The Christian Essentialist

As you head into the New Year, I want to encourage you to become a gospel-centered essentialist.

I just finished my second reading of Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book has been influential in my thinking and it has some core ideas that are helpful to Christians and non-Christians alike. It has an underlying philosophy that needs evaluation, but I believe there’s a uniquely gospel-oriented version of essentialism that could be a gift to the church. 

What’s the Big Idea of Essentialism?

Essentialism is a mindset and set of core practices designed to give us a more intentional and focused life. As the subtitle says, essentialism is the “disciplined pursuit of less.” I find it easiest to describe essentialism as minimalism for your whole life.

Essentialism is based on the idea that most things in life are trivial and that only a few things are essential. The essentialist aims to cut out the trivial and maximize the essential. Essentialists live under the creed “less, but better.” They believe that if they focus their energy on the few most important things, they will be able to do those few things that will lead to the greatest contribution. They embrace trade-offs instead of trying to do everything at once, dissipating their energy and effectiveness.

Essentialists follow the threefold process of explore, eliminate, and execute. They explore to distinguish between the trivial many and the vital few, eliminate the trivial, and execute; establish practices to make doing the vital few things almost effortless.

What does essentialism contribute?

Author Greg McKeown has filled essentialism with practical wisdom that conforms with the reality of the world around us. In that sense, it applies to all people, regardless of their faith.

I think about essentialism all the time in my role as a project manager. Projects are constantly bombarded with a lot of good work, but to be successful, we need to focus only on what is truly essential.

The book is especially applicable in the modern West where we’ve never had more choices and opportunities. In such a world, we need to learn to choose the best from the good. We need to learn to discern the vital few from the trivial many, if only because our world bombards us with so many trivial distractions.

Consider the following insights:

  • If we don’t deliberately choose where to focus our time and energy, others will choose for us. It is better to live by design, than by default.
  • Our world is filled with “noise” that we have to sift through to find things of value.
  • We shouldn’t just try to get more things done, but get the right things done.
  • “Certain efforts produce exceptionally more results than others” (45), so it’s critical we identify which type of effort produces the best results.

We are wise to judge whether these principles conform to the world in which we live. There’s nothing uniquely “Christian” about them but they are helpful insights nonetheless, a form of common grace inherent in the created order.

Since reading the book, I’ve started listening to the Essentialism podcast which has helped me see how the intentionality of the Christian faith merges well with the philosophy and practice of essentialism.

Two of McKeown’s episodes (Nov 23, 2020 and Nov 30, 2020) highlighted guests who approached essentialism from a distinctively Christian perspective. They were sure of their core values (faith / relationship with God) and so were well-prepared to identify what was essential in their lives and then adopt the practices of essentialism to have more effective lives of faith.

What are the dangers of the essentialist mindset?

As much as I value essentialism, there are two dangers in essentialism, or at least certain interpretations of essentialism, if adopted to the extreme. 

First, McKeown defines the main goal of essentialism as achieving our “greatest contribution.” The happy and fulfilled life consists of this, that we make a contribution. To his credit, McKeown doesn’t limit contribution to career or achievement in the typical sense. He includes family and social good as well. In fact, his story of becoming an essentialist includes his shame in putting a client meeting above his family.

Also, he doesn’t equate contribution with activity. Indeed, he devotes a whole chapter to rest, but that rest serves the purpose of making us more productive when we are fulfilling our greater purpose of contribution.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to contribute to the world in which we live. Such a mission is commendable. But if you set up contribution as the greatest good – in whatever form it takes – you have set up an idol. What if, God forbid, you fail to make whatever you have defined as your “greatest contribution”? Happiness will have eluded you. As an achievement-oriented person, I have sometimes had to learn this the hard way (and I’m still learning).

By contrast, Christians believe that the good life is found in communion with God through Jesus. We could contribute nothing and still have found not only what is good, but what is best. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has already accomplished everything that is truly essential for us through his death and resurrection.

Second, KcKeown places a major emphasis on individual choice. If we don’t choose, someone else will choose for us. Our first responsibility as an essentialist is to recognize the power of choice, to choose to choose.

Again, there’s something to be said for personal agency and intentionality. And, to the extent that McKeown opposes social pressure (which might be called “fear of man”), I agree with him. However, Christians also value submission as an essential virtue, wherein Christians give up their independent choice for the sake of someone else. At their essence, Christians submit their wills to the lordship of Christ. But even beyond that, Christians practice mutual submission within families and communities.

A uniquely Christian essentialism

Can a synthesis be found between essentialism and the gospel? I believe that it can and I will take Paul and Jesus as my examples. Both lived highly intentional, essentialist lives. That is, they were focused on what was truly most important.

Jesus lived with a focused mission. There were many miracles he could have performed and many things he could have taught about. He performed those miracles which pointed to his identity as the Messiah. He taught in such a way that pointed people to the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the need to repent. He taught a form of essentialism when he told Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” (Luke 10:41-42)

He knew the culmination of his ministry was on a cross in Jerusalem and resolutely set himself to the task.

Paul’s essentialism can be found in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul had a single-minded focus on the gospel, its implications for the world, and planting churches committed to the gospel.

The key distinctive found in Jesus’s and Paul’s essentialism from the more generic form prescribed in the book is that Jesus and Paul didn’t come up with their own “greatest contribution”. Instead, they submitted that choice to God (Jesus, the Son, submitted to the Father, Paul submitted himself to the Godhead) and then lived “essentialist” lives in pursuit of that goal.

I would submit that a uniquely Christian version of essentialism is one that sees the pursuit of God as the first “essential” goal. This is exactly how Dana Biberston describes her experience of essentialism in the aforementioned podcast episode. Her essential activity was to prioritize time in Scripture and prayer. All streams of thought and action flowed from that source. From there, we pick up and use all the wisdom offered by McKeown as tools to use along the way.

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