What we miss by chasing the next big thing

Bill VanGroningen

The ongoing adulation being given to "The Social Network," which will compete for the Best Picture Oscar later this month, is only the latest example of how we love to entertain ourselves with successful things.

We consistently demonstrate a willingness to chase, at considerable cost and risk, whatever it is we deem the next big thing. Right now, that thing is social networking. In the '90s we chased dot coms until that bubble burst. Along the way we began to chase McMansions, until more recently that bubble burst. Millions upon millions swarm to local convenience stores to buy lottery tickets when the winnings break new boundaries. We regularly chase bands up the pop charts, fashions into fads and certainly whatever tech toy first reaches the next big threshold.

Church folk are no different. All kinds of people surged to Willow Creek Community Church a few decades ago. It was the next big thing as denominations slid into decline. We "focused on the family" in a big way and "promise keepers" filled stadiums with the sound of their singing, praying and commitment. Then millions of us paused to consider whether a more “purpose-driven” approach might be better. Interestingly, for the church’s emerging generation, there seems to be some evidence that the next big thing is a social-justice experience. Mission trips have never been more popular. Finding a way to help Haiti is a no-brainer. A new monasticism, illustrated by the surging popularity of Shane Claiborne’s work at The Simple Way in Philadelphia and the recently released “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals” is gripping the imagination of many.

I’m somewhat skeptical about this tendency of ours to pander after the next big thing. Undoubtedly, some of these things really are big and they lead to substantial and lasting changes in our society and our personal lives. But more often, it seems to me, most of the stuff that turns out to be significant and enduring is much more modest. A coach believes in us. A parent plays with us. Peers poke fun of us. We are picked to star in the Sunday School Christmas pageant. We start recycling and can’t help but notice how much we waste.

Jesus heals 10 lepers. But what’s noteworthy is that only one returned to say thanks. It’s a small thing, perhaps. We send a note of encouragement to a friend. It’s probably not on fancy stationary. We invite someone to join us for dinner, in our own home. It’s humble fare. Daily manna, you might say. A prayer is carefully crafted. Ordinary words rise up to convey communal hopes and fears. All these and more, it seems to me, are better by far than what might be the next big thing.

A student walked into my office last week and after asking if I could help her locate some resources said, “I just want to be a quiet radical.” Ever since then, I’ve been hoping that somehow this is the next “big” thing.

What next big things have you chased? Have they had lasting impacts on your life? What smaller blessings also come to mind?

Bill VanGroningen was raised in Australia, schooled in middle America and formed in ministry in Canada. He is currently chaplain at a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, The Church, Worship, News & Politics, Social Trends