Editor’s Note: Jonathan Acuff is a funny guy. He’s also a profound guy who’s transitioned his message from the hilarious Stuff Christians Like website and bestselling book to the message of Quitter, a book about leaving behind what we’ve settled for in life to enter into the dreams God has planted in us. Jon was virtually unknown three years ago, but the success of Stuff Christians Like (a satirically true expose of church culture in all its goofy glory) has quickly vaulted him into a place of influence in the church. Today he serves on the Dave Ramsey ministry team in Nashville.
Rick Lawrence: Let’s talk a little bit about your background leading into the place you are now. I know that you were involved professionally as a marketer, and you started your “Stuff Christians Like” Web site kind of as a lark, and then it exploded in popularity, leading to your first book of the same name. And then you transitioned into the whole message you explore in your book Quitter—pursuing your dreams instead of just getting by.
Jonathan Acuff: Yeah, I’d had eight jobs in eight years and always thought the next one would “fix” me. I’d go to a new company and have a six-month honeymoon period, then I’d get bitter and go, “They don’t get me, they don’t understand me,” and I’d jump to another one. I thought this was my problem, but as I started to talk to people I realized many people experienced the same pattern. Are we becoming the “I’m, but…” generation? I’m a teacher but I want be an artist, or I’m a stay-at-home mom but I want to craft more, or I’m a CPA but I want to open my own business. So I wrote the book about this experience—what do you do when you’re in a place you didn’t intend to end up?
Lawrence: So, you were jumping from job to job trying to find something that would “fix” you. That’s certainly true in youth ministry. You go through the honeymoon phase in a new church—you’re hoping that “this next one will fix me.” And then you go through difficulties and disillusionment. And you wonder, am I really called here? Could you speak about that desire to find the job that “fixes” you?
Acuff: I certainly saw that growing up. My dad started a Southern Baptist church in New England in the ’80s. We had a series of youth ministers, and I saw just what you described. You add in the pressure of a “calling” to this dynamic: “Maybe it’s a sin for me to be unhappy here. I’m doing God’s work, I shouldn’t feel restless.” In Exodus 13 God frees the Israelites from slavery. And the Bible says that God knew that if they had to fight the Philistines right off the bat they’d change their mind and go back to Egypt. So he took them the long way, the desert road.
Sometimes we think of the desert road as a punishment. We look at our youth ministry and say, “I was told the job was going to be this way, and it hasn’t turned out that way.” We look at the desert road and think God’s punishing us. But often the desert road isn’t a punishment, it’s a gift from a God who knows what’s ahead and doesn’t want us to retreat. But we say, “If God was in it, it’d grow at a certain rate or it’d be at a certain size, and since it’s not, he must not be in it.”
Lawrence: I know we like to gravitate to formulas because they’re safer than following God, but so often I’m talking to a youth pastor who’s trying to determine whether the bad stuff that’s happening in their situation is God’s leading or simply something they need to endure. If a youth pastor came to you with this very dilemma, how would you respond?
Acuff: Well, I think there is this weird blend of patience and action. In my own life I’ve often been worried about making the wrong decision—I fear that I’ll regret the decisions I make and even cripple my ability to recover them. And I feel God continually asking me, “Am I more powerful than regret?” And he is. So I have the courage to step in and know I might be making the wrong decision, but I haven’t handcuffed him.
I went to the beach a few weeks ago with my family and was just overwhelmed with how uncontrollable and complex the ocean was. So I was praying about that, and I felt like God said: “You think the ocean is complex, I put my breath in man! Stop trying to manipulate and control situations. Be a part of my journey and my experience.”
So you plan a youth event and it bombs, and you go, “My ministry isn’t working.” I think God looks at this 70- or 100-year plan and says, “No, no, no—this is my story I’m writing, and you have no idea where I’m going with it.” Three years ago I didn’t write “Nashville” on a whiteboard and vow to be working with the Dave Ramsey team. I didn’t plan my way to that—I was obedient to the small things as God was opening the door, and then he did crazy things in my life.
Lawrence: My pastor gave me a book a couple of months ago by an Oxford economist named John Kay—it’s called Obliquity. His premise is that our conventional wisdom—setting an objective then following a linear path of goal-setting to reach that objective—is really an ineffective way to produce great things. Kay talks about setting higher-level objectives in our lives and then experimenting our way toward those. For me, the linear way represents a kind of arrogance in our thinking—that we can simply plan our own way toward great impact. Can you talk about the tension between “making it happen” and trusting in God?
Acuff: I try to remember this phrase that someone in Alcoholics Anonymous coined: “Do the next right thing.” l do everything I can, but I ultimately know that it’s in God’s hands. One of the great gifts God gives us is making things happen that we can’t take credit for. I can’t take credit for Stuff Christians Like blowing up. When 300 people from Singapore visited it on day 14, I couldn’t go, “Oh, all my Singapore friends.”
God has given me talents and abilities, and I want to be obedient to use those, but I know that I can’t control the results. In Quitter I talk about measuring the hustle, not the hits. I can’t control the things that turn into big hits, but I can control (to a degree) the hustle. The tension for me is keeping my hand open—not trying to control everything that’s going on. This week I spoke at Big Stuf Camps in Daytona—the other speakers were Andy Stanley and Donald Miller, and I got to be onstage in front of 3,500 teenagers. That was insane! And in that moment I thought, What a great invitation, God. I’m going to work as hard as I can on this message, but you put me here. I didn’t put me here.
One of the things I talk about in the book is the “plan myth.” We often look at a successful church’s youth ministry program and think that they had a 100-point plan that they’ve just been executing to get there. But what I’ve found with great leaders is that they all start with a passion and then they practice it and then eventually they experience success. So I want to be open and flexible when it comes hustle, but not force it.
Lawrence: When you experience yourself operating out of the deepest part of your gifting—what God has given you to give—there’s a dance around ego and arrogance. God has been faithful in my life to humiliate me enough times that over time I’ve grown more and more inoculated against the temptations of ego and arrogance. But when you’re operating in your sweet spot, and you’re giving what you have to give and you know it, how do you dance with your ego and your arrogance in that moment?
Acuff: That is constant for me. And I think one of the things that envy loves to do is fix that problem by not enjoying what you do—to make you feel ashamed for enjoying the things you’re called to do, like you shouldn’t have joy. The mindset is: I’m a martyr for Christ and I can’t enjoy this—there’s no glory, no fun, no excitement. Of course, celebrity is one of the worst drugs in Christian ministry because it always looks like a good thing at first. We think: If I get a bigger platform, God will get bigger glory. Eventually that thought morphs into: If I get a bigger platform, I’ll get a bigger platform.
We had a musician over for dinner, and I was going to write a Tweet when he went home and say, “Great night with so-and-so, really inspired.” Then I paused and I realized I was writing that Tweet so that other people would think I was cool. I wasn’t writing it to thank him. I was writing it so that all my followers on Twitter would think, Wow, look at Jon, he hangs out with cool people. It’s crucial to ask about my motives and then stop long enough to go, “That’s an ego play.”