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Defining Greatness

Burks Falls Youth Group – about 1968 – Elwood in front and Bonnie in pink on the right. Ron must have taken the picture.

As a requirement for a program on which I am working, I have to read a book by Zack Eswine entitled The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering joy in our limitations through a daily apprenticeship with Jesus. I must confess that I began reading with the wrong attitude. I opened to the first page feeling like this was something else that I had to do in an already busy schedule. I love reading so it wasn’t a hardship but I just didn’t have a lot of excitement about it.

I am now about one third of the way through the book and I find it hard to put down. It is pure gold. He puts into words a lot of the thoughts that I have been pondering in my own times of reflection. I want to share with you one quote from the book and then some thoughts about it. It is a quote that every small-church leader needs to consider.

“The point I’m making is this. Our desire for greatness in ministry isn’t the problem. Our problem rises from how the haste of doing large things, famously and as fast as we can, is reshaping our definition of what a great thing is. Desire greatness, dear pastor! But bend your definition of greatness to the one Jesus gives us. At minimum we must begin to take a stand on this one important fact: obscurity and greatness are not opposites.” P. 29

There is a lot in that quote but in this entry I want to focus just on the last six words.

“Obscurity and greatness are not opposites.”

In other words you don’t have to be famous to be great.


Greatness in obscurity

There have been a lot of people over the years who have influenced my life. Some of them like John Stott and Christopher Wright are famous. They influenced me through their books.

Others were not as famous but they still occupied positions of prominence in their ministries. If I mentioned their names, there would be a fair number of people who would recognize their names.

There have been, however, a lot of people whom no one outside of their family and church would recognize. One such couple is Elwood and Bonnie Addison. I told you that you wouldn’t know who they were. They lived in Burks Falls, population 900. They attended the Burks Falls Baptist Church, average attendance at that time about 40. They lived their lives out in obscurity but in my eyes they were great.

They were living proof that you don’t have to be famous to be great.


A story of greatness

When I was in grade eleven, my sister and I decided that we needed a youth group in our church. While the church was small, there was a good group of teenagers. We opened it up to anyone in town who wanted to come and at its peak, there were about twenty-five young people attending.

We approached Bonnie and Elwood about the possibility of starting a group and they agreed that it would be a good thing for the church. Then we suggested to them that they would be the perfect people to lead us. Amazingly they agreed. They approached the church leadership and received permission to begin the Burks Falls Youth Group.

Over the next decade, Bonnie and Elwood spent hours working with the young people. Elwood was also the local scout leader which meant that every week he was doing double duty. We held our meetings on Monday evenings and then social times on weekends. They were there for every activity. They carried other responsibilities in the church as well as raising two young girls and yet they never hesitated to give their time to the young people.

After we had been going for a while, Bonnie came up with the idea that we should have a youth Sunday in which the teenagers would conduct the morning service. That was my first time to preach and the first time that many of the other young people ever took part in a service. Out of that experience other opportunities to be involved in ministry opened up. Those experiences had a profound impact on all of us.


The rest of the story

If greatness is measured by our impact on people, then Bonnie and Elwood were  great people. My wife and I have spent our whole adult lives in Christian ministry and we both look back to those days in the youth group as one of the primary influences on our lives. My sister was married to the president of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission and spend most of her adult life serving among First Nations people. Norma spent much of her adult life serving as a missionary in Brazil. Sandy and Linda both spent their lives married to pastors and providing support both to their husbands and their churches. Donna served for several years in evangelistic ministry in Montreal. Betty spent several years in Christian camp work. Don spent a year as part of an outreach team in Hawaii. Other members of the group served for much of their adult lives as leaders in local churches.

I wouldn’t want to even try to calculate the total impact that the people whom I’ve mentioned above have had on the world. I have no idea what kind of impact I’ve had without trying to estimate that of anyone else. I do believe though that the impact has been significant. Lives have been changed. Churches have been strengthened. People will be in heaven. God has been glorified and honoured by these lives.

That has happened because of the greatness of an obscure couple who were committed to loving and serving a bunch of teenagers. When I think of all the people who have played a part in my life, Bonnie and Elwood are right up there near the top.

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