“What can I do about it? I’m just an ordinary person.”
That is the despairing refrain I often hear in response to problems ranging from world hunger to crime. Most people simply feel impotent when it comes to big issues.
Considering what we hear from politicians and the media, this widespread attitude is not surprising. We have been conditioned to believe that all problems must have a government solution—or that one must be famous before one can make any significant impact on society.
This political/celebrity illusion has become the dominant myth of our times. And few have embraced it with more enthusiasm than the Christian community. We seem to think we need a big parachurch organization or a well-known celebrity in order to accomplish anything for the kingdom of God. As a result, the church has elevated popular pastors, ministry leaders, and televangelists to the dubious pedestal of fame—only to watch many topple in the winds of power, influence, and adulation. All the while, “ordinary” Christians feel more and more frustrated.
One reason I enjoy going to the Third World regularly is that this paralyzing myth does not hold sway there. In the face of human needs and social problems, Christians cannot count on government, since it is far more likely to persecute than listen to the church; there are few parachuch organizations at work; and there are no Christian celebrities. So these “poor, deprived” Christians have no alternative but to go ahead and do what needs doing. And that turns out to be just what the Bible commands.
A friend of mine from Madagascar provides an example. Pascal, a university professor, was thrown into prison after a Marxist coup. There he became a Christian.
After his release he started a small import/export company. But he was drawn back to his prison to preach the gospel. During one such visit in early 1986, he stopped in shock as he passed the infirmary: there were more than 50 corpses piled on the veranda, naked except for I.D. tags between their toes.
Pascal went to the nurse, asking if there had been an epidemic. Of sorts, he was told. Prisoners were dying by the dozens—of malnutrition.
Pascal left the prison in tears. His church was too poor to help feed the starving inmates, and there were no big relief agencies around. So he began to do what he could, cooking meals in his own small kitchen. Today Pascal and his wife continue to cook—and without the benefit of a government agency or Christian organization, they are making the difference between life and death for 700 prisoners.
Of all people, Christians should know better than to buy into the illusion that change comes only through Congress or celebrity campaigns. God has always used the humble both to confound the wisdom of this world and to accomplish his purposes. Much of the Bible was, after all, written by the powerless—prisoners, exiles, and part-time shepherds who were prophets.
God continues today to turn the world’s expectations upside-down, using ordinary Christians to make the difference. One experience in particular brought that point home to me.
Following the National Prayer Breakfast, I took a group of supporters to Maryland’s Jessup institution where a Prison Fellowship in-prison seminar was in progress. We were welcomed by the bright lights of TV cameras. Reporters scribbled notes while officials greeted us warmly; the governor had even issued a proclamation for the occasion.
By the time we got to the prison chapel, it was on the verge of exploding with the excitement of more than 125 inmates and dozens of PF volunteers. Wintley Phipps, a well-known gospel singer who had sung only the day before for President Reagan, was with us. When Wintley let loose in that cinder-block chapel, the walls shook.
Then my colleague Herman Heade, who was converted in a solitary-confinement cell during a seven-year prison term, gave his testimony. He was dramatic and convicting.
The excitement continued as I then challenged the men to accept Christ. When the time came to leave, we could barely make our way through the crowd. Inmates pressed around, hugging us and weeping. It would be hard to find a more powerful church service anywhere.
The next day our seminar instructor was relieved to find all the inmates had returned for the seminar’s final session. He had thought the last day might be anticlimactic.
At the closing meeting, a tall inmate stood to speak. “I really appreciated Chuck Colson’s message,” he told the group, “and Wintley Phipps’s singing stirred me beyond words. Herman’s testimony reached me right where I was at.
“Frankly, though, those things really didn’t impress me so much as what happened after all the celebrities and TV cameras left: the ladies among the volunteers went into the dining hall, with all the noise and confusion, and sat at the table to have a meal with us. That’s what really got to me,” he concluded, his voice choked.
What was the witness of Christ at the Maryland prison? Certainly Wintley’s singing and Herman’s testimony and my sermon were appreciated. But the most powerful message came from the volunteers—ordinary people whose names never appear in the headlines—who went into the dingy dining hall to share a prison meal with the inmates.
In spite of the myth of our times, it does not take celebrities or institutions to make a difference. The improbable way God builds his kingdom is through those who follow his example of sacrifice—as Pascal and those unknown volunteers at Jessup prison prove so beautifully.
This is an appropriate time of year to be thinking about these things, for they explain a great deal about Christ’s life and ministry. After all, his royal birth was marked not by pomp and power, but by the wonder of peasants who glimpsed his hidden glory. He came to serve, not to be served, to reach out to the lowly, the suffering, the weak, and the oppressed. He surrounded himself with ordinary people, whose lives he utterly transformed. And in turn, the world has been changed by their witness of his power.
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