6 Everyday Acts of Bravery
Doing the work of evangelization requires real courage, but not just the kind of courage that is standing up to the culture tide, or proclaiming unpopular truths, or even stepping out of your comfort zone to have the "Jesus Conversation." Yes, these occasional acts of courage are necessary from time to time, but there are also certain everyday acts of bravery that are just as crucial.
The following insights were drawn from a recent episode of The Accidental Creative Podcast. I stumbled on The Accidental Creative a couple of years ago and have found it to be a very helpful source of insight in my ministry work. The Accidental Creative seeks to aid those who find themselves in a create-on-demand line of work. This includes creatives like graphic designers and musicians, but more broadly it speaks to anyone who has the task of "turning thoughts into value on a daily basis." In this light, the application to ministry should become more apparent. Where is your next talk idea going to come from? What illustrations will you use to express Gospel truths? And the perennial question for the New Evangelization, how do we re-present the Gospel in a compelling manner to those who think they've already heard it and found it wanting? All of these require creative effort.
So I have benefited quite a bit from this podcast, but the recent episode on "Everyday Acts of Bravery" particularly caught my attention. Right from the start, the show's host Todd Henry frames the conversation about bravery as it applies to creatives. As you read, I would invite you to consider how this also applies to the work of the evangelist.
Bravery is not about just mustering up a singular stroke of energy and overcoming fear in a moment. Rather, it's about small daily acts of courage that help us continue making progress on our ambitions even as uncertainty rears its ugly head. Brilliance demands bravery. You must commit to acting in the face of your fear and doing your work even when the outcome is uncertain. A lot of times we don't act because we want guarantees of results on the other side of our action. We don't have that luxury as creatives. There's no guaranteed result for our effort. We have to be willing to walk into uncertainty and turn dissonance and disorder into meaning.
The struggle to persist in the face of uncertain outcomes - if you've spent any time doing ministry you know exactly what this feels like. It takes real courage to put yourself on the line time and time again, even in the face of rejection. But the decision to persevere is not just one decision. It is made up of many everyday acts of bravery that are the building blocks of progress.
Below are 6 everyday acts of bravery that Todd Henry gives in his podcast and how we can apply them to the work of evangelization.
1. Define Your Battles
You must recognize that you will ultimately be remembered for the battles you choose to spend your time fighting. We often don't define our battles effectively, we don't choose battles to fight as creatives, because we're afraid we're going to choose the wrong thing. We have to put ourselves in the game somewhere. We have to be willing to take a chance and to say, "This is the battle I'm going to fight. This is where I'm going to devote my energy for this season." We have a finite amount of resources - focus, assets, time, and energy. We have to choose which battles we're going to fight. What outcome are you committed to?
Defining your battle is, perhaps, the most critical act of bravery of all. Only when we have answered that question - "What outcome are you committed to?" - will any of the other acts of bravery find their proper orientation. This is the difference between whether or not we will fall into maintenance mode because the outcome we are committed to will determine every other choice we make. For example:
- Are you committed to running an RCIA program, or to preparing candidates for a lifetime of discipleship?
- Are you committed to providing beautiful music for the liturgy, or to having a congregation actively engaged in worship?
- Are you committed to inviting people back to Church, or to getting them plugged into a ministry that meets their needs?
We have to start by defining what the "win" looks like for our particular ministry. This ultimately engenders greater freedom and fosters greater creativity. And beyond providing accountability, it also sets us up to build momentum. Winning breeds enthusiasm, but you have to define and believe in the "win" to know if you're winning.
2. Be Fiercely Curious
You must ask questions even when you're afraid of the implications of the answers. Sometimes we don't ask questions because we don't want to know the answers, because once we know the answers we're accountable to act. \\ We shy away from things that might lead to more work. \\ Stay with the problem and refuse to settle for surface knowledge.
If you've defined your "win" then you've already taken a big step toward asking the tough questions, but this still requires its own kind of bravery. The first tough question is simply, did we achieve our "win"? When the answer is no, then we have to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask the question why. But being fiercely curious is equally important when things go right, when we get our win. As Andy Stanley puts it, "Leaders need to ask “why” when things work well – not just about what didn’t work. If you have momentum, you need to understand where it is coming from. If you don’t you could lose the source of the momentum. If you don’t understand why things work, it is hard to protect how they work." I think this is all the more true when it comes to evangelization, where the outcome we are committed to is literally beyond our ability to produce!
