Joe Biden formally announced his candidacy for president this morning. He becomes the twentieth Democrat to join the 2020 campaign. And one of the few you had probably heard of before making such an announcement.
This is not a criticism or partisan statement. America’s political history shows that notoriety is not essential for success.
From 2 percent to the White House
Jimmy Carter’s name recognition was at 2 percent when he launched his presidential campaign. Congressman Gerald Ford was largely unknown outside his Michigan district before he became vice president and then president.
Few believed first-term senator Barack Obama stood a chance against Hillary Clinton in 2008. When Donald Trump announced he was running for president in 2015, how many people thought he would win?
Notoriety is not always essential to success in other areas of life as well.
When Manuel Franco stepped forward Tuesday to claim a $768 million Powerball prize, the twenty-four-year-old Wisconsin resident went from anonymity to national headlines. I had not heard of diver Josh Bratchley before he helped rescue Thai cave schoolboys last summer. I had not heard of Edd Sorenson before he rescued Josh Bratchley from an underwater cave in Tennessee last week.
How Americans spend eleven hours each day
We may never be household names, but we all want to be special to someone special.
God made us social creatures: from Adam to today, “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18 NKJV). The human story is a long narrative centered on interaction, from spouses to families to tribes to cities to city-states to nations to multinational alliances. Across our history, we have connected with each other through speaking, art, music, writing, printing, radio, movies, television, and now social media.
Our sedentary lives are evidence of the digital nature of contemporary connectivity. Unsurprisingly, researchers have discovered that we are spending more time sitting in front of screens than ever. This is problematic since sitting too long has been linked to numerous chronic diseases that can lead to an early death.
But it is also indicative of our need for community.
Adult Americans spend more than eleven hours a day watching, reading, listening, or otherwise interacting with media. Nearly 80 percent of the US population has a social media profile. Streaming services have brought Hollywood to our devices (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided this week that such services should be eligible for the Oscars).
We long to be connected with other people, even if we experience them vicariously or digitally.
Screens and souls
However, a screen cannot replace a soul. A computer cannot hug us when we grieve. Just as we all have a “God-shaped emptiness” (Pascal), we also have a “people-shaped emptiness.” The body of Christ is not composed of cell phones but of humans.
Here’s the good news: you and I can make an eternal difference in eternal souls, whether the world knows our names or not.
I was invited to church as a teenager by two men whose stories I have never seen in the media. The pastor’s wife who led me to Christ has never appeared on Netflix. My most significant mentors in college, seminary, and beyond were women and men whose names would probably mean little to you. But they mean everything to me.
Who has made the greatest impact on your life? Have they ever made the headlines?
Paul’s unnamed nephew
Reading through the book of Acts, I have been struck by the unnamed individuals who changed the course of history. We know only a few of the 120 who were filled with the Spirit at Pentecost and ignited the Christian movement (Acts 1:15; 2:4). We don’t know the name of the “man lame from birth” whose healing led “all the people” to hear the gospel (3:2, 11).
The missionaries who first took the gospel to Antioch (the future home base for Paul’s ministry) are unnamed (11:19–21). We don’t have the name of the Philippian jailer (16:25–34), the “leading women” who came to faith in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), or the “noble” Bereans (17:11).
The “town clerk” who protected Christians from an Ephesian mob is unnamed (19:35–41). Paul’s unnamed nephew saved the apostle from a plot to assassinate him (23:16–22).
Imagine a world without the miracle of Pentecost or the missionary work of Paul. As Alfred North Whitehead observed, great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.
Writing “the history of this generation”
The technological revolution makes it possible for us to get God’s word to more people than ever before. Every Christian who uses his or her digital platform to share biblical truth is continuing the work begun by Paul and his fellow missionaries twenty centuries ago.
At the same time, our personal relationships are central to fulfilling our Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). Our personal interactions bring the compassion of Jesus into the hurts and hearts of people hungry to encounter his grace.
Robert Kennedy: “Few of us will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Whose history will you help write today?