by Lance Witt
Kevin Skinner was obscure—absolutely anonymous—until he won the million dollars. An unemployed chicken catcher who loved to write songs, he won the top prize on America’s Got Talent.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of. We love it when the underdog becomes top dog. We love it when somebody small makes it big. Maybe it’s because we picture ourselves standing on the stage and performing in front of the cheering crowds.
I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t had those pictures run through my mind. The truth is, being known, admired and respected makes us feel important. But what if God’s plan isn’t to give me a Kevin Skinner moment? What if my calling is to relative obscurity?
Obscurity can be a bitter pill to swallow. We in ministry like to quote passages like the one in Acts 17 that says the early church turned the world upside down. We love to talk about great people of faith who changed their world. Hebrews 11 talks about such people. These great men and women of faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, became powerful in battle, routed foreign armies, and even raised the dead to life.
It would be great if the chapter ended there, leaving us inspired by the exponential potential of faith. But there’s a ninety-degree turn in the middle of verse 35, a subtle transition in the word “others.”
Their names are not listed. They will remain historically anonymous . These “others” were still great men and women of faith. In fact, “the world was not worthy of them.” But unlike those who experienced miracles and victory, these “others” were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, and put to death by the sword. They were destitute, often homeless, and they lived in obscurity.
Interestingly, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.” None of them received what had been promised. Not yet. Not in this world. Not all of God’s promises had been fulfilled in this life.
But this life is not all there is. For them, their faith hadn’t delivered them from death; their faith caused their death. Their faith didn’t bring fame; it brought danger. And following Jesus did not bring notoriety; it brought obscurity.
One of the spiritual health questions every ministry leader must answer is, “Am I willing to serve in obscurity?”
The first church I pastored was small, rural, and obscure. I came there fresh out of seminary. I was naïve, optimistic, full of ambition. After five years, though, my grandiose visions had degenerated into the hard work of pastoring. I wanted out.
During those days I remember flying to Dallas to interview with a church about a possible position. The interview took place at a hotel, and afterward I walked into the lobby and called my wife. I told her, “If I were them, I would not hire me. I am not what they are looking for.” Sure enough, the following Tuesday I received the call that I knew was coming. Even so, it was devastating. I vividly remember sitting at my desk and weeping like a baby. I didn’t want to be anonymous. I wanted to be sought out, not left out. Obscurity was not part of my plan.
I eventually did move to another church. I wish I could tell you I had learned to be fully content where I was and then God moved me. That wouldn’t be true. But in those days God began a work that continues to this day.
Looking back, I see that obscurity allowed me to wrestle with my identity and significance.
In her insightful book Anonymous, Alicia Britt Chole says, “From God’s perspective, anonymous seasons are sacred spaces. . . . Unapplauded, but not unproductive: hidden years are the surprising birthplace of true spiritual greatness.” This was certainly true of Jesus. We tend to forget that the stories about him reflect a very short time period. The overwhelming majority of his life was spent in total obscurity. Only for a short season was he in the public eye.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a smelly animal pen (followed by hidden days). He was circumcised in the temple on his eighth day (followed by hidden months). Before turning two, Jesus received a visit from Eastern wise men (followed by hidden years). At the age of twelve he teaches in the temple (followed by almost two entirely hidden decades).
Jesus never ran toward the spotlight. He never focused on drawing a large crowd or marketing his brand. He knew that unseen does not equal unimportant. It’s been a long time coming, but I am learning to embrace this truth.
Here is something else I’m learning. Even if you’ve had a “Kevin Skinner” moment where the spotlight has been on you, it doesn’t last long. The spotlight is fickle. It will always turns toward the next rising star. Even if you’re in the spotlight today, obscurity is coming again. It’s inevitable.
When the spotlight is gone, what you have left is the relationship. That’s why paying attention to your soul is so important. Someday the trappings of ministry will fade away, and all you’ll have will be Jesus. Will that be enough?
Yesterday I was on a flight with a quite elderly lady. When she got out into baggage claim, her husband was sitting on a bench waiting for her. When he saw her, he lit up like a Christmas tree. With cane in hand he moved toward her and kissed her like a newlywed. It was awesome.
I don’t know what kind of life this couple has shared. They might have had a successful business. They could have made a lot of money. They might have been famous for all I know.
But now they’re in their twilight years. Their looks have faded. Their physical strength is diminished. There was no fanfare upon her return. No limo, no media, no spotlight. There was just one person to greet her, but it was the one person with whom she’d shared her life. They have each other, and that’s enough.
Obscurity didn’t matter. The relationship did.
Someday the trappings of ministry will fade away. We’ll move out of the office. We won’t have a business card or a title. The spotlight will turn to someone else. But if we’ve been sharing our life with Jesus, obscurity won’t matter. The relationship will.
If you’re in a time of obscurity now, God has not forgotten you. Even though you might be hidden from the world, you are not hidden from him. Allow this anonymous season to deepen rather than discourage you. Don’t chase after the spotlight; chase after the relationship.
This prayer from Basilea Schlink names what’s often in my heart and helps me embrace my obscurity.
Today I still long so much for honour, I am so pleased with myself, so rooted in my nature. I am pleased when others ask for my opinion, when I am made to feel I am needed, when people know that I am clever, talented and popular. I am glad when I am friends with everyone, when I can share what is in my heart, when I can shine. But Lord Jesus, you were a servant of all. Today I surrender all desire to be great; I renounce all pleasure I take in being important.
Lance Witt is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. replenish.net