I sat down with Jim at a local greasy spoon. Interesting guy. He spoke in a deep voice and his conversation was paced like an NPR newsman.
He’s well educated and worked in an office building of one sort or another most of his life before he went in to full-time ministry. Everybody knew Jim in the town. He was a bank teller. Then he owned a real-estate company. I remember seeing his office back when he was a broker. He had an interesting array of books on his shelves about counting cards, turning property, useless trivia, the history of Jazz, and math games. He had a crazy collection of old comic books and a poster of the Green Lantern on his wall next to his diploma.
Now, as a pastor, he tried to shed the images of his former self and dress down a bit because he was given that suggestion long ago. He jokingly referred to his old wears as his “grave clothes.” But, it was tough for him to shake because he is actually comfortable in a suit and tie. This particular day he was wearing loafers and sweat pants.
Jim told me he was thinking about going in to the mission field. Selling everything and moving his family to Germany. “What’s the attraction the country for you?” He hung his head and said, “If I can be honest, I just want a fresh start where no one knows me.”
It broke my heart. “I’m a failure in this town. I’ve changed my look. I bought a house in a new part of town that isn’t as affluent. I’ve taken up sports and joined a basketball league, I started speaking on Sundays in a t-shirt, and I started promoting Christian concerts for kids to bring their friends. We do cool dramas and musicals. I’ve spent 100’s of hours on mailers and flyers to invite people to come and, our church is still dying. I want a fresh start.”
“Who are you trying to reach?” I asked him. “The people in our town. Blue collar. Sports lovers. Emo kids” “No wonder you’re tired,” I said. “You’re none of those things.”
Jim bought a methodology that was sold to him that says, do a demographic survey of your town and tailor your ministry to target the largest segment of that town. It’s a tired model and one that is frustrating to those who are forced to play roles they are not fit for, and forced to curtail their idiosyncrasies to be like the people they think they are supposed to be rather than being the best possible version of themselves. Leaders in these (often self-imposed) scenarios spend a great deal of time reprogramming themselves to find affinity with things they don’t understand and frankly, in some cases, will never be good at. So, towns are being robbed of missionaries.
God has made each person unique in order for that person to discover his or her own mission field. I can’t reach the people God has called you to reach. I’m uniquely shaped to reach a group of people you can’t. Your church can reach the people in your town in ways I couldn’t imagine and vice versa.
Two things make us unique: our story and the place we live. We know when we tell our story it will resonate with someone at some time. So we keep telling. We know the place we live has special traits and oddities we need to pay attention to and speak into.
But we rarely talk about our own personal quirks in the same light. Maybe we don’t know how to channel them. Maybe we are afraid. Maybe we spend our time trying to bend them or morph them into something else—the thing we think people want.
So how does Jim become effective in his environment? Maybe he puts his suit back on. He puts his number-crunching mind to work and develops ways to make more money to give away. He starts meeting with the business owners and executives in his town to hear their needs. He surveys his congregation to see who is excited about the things that don’t come natural to him and he gives them permission to lead and a platform. He teaches people about being free from the tyranny of money. He takes the money he is making from all his side ventures and builds new basketball courts and fixes up the town music hall. He starts an after-school comic book club. He coaches the Mathletes at the high school. Whatever he chooses to do, Jim’s town needs Jim. Not faux-Jim.
The Bible is full of quirky people. Some had forts in the woods where people would go to hear them talk, some dressed funny, some danced naked, some burned poo and made bread over it. Today, we celebrate these weirdoes because they made a difference. Their uniqueness gave them a unique mission field. It is the same for us today.
We all have our own brand of weirdness. And, the world needs that brand.