The first day I moved to Manchester (almost two months ago now!) I walked quite a bit around the city centre. I was halfway trying to just stay awake, halfway powered by the adrenaline of having just moved to a new continent. I wanted to take in as much as I could. Plus it was a nice day without rain and I knew I had to take advantage of that.
I was struck that day, as I have often been since, of my own insignificance. I passed hundreds, probably thousands, of people. Buses full of people. Cars struggling through the city traffic. People on the street hurrying to their next destination. All of these people could care less about me. I’m nothing important, especially to them. As the taller buildings in the centre loomed overhead I realised in a new way how insignificant I truly am.
There is nothing heroic about me. (People who know me all just said “duh” in their heads.) I have nothing to offer these people. I don’t even know them, let alone have anything great by myself to better their lives. This impression is a grace from God.
For most of us, we are told a few trillion times a day how significant we are. How many marketing messages tell you how important you are, how you deserve this thing or that widget. And of course it works! Our egos are stroked and we like that so we hand over our money. We grow up in a sea of privilege and expect our lives to be ordered to our exact specifications. If they aren’t, we throw a fit. If your WiFi inexplicably went out as you were reading this, how would you react? I’d be frustrated and annoyed and some (most? all?) of that would come from my bloated level of entitlement.
If we are the most important thing in this world our lives we will either burn out or check out. Burnout comes understanding we aren’t that great, then trying over and over to reach for something out of our own grasp. Checking out comes from realising this impossibility, searing our desires and giving up. Either is a sad existence and they don’t offer a whole lot of hope. Surely we know the areas we come up short…multiply that by the population of the world and just try not to get depressed. So the good news is that we aren’t the most significant things in this world but we can know who is most significant. He already knows us. Jesus is what the city of Manchester needs, not Greg Willson. Jesus is the one who can bring hope to a dying world, not some American church planter.
So what place does that leave for me, do I have to try and escape my identity? Not at all. Jesus, the perfect and most significant person ever to exist, has chosen to share his story of redemption through people. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to reflect the world that ought to be in this world that is. That means that though I might be quite insignificant, I am connected to the most significant story this world will ever offer: the story of redemption. I am connected to the most significant being in this world and he actually thinks well of me. God is in the process of making all things new and my importance lies with him.
This aspect of insignificance is something everyone can benefit from, but especially us church planters. We can easily be overly optimistic about our gifts in preaching or ability to exegete culture. We are told in our churches and at our conferences that we are on the “front line” doing the hard work of the planting the gospel in hard ground. All that might be true, but it also feeds an ego that is all too comfortable with being “the man”. Church planters should first be thought of as humble…mostly because the majority of what we do fails anyway! Jesus leads his church and there is great comfort in that truth.
Therefore I celebrate my insignificance. I take it in as I walk around. I might be overwhelmed. I might not be completely OK with that. But I know this is right and this is good. This is where God has called me.
Well, well, well…
You have written some really good pieces over the years. But this one tops them all. I can identify with your predicament. After all, even though I proudly own a Certificate of Naturalization, have lived in the US of A for 17 years and am well acquainted with the ways of the “natives” here, the fact remains that I still do feel insignificant at times for exactly the same reasons you do in the UK. Time to adopt John the Baptist’s motto,
He must increase, and I must decrease.”
Thanks, Norm. Glad you can identify with us, too. I think it truly is a gift, though not one I would have asked for!