For All the Big Dreamers in the World – Start Small On The Ground and Let the Rest Take Care of Itself

“I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” Woody Allen

I’d like to direct this post to the many people seeking advice these days on book writing and getting Ph D education and stuff like that.

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I am a pastor, church planter, nurturer of missional communities and a full-time professor at a seminary. I regularly receive inquiries from people seeking advice on how they too can follow my path. It seems there are a lot of young men and women who find the dual task of teaching in a seminary and pastoring appealing.

I don’t exactly know what’s going on but I am always prompted to ask these good people why they would find my life appealing? I sometimes think people want to teach because they find the influence and admiration that comes with these dual jobs appealing. Perhaps they find speaking engagements enticing because of the acclaim that can give someone. I AM NOT SAYING I HAVE EITHER. But think about all that for a minute. I don’t think you should gain influence in the church apart from what God has being doing in, through and around you within a circle of community relationships in Christ. i.e. in the church. And you can’t plan that. Right? You should start therefore from wherever you are living in ministry and pursue faithfulness and take opportunities for influence ONLY with the greatest of care. Lest you be elevated falsely as part of a media campaign or some other untoward hype. (I recognize this can be read as arrogant – but I seriously am not assuming I have any of this influence or authority).

It seems at one time there was a path to influence within Christendom. Do well in your seminary studies. Practice and become a polished public speaker. Go get a Ph. D. at a premier school and write and think on the highest levels competing against the best. I did none of this BTW so maybe I’m not the one to ask. Yet from my perspective, that world is shrinking. The days of gaining influence from positional achievement in Christendom are (gladly) waning. Today this kind of (Christendom) influence is largely generated in large conference venues. For me, these venues try to sell too much. Again, because Christendom has its problems, I strongly suggest none of us go this route. The best thing for anyone is to put these temptations towards influence aside, and start with the ministry God has given you. Seek faithfulness and allow God to use you in the world. Seek additional education as it seems a natural extension of your life – the life God is working in and through you already. If influence comes, it comes from God and you should submit to it humbly and in service to His Kingdom.

The allure of fame seems to be everywhere these days. I talk to at least two or three people a month who want to write a book. Everybody wants to write a book, be a speaker at conferences, or affect the national conversation (what national conversation?).  It seems like nothing matters unless you’re starting a new movement to end global poverty in our lifetime (or something like that). It seems everyone is starting a blog, a new church, a twitter account, all to gain a following so they can do something national or transnational. Why this chase for national significance? To me this is counterproductive to the Kingdom and works against one’s own personal development in Christ.

Notoriety has a way of screwing with your mind. I say if it happens to you keep your head down and be very intentional on your spiritual disciplines. I’ve seen it happen a hundred times. A pastor or a leader becomes nationally known, gets asked to speak at conferences, quits his/her day job and starts appearing on stage as the supposed “expert.” He/she becomes separated from his/her ministry that kept him grounded, that kept her work generative and in touch with actual life issues in church and ministry. Before you know it, he/she’s got to appear in Metro Somewhere to say something to help people he/she does not know about a problem he/she hasn’t dealt with in ten years. And yet we listen to people like this eh?

Worse, something happens to said person (I’ve experienced this personally) when this dynamic starts to shape one’s life. You start appearing as someone you’re not, someone people now expect you (and pay you) to be. And I’m sorry, at this point something huge has been lost by both the person speaking and the people listening. The only way this can work for either the speaker or audience is if the speaker pays attention to his/her spiritual formation in a live Christian community in Mission and is actually invested there, being shaped there, being called out of sin there, and participating in real life mission there.

In the end, I contend that every movement that changed the world started with relationships. It started on the ground. Most non-relational ways to change the world only end up either preserving the existing order or worse sustaining an injustice hidden beneath the ideology. Their effect might be big initially but almost always short lived. We raise huge sums of money that in the end do very little because the social redemptive reconciliation only happens painstakingly on the ground. And yet we are tempted to contribute to the big (it makes us feel more significant?).

I remember sitting around a church leadership meeting one night talking about a proposal to contribute to a national campaign by some famous musicians to stem the AIDS epidemic in Africa. I asked if anyone knew what percentages of the money would go to the cause, to whom and where. No one knew. Meanwhile we had a relationship with a missionary hospital in the rural area of Africa dealing with 100’s of AIDS patients a year, whom we knew well  (my sister ministers there). The other more famous option was more appealing. Uh why do we do this? For me, revolutions work for change on the ground in the raising up of repentant and resistant communities (Read Ched Myers on this).

I admit I have a blog. I started to tweet a year ago. I speak at conferences. I admit I have an agenda. It’s driven by what I see as the way forward in post-Christendom in America. Call it Neo-Anabaptist Missional Christian life. I admit to trying to make my case, often in large settings.

I have discovered however that my blog, twitter feed, facebook and speaking must be part of my life, not a calculated strategy to make a wider case. Stangely, my blogging, tweeting etc. have become part of my personal spiritual disciplines. They have become part of me developing my theology from the ground up.  And I go to conferences to get challenged and put forth ideas and contribute to/support grass roots organizations I feel committed to. But I need to take the warning, that the minute I try to architect all this into some national exposure, I find my material disqualified as something not real but manufactured. I must be grounded in the proving of God’s truth amidst vibrant missional communities living among the everyday rhythms of post Christendom. This is where any authority/gifting I have is recognized and authenticated. In real relationships. This is where I think true gospel/kingdom work begins because, in the words of Gil Scot Heron “the revolution will not be televised.”

So here is my very best advice to all of us who would be used by God in whatever context, yet have big dreams – to get a PhD, become a seminary professor, write a book and speak at conferences. Put aside your big plans, put aside your well devised managed future where you think if I get said degree, start a blog, write a book and plant a church, I can find my role in the church. No go the other way. Sell everything, abandon all personal ambition to the life of following Christ into the local mission of God. This will most likely mean inefficiency, getting down and dirty, getting a job and working alongside others in realm life community. It will demand that you devote energy and time to getting good at stuff which doesn’t seem immediately germane to becoming a national church leader. But that’s ok. Spend time in cultivating a community life, partnering with several others, learn your gifts and start cultivating the Kingdom in a neigbourhood. And then see what happens. See what God does. Listen for what God is saying and respond daily. Out of this place, when money – time affords, pursue a graduate theological education that will deepen your understanding of the Scriptures, theological trajectories and culture. If teaching opportunities come, book contracts and speaking opportunities come – praise God! Use them to further the gospel of His Kingdom. But always, I REPEAT ALWAYS, treat them carefully – submitting one’s ego to the Kingdom lest you too become a statistic on the scrapheap of fleeting fame.

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To anyone attracted to this way of thought – I’d like to recommend this conference. EPIC Fail. Check it out here. I love this kind of meeting place to discern what God is doing among us instead of listening to people we’ve exalted as experts. Read what Bob Hyatt has to say about national conferences here. I agree with everything he says. And if I have offended anyone with this post – tell me what I need to hear. I’m always ready to repent from hubris or whatever … Blessings as we pursue on the ground ministry together!!

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David Fitch
David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.