Small and Significant Microchurches in a Celebrity Age
embracing the obscurity of the Kingdom while rejecting the lies of futility
“No one sees what we do. No one notices. No one cares. If we shut down tomorrow, no one would know.” She took a sip of her coffee as a way to distract from the single tear that just hit the table. She has been laboring for years to cultivate a vibrant expression of the church among the residents in her apartment complex. She has a small, committed community of disciples living out sacrificial and messy love as they open their hearts and lives to their neighbors. They find themselves punching above the belt, consistently thrown into the middle of negotiating cheaper rent rates with the landlord in response to financial hardships, investigating mental health resources for those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, even thrown into the middle of late night domestic disturbances, all in the name of Jesus and the peace of His present Kingdom. They’ve always hoped to grow and expand, maybe be known and respected as a successful experiment, but it hasn’t gone that way.
“Our facebook page only has 30 fans which is pretty demoralizing. I feel like if we just figure out what kind of content our audience wants we could grow our online footprint and then the local work would explode.” He stared out the window of Popeyes as we ate our chicken sandwiches (obviously). It was dreary outside, and he got lost in the clouds as he tried to verbalize the storm within. He wanted to quit. His team’s quiet, years long work with Urban youth through hip hop music, concerts, spoken word and recording still felt slow. One kid at a time seen, mentored, loved, discipled, but it seemed like the longer they committed to this work the less notoriety came with it. He’d lost team members who had bigger dreams and just couldn’t settle on the simplicity of loving the image bearer in front of them.
These microchurch leaders are experiencing obscurity. They find their lives, and the life of their microchurches, increasingly driven into the shadows, carried into the margins. Their communal commitment to the poor and the lost is virtually unseen, and they have a growing hunger for the validation that comes with public sight.
This consistent experience of obscurity will inevitable trigger an existential crisis of futility. Does any of this even matter? Are we accomplishing anything? Is this all a waste? Is all of this sacrifice and years of relentless commitment, is it all a waste? Is it all futile? Does anything we do matter at all?
Obscurity and futility collaborate to spark an inner war of insecurity and confidence, which warps into the metrics success and failure in the heart of every leader, and we often look for the war to be settled by the loud voice of the crowds rather than the whisper of God.
Eventually there is always a season of relentless clawing for celebrity, that seductive escape from obscurity. We take precious time from the people right in front of us to schedule a consistent volume of social media posts on every platform to get in front of the crowd, hoping to be counted worthy of those dopamine spiking likes and shares and follows. We exploit the people we are called to love and rob their stories without consent for public consumption with the aim of the growth of our own celebrity.
The age of Christian celebrity has formed us to believe, and to emotionally internalize, that to be seen is to be effective, and to be unseen is to be futile. This is so far from the teachings of Jesus and the narrative of the New Testament. Whether it takes 5 minutes or 5 decades, celebrity always gets exposed as nothing but a Siren Song leading us to demise. These are tricks so powerful, so formative, so subversive they cannot simply be a product of human waywardness, but a dangling lure from the enemy of our souls.
Jesus said the last would be first and the first would be last, and what it meant to be great was to be a servant, and the greatest would be a servant of all. He rebuked the religious elite for their unrelenting obsession with public notoriety, and blessed those who are poor in Spirit, those who mourn and are meek. He consistently rejected those who were seen (celebrity), instead opting to spend his time with the unseen (the obscure). He told us we could find him in obscurity because “when I was naked, you clothed me, and when I was hungry you offered me food.”
When asked to describe the Kingdom of God, he described it like a small, obscure thing that willfully breaks to grow and give more life. He said the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, small and obscure that goes into the ground and breaks, giving birth to a grove. Or the Kingdom of God is like a little yeast, small and obscure, that is chemically decomposed in order to spread through the entire dough. The Kingdom of God is like a small treasure buried inside a massive field, or a single pearl in a market, small and hidden in obscurity.
A faithful commitment to the mission of the Kingdom is precisely a commitment to journey further and further toward obscurity. Obscurity is the expectation not the exception, it is a promise not a surprise. Missional leaders should grow to love the microchurch experience of obscurity and all it entails, because there we find Jesus, love, beauty and transformative power the world knows nothing of.
But the great problem of the Christian celebrity age is the marrying of obscurity to futility as if they are one and the same. This is calling the truth a lie and a lie the truth. I can name over a hundred microchurches in Tampa that look and feel obscure and not a single one is futile. And I can simultaneously name both institutions and leaders riding the wave of celebrity who have not accomplished a single task that will echo in eternity. Celebrity is nothing, the Kingdom is everything. The obscurity-futility lie is a growing barrier to the perseverance of missional leaders, as we eventually emotionally internalize the implications of the lie and feel meaningless, powerless, and fruitless from being unseen in the quiet of Kingdom obscurity.
Jesus sees the beauty, and receives the worship of your alabastar jar breaking all over those to whom he has called you. His sight, his approval, his presence, his love, is all that matters. Not another voice, not another’s approval, not another’s sight. May you resist the urge to fight to be seen and embrace the lifelong journey toward the obscurity of the Kingdom. And in obscurity may you receive the declaration of God over the eternal significance of your work, its intrinsic beauty and meaning.