3. Step Away From Comfort
You cannot pursue comfort and great work simultaneously. \\ At some point you have to bravely choose to do the right thing even when it's the uncomfortable thing. \\ It's easy to just stay in your comfort zone, do what's comfortable, go back to the same wells over and over again for inspiration, use the same methods and the same tasks, but that is the coward's way.
Here I'll simply point to Pope Francis's many reminders that the work of evangelization is messy by nature. We have to be willing to take new risks if we are to grow and to reach the unreached. I take courage from the story I once heard of a boss who asks at every staff meeting, "How have you failed this week?" He expected everyone to have an answer, not because he desired failure. His perspective was, "If you haven't failed at something lately, you're probably not trying hard enough."
4. Know Yourself
You have to be willing to admit, this is what I'm good at, this is what I'm not good at. These are the things that I know are areas of competence for me and I'm going to focus on that, even though maybe they're not perceived as being as valuable as other skills that I could pretend I'm good at. I'm gonna do what I know I'm good at because that's where I can add value.
This seems like a strange follow-up to #3 because it seems to say, "Stay in your comfort zone - stick with what you're good at." But I think having the two together helps. You don't have to be good at everything, and you don't have to pretend to be good at everything. Identifying the ways you are particularly equipped to add value allows you to focus your efforts and quit playing the Comparison Game. For example, who is more important: the speaker delivering a life-changing message, or the person who invited her friend to attend? The answer is that both are equally critical to the outcome of a changed life.
If we are committed to a common outcome, then we can start to make this Body of Christ thing really work for us. And even within our strengths zone, there will always be room for growth, there will always be new ways to step away from comfort into uncharted territory.
5. Be Confidently Adaptable
You have to leave the ego at the door and refuse to put yourself ahead of the work. Instead, express confidence while being willing to listen to disconfirming information. And also, refuse to play the victim. It's a form of ego, and you're putting yourself ahead of the work and ahead of the outcome you're committed to.
As evangelizers, we must resist every impulse to blame those we are attempting to reach. "They are just so apathetic." "They are entrenched in materialism." "They don't care about the sacraments, they just want a pretty church to get married in." All of these may be legitimate observations on some level, but when we allow these statements to be the final word then we are playing the victim. And underneath this victim mentality is the egoism that says, "Well, I did everything right - this is their fault!" As an evangelist, our job is precisely to break through the apathy and materialism, to set aside our assumptions about how good a job we're doing, to adapt as needed to pursue the outcome so long as we still have the opportunity.
6. Stay Connected
Don't be isolated and closed off from others. Be willing to open your life and to speak your mind boldly within the context of relationships. Who in your life has permission to speak unvarnished truth to you? Who will tell you things that you don't want to hear? That is how we get better. \\ We need other people to be mirrors in our life, to reflect back what they're seeing.
Let me start by saying you shouldn't allow just anyone to speak into your life and into your ministry. This is a recipe for discouragement. The people that we give permission to should, on the one hand, be qualified to speak into that area. I was listening to an interview recently where the author of a book related that the very first review he received on Amazon was a 1-star review that said, "I haven't read this book, but I'm against the very idea of its existence." It's common sense that a minimal qualification for critiquing a book is actually reading it! Those who you invite to speak into your ministry should also have a certain level of qualification in that area as well.
But perhaps what is even more important is that your permission be given to those who know, love, and respect you. Hearing the "unvarnished truth" from a stranger usually leaves us feeling stripped down and defeated. When you already have a relationship established where there is no question of whether this person has your best interests and your full flourishing in mind, "unvarnished truth" has the ability to be empowering and life-giving.
So what is your answer to Todd Henry's question: Who in your life has permission to speak unvarnished truth to you? Your list should be relatively small, but if it's only one or two (or zero!) then maybe this is the time to take those small risks of vulnerability to foster relationships and get connected. Perhaps that means intentionally inviting feedback - ask those you work closely with, "If you were me, what would you do differently?" Or perhaps that means letting myself be known a little bit more, exposing a little more of my heart and my passions and giving those around me a chance to demonstrate love and respect for what's most important to me. --- A repeated theme in Pope Francis's pontificate so far has been calling the Church to a greater boldness in evangelization. But if we are to have exterior boldness, it begins with the kind of everyday interior bravery described above. Our call as Christians is to put the advancement of the Gospel before all else, before career, comfort, or ego. In doing so, we follow "the leader and perfecter of faith, [who] for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising its shame" (Hebrews 12:2). That same "joy of the Gospel" lays before us as well, and far outweighs labor pains of these everyday acts of bravery.