Back in 2014, my friend Chris Smith and I published our book Slow Church. Inspired by Slow Food and the other Slow movements, we explored how faith communities can be more deeply rooted in both the pace and the place of their particular neighborhoods.
Chris and I weren’t obvious candidates to write a book called Slow Church. Neither of us are seminary trained. Neither of us are pastors. We weren’t, in the words of one smart-aleck friend, “professional Christians.” We were laypeople writing for other laypeople…or so we thought. This was actually something we addressed head-on in the book’s introduction. There, we declared ourselves to be “proud amateurs”—but in the older, more interesting sense of that word.
The word amateur is most commonly used today to mean: (1) someone who does something for no pay, (2) someone who is really bad at an activity, or (3) both. But amateur comes to us from French and it literally means “lover.” It implies a passionate love for the thing itself, quite separate from any compensation (money, fame, career) that might come from it. In our case, Chris and I weren’t writing as church professionals, but simply as two people who loved the church.
What surprised us is not just that a book written by non-professionals sold well—25,000 copies, last I heard—but that it seemed to resonate first and foremost with the professionals: pastors and professors. Since its release, the book has been used in congregations, small groups, and in college and university classrooms around the U.S. One of the largest seminaries in the country named it one of five books all incoming seminarians had to read. We heard from another institution saying they were exploring the concept of “Slow Seminary.”
In retrospect, declaring upfront that Chris and I were proud amateurs was one of the best decisions we made. Over the next six years, I did more than 100 speaking events across the country. Often my prepared remarks were followed by a Q&A. Identifying as an amateur set the stage for me to sometimes respond to questions by saying, “I don’t know,” and, “What do you think?” and, “Let’s work that out together.” In my keynote, workshop, or sermon, I came prepared to share what I already knew; I also came prepared to learn what I didn’t.
Look for the Amateurs
We live in a culture that exalts the people who say, “I know.” These are the specialists, the authorities, the experts, the influencers. But saying “I know” is just as likely to close down a conversation as expand it. What we need—what our towns and cities need—are more people willing to say, “I don’t know,” and, “What do you think?” and, “Let’s figure that out together.”
This is the Way of the Amateur.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’m about to start something new, something I get to help other people do everyday but which I’m only now doing myself.
Part of my role as Strong Towns Community Builder is to help people start and grow Local Conversations. A Local Conversation is a group of people in a particular place who come together to talk about Strong Towns and put the Strong Towns approach into action where they live. There are more than 100 such groups around the United States and Canada. To a large extent, it’s there, in those Local Conversations, that the Strong Towns movement is really activated.
A map of Strong Towns Local Conversations in the U.S. and Canada. Click here to find a conversation near you!
What I get to do as Community Builder is come alongside these groups, work with them to identify barriers to change, connect them with the resources and people who can help them overcome those barriers, and act as their liaison with the rest of the Strong Towns organization. (Note: We’re laying the groundwork to grow the number of Local Conversations tenfold. If you’re interested in forming a group where you live, visit strongtowns.org/local.)
Though I’ve connected with dozens upon dozens of Local Conversation leaders over the last year, one thing I hadn’t done yet is start a group in my own town of Silverton. I wanted to, but I was experiencing many of the same fears I’ve heard from other would-be organizers: concerns about time, finding kindred spirits, and the toll it might take on my introvert energy. To be honest, most of those fears were easy to address—I needed a taste of my own medicine—but one big obstacle remained: Imposter Syndrome.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that a Local Conversation in Silverton would be better served by a professional. A planner or an engineer. Maybe an architect. Someone with at least three years experience serving on a local planning committee. Someone with a better skill set. Someone who can actually do the math that comes with doing the math. Yes, I work for Strong Towns, but what do I know, really know, about how to make my own town stronger and more financially resilient? All of a sudden, it felt like not very much.
That’s when I remembered The Way of the Amateur. To get a conversation started in Silverton, I don’t need to be an expert in planning, engineering, or the minutiae of the city budget. What I need first is to love my town and my neighbors, which I do.
I read something recently that Daniel J. Boorstin wrote about “the amateur spirit.” Boorstin, who died in 2004, once served as the head of the Library of Congress. Though trained as a lawyer, he was a professor of history for decades and authored more than twenty celebrated books of history, politics, and cultural analysis. Boorstin wrote:
With the good fortune to be permitted to be a historian without conventional credentials, I have delighted in pursuing history for the love of it. This amateur spirit has guided my thinking and writing. Of course we need devices to economize our intellectual sallies, and the professions can somehow serve in this way. But the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time. These first-time adventurers are the spice of life. An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of ruts he has never been trained in.
In other words, what distinguishes the amateur from the professional is not a paycheck, the right degrees, or even skill. It is a teachable heart, vulnerability, curiosity, and the courage to try new things.
I think this amateur spirit is actually baked into the Strong Towns movement. Consider, for example, the Strong Towns four-step public investment process. It begins with humility, then asks a question, proceeds with a small teachable step, and then repeats the process all over again. Professional or non-professional is irrelevant in this context. You can be a professional and still have the heart of an amateur. We need more expert amateurs (people who are good at doing things for the love of it) and more amateur experts (specialists who still lead with love and humility).
So once again I’m declaring myself a proud amateur—a proud Strong Towns amateur. Over the course of the coming months I am going to publish an occasional column about my ongoing process of launching a Local Conversation here in Silverton. I will be honest about what is working and what isn’t, how I find local allies, what our meetings look like, the challenges our town is facing, the strengths it can build on, and how our group starts taking action together here. My hope is that the column inspires you in your own local efforts. If you sign up today to start your own Local Conversation, we will be on this journey together.