Anne Lamott argues the best books are those organized around a singular, well-defined topic. So defined, she says, the author is nervous, wondering if they have enough material to draw out a whole book. To Anne (one of my favorite writers by the way), simplicity is the author’s best friend.
It’s also ours.
The gravitational pull of life is into complexity, and away from simplicity. It seems as if every year around January, I exhale and say, “This year just can’t be as crazy as last year,” yet for some reason it becomes just that. More can’t-miss opportunities, once-in-a-lifetime invitations and are you for real, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me open doors. And we haven’t even gotten to the obligation side of things. You know, the teenage son who just got a job and needs to be shuttled back and forth, or the new drum lessons for the other son on the other side of town. The list just gets longer.
Some of these complexities are unavoidable and fall into the stop whining and just joyfully lean into it category. I get that. But sometimes, we pile things on our proverbial plates we have no business putting there, to the point where our productivity is not only hindered, but we also fail to steward well God’s unique calling on our lives. For this to happen, we need to learn to keep things as simple as possible, and this is going to be a fight.
We see the apostles fighting for simplicity in Acts 6:4 when—in the midst of a growing church, and presented with an opportunity to take on yet another thing—they said, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Simplicity. Now I’m not here to argue whether or not Acts is given to us to use prescriptively. I’ll leave that up to the advanced Bible scholars and academicians. What we have to be amazed with is their dogged determination to keep things as simple as possible. Prayer and preaching were going to be their priorities. Simplicity.
Many confuse simplicity with being shallow. It’s really the opposite. The ability to clear away the debris, and keep the (overused) “main thing, the main thing,” actually instigates a kind of depth one would not have the time or energy to experience if they were giving attention to too many things. Take preaching. Charles Spurgeon was once asked his philosophy of preaching. He said he takes his text and makes a beeline for the cross. To Spurgeon, his preaching only played one note—the cross. Simplicity. Whatever you may think of “big idea” preaching (having one main idea from the text), what it tries to drive the preacher towards is simplicity. One message, stated multiple ways, that yields a stunning kind of clarity to the hearers.
Simplicity is depth. Simplicity is clarity. Simplicity sets the table for excellence. My favorite restaurants are some of the most simple. Chickfila does chicken. Not hamburgers and tacos. Chicken. Houston’s has a one-page menu where they only offer a few things, but boy do they do them well. With all due respect, my chest tightens when I peruse Cheesecake Factory’s menu. Way too much going on.
In my years in ministry, I’ve watched leaders and preachers hit their peaks, and then start to decline, and my hunch is they tried to take on too much at their height. As Craig Groeschel says, “The greatest enemy to future success is current success.” Imagine it this way: You’re a young preacher starting out, and you meet some of your preaching heroes, and you find that among other things just about all of them love to read. So off you go, you spend a lot of time reading. After all, you do have time, not a whole lot of invitations. But soon people begin to take notice. Invitations begin to trickle in. Soon a church calls you to be their pastor. Growth happens. Sky miles get wracked up. People start pulling on you from all over the place. Book deals come your way and, before you know it, you’ve got all of these plates spinning, and as the years go by you’re reading less and less and less. You’re recycling illustrations. Your study is hurried, and overall your preaching lacks the depth it once had. Well, what happened? Your success brought about complexities, and you lacked the discipline to lock arms with the apostles of Acts 6 and to keep it simple.
Now you can cut and paste with variations to your own life. But you see the point, don’t you? If this preacher was going to continue to grow and deepen in his preaching, he was going to have to fight for simplicity, and keep his life as clutter free as possible. So how do we do this? Let me offer the following things I’m finding helpful in my work to keep things as simple as possible:
1. Focus. Know your gifts, and stay focused on them. No, this doesn’t mean you only do what’s in your wheelhouse, but you primarily do what’s in your wheelhouse. Fifty percent of my work day is dedicated to the study of the Scriptures and reading. The other half I am in meetings, counseling and doing hospital visitations. I’ve decided, like the apostles, to orbit as much as possible around my gifts. Focus.
2. No. People pleasers are magnets that attract clutter and complexity. You are going to have to learn to say no…often. If you read Acts 6, the apostles say no to helping widows who were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. This seems cold blooded, but remember we’re talking about a mega church where the apostles had the leader resources to compassionately care for these widows. But the bigger point is often times saying no is really hard because it can disappoint others.
3. Empower Others. Beware the Messianic Complex. This is when a problem comes up that somehow people, even you, think that only you can deal with it. More times than not, this is just not true, and if it is true, the bulk of the time then this is a sign of just bad leadership. Acts 6 shows us healthy leadership. The apostles empowered other leaders and unleashed them to care for and lead others well. What happens when we empower and unleash others? Well, our lives as leaders maintain a higher degree of simplicity.
Check out messages by Pastor Bryan on ALCF’s Weekly Teaching Podcast