How the Hero Narrative Kills Movement

(This spring, different members of the 100M team will be releasing articles on 'Movement Killers.' This is the second post of that series.)

Who are your heroes? Or if you don’t have one, what would you be looking for in a hero? What are the qualities you admire in a leader?

If you ask the average person in the evangelical church these days the answer would likely include that they want a pragmatic, no-nonsense, get-things-done, charismatic CEO-type, who is able to inspire large groups. People often express they are looking for ‘strong leadership’ that can cut through the nonsense and make things happen. Like the sheriff in a western, the hero rides into town, won’t take any back talk, cleans out the bad guys, and saves the day. Meanwhile the poor towns people, who were unable to do anything on their own behalf beforehand, watch, cower, applaud, and continue in their lack of self-efficacy.

The problem is that this kind of hero or leader narrative will kill a movement as stone dead as a shot from a .45 caliber Colt.

The hero narrative in our Christian culture looks like a sanitized, celebrity version of Peter or Paul, and not like Jesus. We have unquestioningly adopted the world’s definition of the hero-leader, and then tried to spiritualize it. There is a difference between leadership in an organization and leadership in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, we often conflate the two, creating a singular hero-narrative. We look to create hero-leaders in our organization first, and then seek to apply them to Kingdom work. Instead, we should be creating leaders in the Kingdom of all people, and working with some of them to have the specific skill-set of larger organizational leadership.

Think about this: Jesus would never be described by the above terms. No one would accuse Jesus of being a “strong leader who got things done.” In fact, by all measurements of his direct CEO leadership, his movement was a failure and he died before it became anything. Jesus did not lead his people to greatness of any kind in his lifetime.

And yet, leading like Jesus is exactly what we are called to do.

Because of our hero-leader narrative, an overwhelming number of people disqualify themselves from having a role to play in the Kingdom. I know so many Christian pastors and leadership consultants that do not think anyone can be a leader or that everyone is called to leadership. This breaks my heart as it means they miss the gems (talents) of people in front of them while looking for the token hero that embodies a narrow set of leadership traits. This is decidedly un-Kingdom.

Let me put it this way: was Mother Theresa a leader?

How you answer that question will be illuminating as to your leadership bias. What would Jesus have to say about her?

Leadership is not simply an office or a title. Leadership includes skills, but it is not a skill set. A leader should have character, but leadership is more than a list of character qualities. A leader should be developed, but leadership is more than a process. Ultimately leadership is the characteristic of having influence in the lives of those around you.

Mother Theresa did not lead a congregation, nor did she lead thousands to Christ. The number of conversions she inspired is unknown. She did not speak at conferences, write many books, or solicit the world to come and work with her to learn her ‘secret sauce’. And yet she inspired the world with her love and sacrifice. Even the atheists and secular humanists know who Mother Theresa is and are inspired by her. She is a hero to them and she has influenced them.

If we are going to inspire, influence or lead movements, we cannot be looking to make people into the next (insert charismatic leader name here). We have to move beyond our leader bias, to see and raise up people who do not lead like us, who will never lead like us. We have to learn how to help people become the intentionally influencing, leader-version of the person God created them to be.

Every person can influence the life of another. Every person already is! When we nurture that fertile ground, teach skills, develop character, and created processes in it, we empower people to be the heroes God has created them to be. We may work to develop people to be leaders in our organization, but we have to work on helping everyone be leaders in the Kingdom if we are to be a movement.

There is only one Superman. There is only one John Wesley or Billy Graham. And the more we try to find the next Billy Graham, the more we make an idol out of a hero narrative and dis-empower the sons and daughters right in front of us.