A well-known Christian preacher tells the story of driving to speak at a church, his two children riding in the backseat. When they arrived, the parking lot was almost empty—only three other cars. His seven-year-old son looked out the window and said, “Dad, nobody’s coming to hear you. And you’re so famous.” His daughter turned to her brother and said, “Well, if dad’s so famous, where are all the people?” Feeling defensive for his dad, the boy shot back, “Knock it off. It’s hard to be famous when nobody knows who you are.”
That boy was right: It’s hard to be famous when no one knows who you are.
A pastor friend once sent me an email suggesting several possible speakers for the annual preaching lectures we host at Heritage Seminary. He recommended several heavy-hitters in the homiletics world. He closed his note by saying if we couldn’t get any of them to come, he was available. The only problem he added, was we’d have to charge $1,000 dollars per ticket to make up for the fact that only four or five people would show up to hear him—one of whom would be his mother.
His note made smile. It also made me reflect. My friend voiced what many pastors feel. We’re not about to receive an invite to headline a conference anytime soon. And if we did, there would only be three cars in the parking lot. One of the cars would belong to mom.
It’s hard to be famous when no one knows who you are.
Most of us pastors will always be relatively unknown. We may serve a city church lost in a larger metropolis. We may serve a rural church located on the outskirts of obscurity. Sure, we’ll be known to the people in our congregations. But beyond that—not so much. Our sermons may be on our church website, but they won’t go viral.
Most of the time, that’s just fine. Most of the time, when busy serving Christ and His people, we don’t think too much about it. We enjoy our calling and find satisfaction in serving. Besides, we went into ministry to be faithful, not famous.
But sometimes, unexpectedly, something will surface our latent insecurity—hearing about the exponential growth happening at a friend’s church or reading an article by a seminary friend who now leads a high-profile ministry. We can feel diminished by a comment made at a pastor’s lunch. Or even the well-meaning words of one of our kids in the backseat. As we compare ourselves with others or with our own unspoken hopes and dreams, we suddenly feel small and insignificant.
It is hard to be famous when no one knows who you are.
The New Testament has a message for all of us who sometimes struggle with a sense of insignificance. It reminds us we are in good company. When Paul wrote the believers in Corinth, he described himself and his colleagues as “unknown, and yet well known” (2 Corinthians 6:9).
We all know Paul as one of the high-profile Christian leaders of the early church. If someone carved a Mt. Rushmore for Christian ministers, we’d vote for Paul’s face to be on it. He seems larger than life.
Still, Paul had a realistic understanding of his place in society. He knew he was relatively unknown in the larger Roman world. He may have been “known” among the fledgling churches, but he could still classify himself as one of the “unknowns” in the wider culture.
But being an unknown in the world didn’t rob Paul of joy or diminish his contentment in ministry. What mattered most to him was being known to the One who mattered most. By grace, he had come to know God and be known by Him (Galatians 4:9). As a result, he lived with a sense of significance anchored in the eternal. Paul learned to find his significance in being well-known to Jesus. God wants us to learn that same life-giving lesson.
In my first experience as a lead pastor, part of God’s gracious curriculum for me involved reorienting my sense of significance. I served as the solo pastor of a church with an unpaved parking lot and an unusual, L-shaped sanctuary. The people in the congregation loved us and we felt grateful for the privilege of serving a healthy congregation. At least most of the time.
There were moments when I struggled with a sense of insignificance. In seminary, I had dreams of doing great things for God. Of being a missionary and equipping nationals to reach an entire nation. My wife had been trained as a Bible translator. But now we found ourselves tucked away in a small church, in a small town that seemed miles away from our earlier hopes and dreams.
Missionaries and a Movie
God used some missionaries and a movie to begin reshaping of my internal sense of significance. First, I heard about a missionary couple serving Christ on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The Mosquito Coast? Guess what they have lots of? This family had laboured in obscurity on the Mosquito Coast for twenty or thirty years. Talk about being “unknown”. But from what I heard, it didn’t seem to bother them.
Next, Linda and I had the opportunity to visit missionary friends in Indonesia. For several weeks we lived with men and women who prayed and planned to impact an entire nation with the gospel. While inspired by their vision, I felt dwarfed in comparison. My life and ministry seemed so small and insignificant.
Shortly after returning home, my wife and I went to see a newly released movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus. If you’ve seen the movie, you know it centers on the story of a man who dreamed of composing a beautiful symphony (a magnum opus). It would be his lasting musical legacy. But life didn’t go the way he planned. Instead of becoming a famous conductor, he became a high school music teacher. Not exactly his dream job, but it paid the bills. The years rolled by quickly; soon Mr. Holland was an older man, being pushed into retirement as the district head office cut funding for music programs. As he cleaned out his desk and made a final walk down the hallway into retirement, a student asked him to step into the school auditorium. To his surprise, the seats were full of cheering people. On the stage sat former students ready to play a piece of music he had composed. One of the students honoured him with the words, “Mr. Holland, we are your opus.”
As I left the theatre, my eyes brimmed with tears and my heart soared. I had been reminded significance doesn’t always come the way we expect or even want. In fact, the true measure of our work won’t be seen until we walk the hallway into heaven’s auditorium. Then, with heavenly hindsight, we’ll see what we should have foreseen: faithfulness without fanfare makes us well-known to Jesus. Even if we spend our life serving in obscurity on the Mosquito Coast or in one of the many out of the way places closer to home.
Francis Schaeffer once wrote: “As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places. To be wholly committed to God in the place where God wants him—this is the creature glorified.” Schaeffer goes further, he counsels that we not seek a bigger place “unless the Lord himself extrudes us into a greater one.”
I don’t recall ever reading the word “extrude” before, so I was thankful Schaeffer explained its meaning:
The word extrude is important here. To be extruded is to be forced out under pressure into a desired shape. Picture a huge press jamming soft metal at high pressure through a die so that the metal comes out in a certain shape. This is the way of the Christian: He should choose the lesser place until God extrudes him into a position of more responsibility and authority”
So what should we do when our hearts become restless and discontented? We must preach to our own hearts. We remind ourselves that it is too soon to know the significance of our service. Serving with passion and faithfulness is what God asks of us today. This is what makes a Christian well-known to Jesus. This is how we become, like Paul, a well-known unknown.
This post is taken from The Heart of the Preacher, by Rick Reed.
Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol. 3 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 64.