Continuing his guest series on creative tension in community mission, Andy Wier questions the value of promoting a hero culture.
“I think I might have come with a bit of a messiah complex.”
I was talking with a young man who had moved to an inner city neighbourhood because that’s where he felt God was calling him to be. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him how he had been changed by the experience of living on a socially disadvantaged estate. There was a 20 second pause. And then he told me he’d begun to realise that he’d come in with “a bit of a messiah complex”. As he went on to explain, this involved thinking: “I’m going to come and see all this change, its going to be amazing. And it’s going to be like a machine approach – we’re just going to get on with it and its going to be quick.”
What he shared made a deep impression on me for two reasons. Firstly, I was impressed by his self-awareness and honesty. And secondly, in the ‘messiah complex’ he was describing, I recognised something of my younger self. As I’ve said previously in this series, I’d moved onto an inner city estate in my early twenties for similar reasons to this young man. And looking back, I can see that I moved with similar expectations of playing a central part in bringing about spectacular and dramatic change. To say that I had a messiah complex might be an exaggeration. But I think I probably saw myself as a bit of a super-hero!
All this has got me thinking about the ways in which Christian subculture encourages us to think like heroes or super-heroes. Each one of us, we’re told, has a personal mission from God and we’re repeatedly encouraged to recount tales of dramatic transformation that we’ve helped bring about. Yes of course, we acknowledge that Jesus is the ultimate superhero and that it’s really ‘all about him’. But, if truth be told, many of us aspire to being Jesus’ special sidekick and getting to share at least some of the limelight.
It’s important to realise, however, that Christians are never called ‘heroes’ in the Bible. Instead, they’re called ‘saints’ in sixty-four different New Testament passages. And as Sam Wells (p.35) explains, there are some really important differences between stories about heroes and stories about saints. A hero is always at the centre of the story. When things are looking like they could go badly wrong, it is the hero who steps up and makes everything turn out right. A saint, in contrast, is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God. They are not necessarily a crucial character and may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten.
In community mission circles, I’ve encountered lots of talk about being community heroes, urban heroes, or heroes of the inner city. I get where this is coming from and I see some value in it. But how can we ensure that an emphasis on being extra-ordinary doesn’t create or perpetuate a ‘messiah complex’? Is the promotion of a hero culture in our churches consistent with the call to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2)?