Growing up evangelical, and an MK (missionary kid, or child of missionary parents) at that, I know a thing or two about the particular Christian tradition of pointing to heroes of the faith: pioneers of church reform (such as Luther; Wesley; Whitfield), of social reform (such as Wilberforce; Shaftsbury; the Quaker businessmen – and women; Muller; Booth), of mission (such as Carey; Hudson Taylor; Elliot and his companions), and those who faced incredible circumstances (such as Corrie Ten Boom; Joni Eareckson Tada). And, of course, the great biblical heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul.
While there is nothing wrong with retelling such stories per se, telling them with greater enthusiasm than sensitivity results in the very opposite response to the one intended: instead of feeling inspired, we feel condemned. (This is where the Protestant hero of the faith differs from the Catholic saint, because the heroes are ‘supposed’ to be role-models whereas the saints are ‘supposed’ to be somewhat detached.) Here are some of the unspoken problems – whether intentional or unintended, and, I suspect, largely un-thought-through:
First, we’ve devalued the ordinary, by saying that raising children is not enough, that your years of employment are not enough (unless your colleagues ‘get saved’); that these are simply ‘givens’ and that you ought to have a sense of ‘calling,’ a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, that can’t be done in your own strength. (Judging by the evidence of the past fortnight alone, raising children would fall into that category…)
Then, we’ve devalued the extraordinary, by saying that those individuals whose lives impact at least one nation, if not more than one, are ‘just the same as everyone else.’ They’re not. Sure, they are in certain ways; but in others, they’re not. It might not be Politically Correct to say that some people are extraordinary, but it is true. And if we were all extraordinary – all single-handedly Changing The World, as opposed to collectively having an incredible impact – it would be bloody chaos.
We need heroes. We need role-models. And, I’d argue, that the kind of heroes, the kind of role-models, the church needs if it is to have any chance of making a difference in our society, are the kinds of heroes that no-one is ever going to write a biography of, whether in paper or on Wikipedia. Ordinary heroes. Unknown heroes. People you know, but I don’t know of; people I know, but you don’t know of. Heroes I won’t list here, because they don’t need their fifteen minutes of fame: they already have a far longer-lasting impact.
Christianity , heroes of the faith , missional church