Monday, February 28, 2011

Aging Heroes

Look for December 2012 to be an season of great fanfare within the Southern Baptist Convention. I'm already making special plans for our annual Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at FBC Farmersville. December 24, 2012, you see, will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Lottie Moon, the matron saint of Southern Baptist international missions.

Lottie Moon was not the last heroic Southern Baptist missionary, but she is the last (so-far) of our Southern Baptist missionary heroes. In our culture it is a bit harder to have heroes than it was a century ago—the arena of Southern Baptist missions is not the only milieu suffering from this reality. With each passing year, the strength of Lottie's influence fades a bit, except for the historically obsessed like myself. This is the inexorable arc of heroism. People may know the story of Perpetua, Hus, Tyndale, Helwys, or Moon, but the farther back into bygone days these historical heroes are, the less connected many readers feel with them. These heroes may continue to impress, but they become less effective (across the broad swath of the population) to inspire.

It is when someone much like yourself does something inspirational that you are most likely to ask the question, "Shouldn't I be doing something like that, too?"

The most inspirational act within Christianity has always been martyrdom. I confess that my own feelings about martyrdom are strikingly similar to the attitude about chastity held by Augustine ("Give me chastity and continence—but not yet"). I am going to die (unless Christ returns first). I would far rather that I die a meaningful death for my Lord as a martyr than to expire on a hospital bed. But I don't plan to be on the hospital bed anytime soon (not that it is within my power to enact my plans), and it is really the manner of my death, not its timing, that I would like to change. Lord, give me martyrdom—but not yet!

The International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, it seems to me, is structured to avoid inspirational martyrdom. Our most dangerous missions activities are closely-guarded secrets, unable to inspire anyone but a select few. We do have missionaries who die in missionary service, some of whom die not because of medical conditions or crime but because of anti-Christian hostility. Of these, some number die from meeting anti-Christian hostility while in the midst of delivering a bold verbal witness for Christ, I'm sure. These are the kinds of stories that inspire. The passionaries and martyrologies of earlier eras in Christian history are instructive here.

Tertullian said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." But we need to add to Tertullian's insight something gleaned from the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, who opined that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." The blood of martyrdom is not only the seed of the church and her mission, but is some portion of her ongoing sustenance as well. We still need to tell the story of Lottie Moon. We still ought to have the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and it needs to remain under precisely that name. But we have need of new heroes, and hard fields await the gospel where nothing short of ongoing repetitive martyrdom will lead to the widespread dissemination of the gospel. Among the enormous questions facing the future of Southern Baptist missions is the question of who tomorrow's heroes will be and how they will be made.