Essentialism by Greg McKeown came into my hands at a pivotal time in my life. These last few months I have been on medical leave from work because of abdominal pain and related issues. In the midst of this pain, I’ve had the opportunity to reevaluate a number of things:
- What my priorities are / should be?
- Where is my life headed and what role God is playing in my decisions?
- Where do I want to be 1 year from now – and how does that line up with what God wants for me?
It was in the midst of this examining and “editing” that I picked up Greg’s book and started to apply his standards. During this process, I saw the commonalities begin to emerge between God’s wisdom for our lives (as shown in Proverbs, the Gospels, and more) and the tenets of essentialism.
I think one of the most insidious ways Christian culture has been overtaken by outside philosophies is that we believe more is better. More programs, more responsibilities, more ways to do outreach – and on and on the list goes. We are quick to condemn those who pursue more stuff or more fame, while at the same time encouraging our brothers and sisters to be overworked and stretched thin.
In my mind, Christian Essentialism is not just a strategy to fulfill our callings better, rather it is the only way to make real progress in what we are here to do. If the devil cannot make us head in the wrong direction, then he will do the next best thing – kill our efficiency by driving us to head in one hundred good directions, and keep us from the one primary direction God wants.
Below are 9 rules to help keep us on track. To keep our minds focused on the “main thing” and discipline ourselves to do less but better work.
1. Christian Essentialists recognize their ability to choose.
Choice is not something we give enough credit to in the Scriptures. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are shown as constantly making choices. What people they want, where they will go, what their next act will be.
But humans are shown as having choice as well. We choose what to give (Exodus 12:5), who our husband or wife will be, whether or not we will follow God’s commands (Proverbs 1:29), our friends (Proverbs 12:26), and our careers.
In everything, we always have a choice. As Christians, we have the added benefit of the Holy Spirit helping direct those choices. An Christian Essentialist knows that if we make everything important, nothing will be.
2. Christian Essentialists understand that saying “no” is a skill we can and must develop.
Jesus said no. And not just to speaking engagements or interview requests. He said no to people in need. He turned down perfectly good opportunities to heal and preach and bring justice.
This isn’t the picture of Jesus we would normally think of, but it’s vital. Jesus was singularly focused on his “essentialist intent” as McKeown would put it. He knew that he had to reach certain people in certain geographies before finishing his earthly days on the cross. Everything he did fed into that purpose.
As Christians, especially ones involved in ministry, we are constantly bombarded with opportunities to say yes. People in genuine need who we feel an obligation to help. But we have to get this if we truly want to be effective: not every opportunity that crosses our path is a God-ordained one.
McKeown’s book helps readers set criteria in place to make it clearer when we should say yes versus no. Remember, no matter how small the yes might be, by default it becomes a no to something else.
3. Christian Essentialists keep the main thing the main thing.
What is the most valuable result I can achieve for the people I serve?
Any organization that tries to be everything to everyone is on the fast-lane to extinction. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is not talking about over-commitment. When Paul talked about “all things”, there were countless things he never intended those words to mean.
A church, by definition, must be exclusive in some regards. The only way for it to accomplish its mission of reaching people with the gospel is to clearly outline – we are these things but not those. In the same way, we have to be exclusive if we are to be effective.
4. Christian Essentialists engage in productive trade-offs.
It’s my belief that an effective Christian is a lightly-burdened one. In Matthew 11:29-30, Jesus tells us to do two things. First, to take his yoke. Second, to learn from him. Jesus, Paul, John – they had an effective life not because their path was easy, or they only worked 4 hours a week. They were effective because they understood two primary things:
- They were only responsible for their unique piece of the puzzle.
- The results were not up to them, but to God.
With these two things in place, they could accept a “lightness” about their work that we can hardly fathom. Instead of being bogged down by everything we think we need to do, we should spend time seeking out what God says should be our priority. And then, with that clarity in place, we should pursue the work without tying our emotional, mental, or physical health to its outcomes.
We can do anything, but not everything.
