June 28, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Jon Acuff
Some say it's narcissistic for Christians to pursue their dreams. But one popular communicator says it's not only okay, it's a matter of discipleship.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Jon Acuff. Jon is a New York Times bestselling author and a popular conference speaker. His blog, Stuff Christians Like, is read by more than 5 million readers. His latest books are Quitter and Start,
Today we talk to Jon about the use of humor, the theology of pursuing dreams, and why it’s sometimes okay to be “horrible.”
You’re known for writing humor that pokes fun at the evangelical culture. How important is humor for church leaders in their speaking ministry?
I think it’s important. I would caution people this way: if you’re not funny or if it is not a gift, don’t feel you have to do it. If you’re not comfortable talking with a white board when you are speaking, don’t feel like you have to use one, even if it becomes popular. Play to your strengths.
You should always use humor to some degree. But I would never tell somebody, “If you are not as funny as Matt Chandler, you are not doing it right.” He has a natural gift of humor and he uses it.
It’s similar to what comedian Chris Rock says, “There are some topics people will not listen to unless they are laughing at the same time.” I use humor as a release valve, a permission builder. There are times as a leader that you don’t have the equity in the relationships to share something hard. For me, when I give a speech or preach, I use humor to build that relationship. People can relate to humor. It’s part of what makes us uniquely human, something God wired us for.
Satire, to me, is just a vehicle for truth. Look at shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Younger generations are going to those shows not just for humor, but also for news.
In your book Quitter, you talk about pursuing dreams. This has been a theme of your work of late. The church seems to have an uneasy relationship with pursuing dreams. We’ve grown up thinking that to pursue your dreams is worldly, not in line with “taking up your cross.” How do church leaders articulate this?
I think the church expresses and experiences dreams in two ways. First is the idea that you shouldn’t have dreams, that they are selfish. So if you are living for Christ, you should be, to some degree, miserable. I used to think that if you gave your life to Christ, he would make you sell everything and move to Africa. But if the first thing God does for you when you give your life to him is the worst thing you can imagine—we must have the worst God imaginable. What a miserable deity! He’s just waiting for us to surrender so he can punish us. “Oh, you’re a writer? Guess what? I’m going to make you teach calculus.”
Second, we over-stimulate our dreams. We say, “I’m doing it. I’m just going to step out on faith.” A friend of mine told me, “It’s like we are on a plane that God is piloting, and we skydive out—it’s ‘Red Bull’ Christianity. God looks over his shoulder and says, ‘I was going to land this plane in three months. It was going to be really smooth. Who told you to jump?’”
If the opportunity doesn’t work, we throw God under the bus and say, “It wasn’t God’s will.” And God says, “I didn’t have anything to do with that. I told you to volunteer or work at Starbucks before you mortgaged your house and started a coffee shop of your own. Don’t associate me with that horrible idea. Don’t put faith flavor on that.”
I think the way you navigate that is by looking at Scripture and the people God used. Dreaming is getting closer to who you were created to be. I don’t believe you can be anything you want. I believe something better: you can be the very best “you” God created you to be.
Then I look at Saul to counter the, “God wants to change my whole life in a bad way” idea. Saul was a driven, aggressive, charismatic, travelling kind of guy. God got a hold of him and put him in a cave to write quietly for the rest of his years alone. Right? No! He became an aggressive, charismatic, travelling kind of guy for God.
God is not in the business of punishing or removing your dreams, but amplifying them for his glory to his story. There are a lot of Christians who would come home in the prodigal son moment and refuse to party. “Is it too nice? Are there feet I can wash? Is there social justice I can do somewhere? This is too much, God!”
In your new book Start, it seems like you are addressing the many people who have dreams and goals, but never actually get started on them.
Yes. I tell people that there is only one line in life you can control and it’s not the finish line. God and life are going to take you in so many different directions. The one line you control is the starting line. You get to decide each morning, “Okay, I’m going to start. I’m going to continue.” So the book is about how to start and how to make the best start. What are the things you need to do if you are going to walk the road to awesome?
What keeps people from starting what they know they should be doing, what they are gifted at doing, what God has clearly called them to do?
I would say the biggest thing I’ve bumped into the last three years is fear. I’ve never met a 20, 30, 40, 50-year old who has said, “I’ve never had a dream; I have never had a passion. I have never had a desire or a hope or an interest.”
We’ve all had those. But fear only bothers you when you are doing something that matters—and working on issues of the heart matters. So, the biggest challenge is pushing through that fear.
Who are some of the people influencing you in this season of life? Who is pouring into you through books or podcasts or other things shaping you?
Dave Ramsey. A few months ago we did a huge event to launch Start in the middle of Times Square. It was just crazy, maybe the biggest creative project I’ve done in my entire life. It was so over the top.
Dave was in New York City for another event and he went to Times Square. He emailed me with a picture of the spot where we were going to launch and wrote, “I’m standing here. It’s going to be so cool. Punch fear in the face.” He’s encouraging me and driving me on.
The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield has also influenced me. It’s not a Christian book by any means, but in some ways he describes sin and its claim on our hearts better than any Christian book I’ve read.
I’m also being influenced by my dad. I’ve got a great relationship with him and I feel very fortunate about that. That’s not a given in life, unfortunately.
My wife, Jenny, is also a big influence. She has been here every step of the way. I see young leaders go off the rails because they get recognized or they get a big book deal and their heads blow up. And they have spouses who say, “Yeah, you’re right. You’re head should be blown up.” Or “Yeah, that conference didn’t treat you right. You are better than that. You don’t need them; they need you.” But Jenny is on the other side and says, “Ahh, that’s not a big deal. Let’s talk about what we are going do for the kids’ dinner tonight.”
What one piece of advice would you give to someone wrestling with doing some wildly creative thing, maybe starting a blog or doing something big?
I’d say, “You have permission to be horrible.” Lots of people think they have to be amazing when they start. I had a counselor tell me that the definition of narcissism is believing you will be amazing at something you’ve never done. But we think our first book has to be our best. Our first business, our first album, has to be our best one. Be horrible and then experiment. Scientists don’t use the word fail, they use the word experiment. They blow stuff up and learn from it.
It’s okay to take a slow, small start and experiment and be horrible in that.