Serving in Obscurity

To begin: I am not a social media force.

I have social media accounts, but, generally speaking, they are followed by friends and church members. When I tweet, I typically get one or two favorites. Sometimes a retweet.

Mostly? Not so much.

This is not surprising. I have no books. I have not spoken at any conferences. I am just another pastor in another American milieu. Every now and then, however, something I say—er, tweet—will strike a nerve.

A few days ago I posted this:

“If you feel ‘called’ to ministry but will not serve in obscure places, you don’t want to do ministry. You want recognition.”

And the nerve was struck. By my puny social media standards the tweet was a veritable best-seller, racking up 99 retweets and over 100 favorites.

The tweet led to some follow-up questions and even an appearance in Sunday’s sermon, so it seems an idea worth unpacking. (Case in point: When multiple people ask if I was talking about them when I preached this portion of the sermon, it is time to tend the spiritual garden at hand.)

Simply put, I believe obscurity is good for Kingdom laborers, particularly pastors, and most especially newly up and coming pastors.

Obscurity carves out pride.

When I graduated with an undergraduate in Bible, I believed I was destined to be the next great American pastor. Additionally, many of my friends seemed to believe that, as well. Or so they said. I had experienced ministry “success” during my university years, growing a college ministry to around 200 students, exceeding expectations. Clearly I was destined for greatness.

And clearly I needed to be spiritually disciplined.

Over the next 16 years I served as pastor of a church populated almost entirely of retirees on the edge of West Texas town you have most likely never heard of. Following that I served as an Associate Pastor in a small East Texas town you also have likely not heard of. And following that I planted a church of which you have not heard—because it does not exist any longer. And every single bit of it was filled with the rich blessing of love and service.

I had to learn a valuable lesson: My skill was not the most important component to ministry; it was far more important I understood and savored the grace of God. Laboring in obscurity, far from the spotlight, I learned to stop believing I was the key to ministry and instead point toward Jesus alone. Jesus was enough. And Jesus is still enough.

Obscurity cultivates spiritual maturity.

In my first pastorate, my congregation had about 30 people on my first Sunday. I could write my sermons and visit each individual in my congregation by Wednesday each week. What would I do with all of that extra time?

It turns out I needed to grow.

I started to read my Bible unlike I ever had before. I spent hours reading the Scripture and learning prayer. I read about spiritual disciplines; I read about discipling; I read about pastoral ministry; I read theology.

Pastoring and serving in a smaller setting is a gift, for you will have time to study and grow you will never have in larger settings. And when you grow, when you study, and when you pray, the Lord can use you more effectively in your small setting—and perhaps eventually in larger settings.

Savor the time you have to grow, study, pray, think, meditate, and contemplate.

Obscurity provides proper perspective.

Finally, and probably most importantly, serving in smaller and more obscure locations, you learn that the church is not about you. It never was. It never will be. Long after you are dead and buried, the gospel will continue to move forward. Jesus’ Kingdom will be established whether you receive a book deal or not. The glory of God is not dependent upon your ministry skillfulness.

When our church plant failed, I had an “Aha!” moment. I had started a church to disciple others. But I realized that God had used the plant to disciple me. He taught me that it never had anything to do with me in the first place. It was always about Jesus.

And it still is.

Today I find myself in a larger church, in a larger city, with a larger platform. But I’ll always be grateful for smaller, simpler days. For it was then that I learned of my God’s grace and goodness first hand.

I hope you will, as well.