Yesterday (at least it was yesterday when I began this post last week) I bumped into a friend of mine who is a pastor at another church (he is a wonderful minister that I like and respect a lot, but I will not name him since I haven’t asked his permission). While shooting the bull we hit on a few different subjects. We solved most of the problems of the world – I love these bump in conversations, they are one of the things I miss the most right now. One of the subjects we alighted on was a discussion he was going to have with some Christian “influencers”.
I can not stand the idea of “influencers” in general and I really struggle with the idea of “Christian influencers”. If you don’t know what an influencer is here’s a definition:
An influencer is someone who has the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his or her audience.definition from Influencer Marketing Hub
What this means in real life is that an influencer is someone other people believe they want to be like and thus will buy products and experiences if the influencer promotes those items. Thus a “Christian influencer” supposedly draws people to Jesus because people see them and want to be like them. It is about the power of the influencer being alluring to others.
It isn’t that I am against the idea of influence, that can be a great thing when done in faithful manners. I have many people who have influenced me in my life and I am grateful for that influence. Of course, their influence was that they were faithful, not that they were trying to be influential.
Usually “Christian influencers” aren’t just being faithful but instead actively trying to present a picture of influence and power that pretty much mirrors what the rest of the world values, only with some spiritual language. They are very much a part of the culture and leaning into the values of the world around them. There seems to be very little difference between them and the non-Christians influencers, from their look to their values, other than spiritual issues being sprinkled into their content. “Christian Influencers” wear the same “influencer hats” and tattoo sleeves, and pretty much do the same things as secular influencers, in my opinion, because it is more about the influencer brand than it is about the beaten and disgraced Lord.
When I was a youth minister every now and then I would hear someone make reference to a ministry model that was focused on drawing in the “cool” and “popular” kids, with the mindset that if they came then all the other groups would come to the church too. Draw the powerful and the weak will come along too. So the ministry would be structured in such a manner to draw the powerful people. Clearly, this isn’t just a youth ministry problem.
Thus churches and Christian ministers are tempted to fawn over the powerful and long for success. Thus we put on our stages the “hot” and influential in hopes of impressing Jesus with our success rate. We strive for excellence rather than faithfulness, thinking that smooth transitions and high skill levels make up the foundations of the Kingdom of the crucified God. Our pastors exchange our roles as shepherds of the sheep and wounded healers for the titles of author and speaker because we think what Jesus wants is a very well-done TED Talk or TikTok post. Jesus had a few things to say about such actions (Luke 14:7-14).
But when we think like influencers we often tell ourselves, “more people will be reached with the gospel if we do this”. After all, more power and influence will equal more people in the pews, right? We neglect the nagging feeling that such thoughts are the modus operandi of the Roman Empire rather than the gospel of the meek and mild Jesus. When He began His ministry He quoted Isaiah as describing the gospel as “good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” “recovery of sight for the blind,” and “set(ting) the oppressed free” (Luke 7:22) – subjects decidedly focused or the weak and marginalized not the powerful and influential.
I get the desire to influence people though. As a pastor and a chaplain I feel that jolt of energy and pride when someone tells me that something I said or wrote helped them. I produce a video every week and two podcast episodes every month for my chaplaining gig and I would be lying to you if I said the “likes” don’t make me feel good when they occur. Those small, electronic thumbs-ups feel real nice. My ego and self-worth receive a little boost when they occur. Yet those momentary digital encouragements are usually more about me and than the kingdom of the Crucified One. I have to always remember that. Narrow is the gate to walking in the Kingdom, not because Jesus wants to exclude, but because the Kingdom life of strength being made perfect in weakness and following the crucified God by taking up my cross and denying myself is otherworldly and goes against the way of the world. Jesus had lots of people following Him till “many of His disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) Hard teachings have a way of affecting us this way. They are difficult and we want the easy way. The way of depending upon God to work through weakness and requires much more trust than thinking we can do things through our own power and influence.
That is my frustration with the idea of “Christian influencers”. When I read scripture I see the opposite of a Kingdom made by being stylish and cool, from having money and power. One of my heroes, Jurgen Moltmann once answered a question by stating:
“Well, first I would ask them if they had read the Bible; then I would ask them if they had understood it.”
His point was that if the people in question read the Bible and understood it they obviously would not think the way they were thinking. I am convinced that when we read scripture and understand it we will see the Lord Who makes Himself at home with the marginalized and the weak and is a threat to those in power. That Jesus is the Messiah Who taught that it is “not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” and thus He was with the “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11-13).
Like the sons of Zebedee, we long to sit in places of power, on Jesus’s right and left (Matthew 20:20-28). We seek to have influence and power for the Kingdom not realizing that it was thieves and rebels who were on Jesus’s left and right, the places of honor that had been prepared for them because Jesus’s place is with the weak. People without influence. This should lead to us not seek to influence but to serve. Not to seek power to proclaim but to ask ourselves if greater sacrifice is necessary. I believe it will lead us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and die surrounded by sinners and thieves, rather than buy cool hats and take influential pictures.