5. Christian Essentialists give God room to set their priorities.
Growing out of the previous point, I have a question for you. Where is there “blank space” in your schedule?
If you’re like me, even the term “blank space” made you pull back a bit. We’ve become convinced that our schedules are supposed to be so well-stewarded that we’ve dissected every hour of our days and handed them off to the appropriate parties. Of course, we’ve set aside time to pray and read Scripture, time for our families and work duties, and perhaps even scheduled time for personal care and development. But blank, empty time….not so much.
If the business world can see the benefit of carving out uninterrupted, uncommitted time to think and listen, how much more should we adopt the practice?
It’s impossible to know and pursue God’s priority for our days unless we are actively, jealously creating time to make that happen.
6. Christian Essentialists care for their bodies.
A tattered temple cannot accomplish much. We know this. We know it’s important to get enough rest, to eat more vegetables than fast food, and to allow our bodies to heal after intense seasons. Then why don’t we?
While reading McKeown’s book, there was one quote in particular which struck me:
“Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” – Bill Clinton
Now rewind just the last 3 days and think of something you regretted. A meal, a conversation, an indulgence of some sort? Now remember, if you can, what you felt like in the hours leading up to that poor decision? For 99% of us, tiredness was a factor.
Sleep is absolutely a spiritual discipline.
7. Christian Essentialists see play as productive.
If sleep restores the body and mind, then play is like sleep for the soul.
During my graduate work in seminary, I wrote a paper on Matthew 18, looking in detail at why Jesus highlighted the little children. The most common answers were humility and dependence, which I think are correct. But over the years, as I’ve sat with the passage, I think there is so much more to it. I don’t think what Jesus wanted us to capture can be simplified down to one or two spiritual words. Rather, I believe it’s an entire demeanor or approach to life.
In this, one of the elements he wants us to see is play. Play is vital to our development: mentally, physically, socially, spiritually. Play allows us to step into the rest God promises. To disarm ourselves for a few hours, or even just minutes, and release the reigns we have on life.
Play is also attractive. I want to live a life that includes play. I want to serve a God who encourages me to rest, and pushes me to play, because He is a Good Father and knows I need it. And, in my view, this creates an attractive faith.
8. Christian Essentialists build big buffers.
So how in the world are we supposed to fit all of these essentialist practices into our already busy lives? Step 1 is saying no to almost everything, except for the most important thing(s). Step 2 is “extreme preparation” as McKeown writes.
The book Essentialism retells the story of two explorers who were preparing to take a trip to the South Pole. One took every precaution he could think of to ensure his team’s success and safety. The second person did the bare minimum, believing that, when the time came, things would go according to plan. The first explorer made it with supplies to spare. The second died, along with his entire team, on the journey.
Which one do you want to be?
The above story made me think of Joseph’s knack for preparation in Egypt. They began gathering food a full 7 years before the famine even began. When it did come, they were able to more than meet their needs, as well as the needs of others, because of their preparation.
We must build similar preparation and buffers into our lives. Our schedules need breathing room. Our budgets need room to expand. And our lives need space to just be.
9. Christian Essentialists use visible progress.
Numbers get a bad rap in many church circles because the size of a church does not necessarily represent the effectiveness of its ministry. I agree with that, of course, but as humans we need tangible ways to measure progress.
If you’ve been ministering to the same 45 people for the last 10 years, and claim that your primary calling is to reach unreached people with the gospel – how effective can you honestly say you are? I know that one might sting a little, but I want us to take this one seriously.
What is the primary work God has called us to? How can we ethically and visually measure progress in that work? This doesn’t have to come down to a simple number, but for many a number will help.
I believe one of the reasons we steer away from measuring our progress is simply because we lack clarity on THE THING we are called to. We engage in lots of good work. But a “millimeter of progress in a million directions” is not how God intended for us to work.
There are the 9 rules of essentialism I believe Christian leaders can benefit from. It’s important to remember that the practice of essentialism is not the goal itself, but rather what it can produce. Essentialism brings clarity. Clarity brings action. Action is how our faith comes alive.