spiritual advice… but oh, does God ever revel in their love. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, Christ would have died for them if they would have been the only ones on earth to die for.
Speaking of C.S. Lewis, in his short masterpiece The Great Divorce,the most celebrated person in Heaven that the protagonist got to encounter was a young woman named Sarah.
Sarah, when she was first noticed by the main character, was for some reason being highly praised and revered. She was emphatically being celebrated via parades and music and dancing creatures who were singing songs in her honor and showering her with flowers.
This was her existence in Heaven: glory and celebration.
However, back in her life on earth, she was a nobody. She did nothing that we would have applauded, awarded, or recognize as a tremendous act of service. She had nothing of value in her short existence. She led no church, no mission field. She had no followers or fans… Yet, here she was… in Eternity… celebrated with parades and songs… all of nature turning its attention to her… belting out her praise…
Because during her “boring” life on earth she did nothing… nothing but infuse God’s love into every being she came across… She quietly loved all and made everyone she met her beloved. While she had no biological children of her own, she had plenty of spiritual children. Every boy or girl that she met she treated as if they were hers and hers alone. They immediately became her son or daughter, even if it was the boy simply dropping off meat to her back door. Every animal she encountered was met with the love of it’s Creator… a love that seeped out of her very essence.
Sarah’s service to God was not an epic story, exaggerated by her future biographers. Her service was in the quiet trenches of everyday life. Her good deeds were made-up of simple, everyday choices to love the people she met, each and everyday.
This lady was never concerned with what we would consider large scale impact. She had no measurables to read over at the end of the day. She was not concerned with how may people reposted a platitude she wrote online.
She was concerned with one person and one person only: who ever happened to be right in front of her at any given time. In the shadows of the spotlight, shared only between her heart and those she came in contact with, her love was huge, and it was celebrated as such in Heaven.
God’s calling for everyone is vastly different yet uniquely important. No matter how great or small we perceive others or ourselves to be, in God’s eyes, our roles in the Kingdom are equally extraordinary.
God’s biggest plan for the single mom might not be to start a non-profit and help hundreds of other single mothers out of poverty (although it very well might be). It may simply be to raise a child who knows and loves her Creator…
God’s best for the husband might not be to lead a Fortune-500 company, donating massive amounts of his income to the mission field. It may simply be to demonstrate a model of Christ-like sacrifice and acceptance to his wife and kids…
God’s best plan for the inmate serving a life sentence may simply be to read the Scriptures daily, and long for that moment when they will finally meet…
The highest gift a pastor might be blessed with may not be the ability to preach to thousands on the weekend and lead a staff of hundreds throughout the week… It very well may be the ability to welcome to Broken and the Marginalized into her community, sharing life with them, and letting her tears fall with theirs.
The small church with the broken-up parking lot and untidy lawn? Their calling might not be to reach the world with the Gospel… It may simply be to reach those who live down the street… yet in God’s eyes, this local church will be just as revered as those who convert the nations.
The most overlooked among us may very well be the most celebrated in the next, when this foggy dream of an existence is over, and we wake up to the Great Reality.
May we get over our fears of being quiet, and embrace our peacefulness.
May we get over our fears of being ordinary and boring, and embrace our soft impact.
May we find our worth and value in simply being loved by our Heart’s Desire, and loving Him back…
Everything beyond that is just a garnish. We can partake of it if we choose. Or we can simply sit back and appreciate it, while we enjoy the Meal.