let’s not be too quick to write off evangelical self-promotion

Bullhorn from September 14, 2001

A bunch of friends have recently alerted me to this post over on Justin Taylor’s blog, Between Two Worlds. It quotes Dane Ortlund’s bracing critique of lots of the ugliness that Christian leaders often buy into on social media.

The storm of blogs and tweets in which pastors pedal their own wares or trumpet which famous leader or theologian they’re having coffee with can get pretty distasteful.

But I’m wondering if maybe we’re a little too quick to write off self-promotion.

I’m struck by the number of times the Apostle Paul says things like ‘imitate me’ or points people to the example of leaders he’s sending to represent him. (Although, the Corinthian correspondence indicates that he needed delicacy and finesse not to be drawn into the game of Compare The Leader that the church was playing.)

And I’m fascinated by the way Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield harnessed the power of celebrity (ie. self-promotion) to extend the reach of gospel ministry.

Is it possible that there is such a thing as genuinely evangelical self-promotion?

Can self-promotion be pure-hearted, gospel-shaped, God-honouring, Christ-centred and Spirit-empowered?

Obviously, I think it can (and not just because I’m planning a series on what Christian leaders can learn from Facebook’s ‘Social Design’ principles).

But in order to get there I’m convinced we need to pull the rug out from under the assumption that for God to be glorified, humans must be diminished.

The God who meets us in the Lord Jesus — in his free and sovereign grace, achieving his purposes first and foremost… He doesn’t diminish us. No! He redeems and enables us to be truly and fully human.

And so delighting in and foregrounding that doesn’t have to mean that God is banished to the wings.

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5 comments

  1. Edwards and Whitfield were promting themselves to the lost, modern evangelical celebs are promoting themselves to the choir. Therein lies the difference.

  2. I wonder whether there needs to be a deeper discussion about the different perspectives on ethics here. That is, one could consider the merits of self-promotion in social media from either a command basis, a result basis or a motivation basis (I know this isn’t new to you Chris!).

    Why this is relevant is that I don’t think that many are aiming to write off self-promotion entirely on the basis of ‘it’s inherantly bad’ (ie the deontological approach).

    More importantly, I don’t think that either Ortlund or Taylor intend to reject social media self-promotion wholesale either. Ortlund seems to come at it more from the motivation. I’m not sure that he successfully walks the line, especially in his solution, but he does allow for godly self-promotion, but is sceptical about its possibilty knowing his own heart.

    It’s interesting that you raise Paul, particularly in the Corinthian letters. Especially from reading 2 Corinthians, I am thoroughly convinced that Paul, even when he points to himself as a model of imitation and ministry, does so for the express purpose of exalting Christ, summed up in his repeated ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’. Interestingly, this is consequence…

    I think that we can boast in Christ without diminishing our own humanity, as you rightly point out. God is glorified as we see him, not ourselves get smaller. But I think that the issue is one that has permeated social media. I am often tempted to comment on FB posts – ‘let him who boasts on facebook boast in the Lord’. However, at every point I am stopped by the fact that at least in part I would be doing so in an attempt to make myself look good.

    1. Thanks Dan. 2 Corinthians really is fascinating — and profoundly challenging — isn’t it? I find it so interesting that the consequence Paul aims at in boasting (seeing Christ exalted) shaped the way he engages in it and even the things he chooses to ‘boast’ about (the very opposite of the things the Corinthians and their ‘super-apostles’ were boasting in).

      You’re right to point out how pervasive distorted forms of self-promotion are in social media. Natalie has previously lamented the fact that Facebook owes its existence to thoroughly elitist impulses and dynamics — although I’d question whether that still applies in quite the same way to the Facebook we know today.

      But it’s definitely an issue I’m going to need to wrestle with more, since at the very heart of Facebook Developers’ ‘Social Design’ guidelines is this stated conviction: “Social Design plays to the most powerful form of motivation: the self.”

  3. Great topic, Chris

    While the idea of weakness in 1-2 Corinthians is often interpreted as pertaining to competence or suffering, I’d say it’s about status.

    The galvanising thing about Paul’s “imitate me” is not that he points to Christ, but that he points to a humiliatingly low-status reality: the crucified man with the cross-eyed followers.

    So I figure that what’s at issue here (at least in “Corinthian” terms) is not self-promotion but status.

    And so I suspect that the problem with modern-day Christian self-promotion lies in the status symbols and social currencies that we’ve created for ourselves: the hot wife, the bed time story with the kids, the glorification of the nuclear family (to name a few).

    This is where we’re in danger of creating a super-apostle mentality under the guise of godliness.

    That said, I reckon there are also some cross-cultural factors in play here. I mean, Aussies are perhaps more likely to get freaked out by PastorMark.tv than others…

    What do you reckon?

    1. Hi Arthur!

      Yep — the very idea of PastorMark.tv totally freaks me out! I also think you’re probably onto something with your observations about status.

      Where it starts to get really tricky — and interesting — is where Christian virtues get the cultural tick of approval in the modern West even though they were deeply counter-cultural in the first century. E.g., working hard was culturally embarrassing for Paul (see 1 Corinthians 4.11). But for us it attracts approval and recognition — thus increasing one’s status.

      But I’m not sure we should be embarrassed about hard work just because it might increase our status. There’ll be plenty of aspects of a faithful Christian lifestyle that will turn people off and leave people with mixed feelings about our status.

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