The Rise of the Christian Influencer

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The man had charisma.  He wore a swanky grey sport coat and a shiny pair of quality brown dress shoes, that all went along with his well-manicured hair.  He stood out in this crowd of mostly Amish gathered for the seminar. 

I tend not to pay for such things.  I have a knack for learning through non-conventional means, namely running into walls until I get to the correct answer, and have also learned quite a bit from observation.  My own ticket had been provided by my company and I was there with the rest of the office staff to hear what this life coaching speaker had to say about customer service and listening. 

The content was good.  It seemed worthwhile advice for those seeking to improve their customer experience and grow their business.  However, I kept thinking about the Christian themes mixed into his message.  This son of a missionary did not preach a sermon nor did he mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Still, there was definitely an attempt to relate to the audience at a level of their religious values.

This sort of thing, good or bad, seems like the latest development in Christian missions.  In times past, the church was the church, those ordained and sent were more open about their underlying goals, urging repent and be baptized, and those personally profiting off the message were condemned:

“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”

(2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV)

Now, the man before us, he represented a non-profit entity and was giving advice that pertained to sales and serving customers.  Still, he did reference Scripture amongst his quotes of self-improvement gurus and even used the phrase “word of God” at one point in his presentation.  He would use our familiarity with the “good book” to bolster his claims and even shared some theological perspective. 

Again, I have no problem with this man nor the particular presentation.  In the business world this kind of consulting and advice is likely key to reaching the next level of sales and I’m sure we will do many of the things that he recommended.

However, what did stand out, and is the reason for writing this blog, is this trend towards a mission of influence rather than open proclaiming of the Gospel and, in many ways, I was at the forefront of this evolution.  My blogs, often a mix of theology, philosophy, and personal observation, is not openly declared as a Christian mission.  Still, I have used this media, and my understanding of Scripture, to do pretty much the same thing (minus the monetization) of this life coach of Anabaptist background.

So here’s some thoughts…

Where Did It All Begin?

The church has always had influential men and inspiring women.  Some rose in prominence, even have their writings and stories recorded in the canon of Scripture for our benefit.  The Orthodox have many noteworthy figures, Early Church Fathers, including St John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a man who took on the abuses of ecclesiastical and political authorities of his own time, and whose Divine Liturgy we celebrate to this very day, his name means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and he definitely had a way with words to match the description.

However, those in Scripture, as well as St John Chrysostom, were themselves all under the authority and guidance of the other Christians.  They were also very open about their mission.  They were unabashed preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They weren’t your life coach using Christian themes to decorate a business oriented daylong consulting session for $150 a head.  St Paul may have made tents to support himself and his ministry, yet I’m not sure that he sold them using Christian themes.  Just saying.  His ministry was ministry and business was business.

But there is a sort of murkiness to many modern day efforts, where they aren’t part of the church per se nor even announcing themselves as a ministry, and it is by design.  So how did we get here?

The starting point of the current Western paradigm is obviously the Protestant schism with the leadership in Rome.  The intention of Martin Luther, ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, was not to start a denomination.  He wanted reforms and had good reason for his critiques.  And yet his written protests quickly became a catalyst, many took things much further than he had ever intended and we have the multitude of denominations as his most significant accomplishment.

Still, despite this, the church, even or especially with those of the radical reformation, remained a collection of individuals with accountability to each other.  Sure, the Anabaptists were more localized, led by shared statements of faith and collectively agreed upon congregational rules rather than by a hierarchical structure, but it was never every-man-for-himself or a free-for-all.  Those who spoke were ordained by various means, not simply a man full of his own ideas and finding a following.

The turning point? 

I think around the turn of the last century represents a shift.  The whole tent revival circuit, where a dynamic speaker, an Evangelist, would get up in front of the crowd and wow the audience with his polished salvation message.  Many were sold the Gospel in this manner, walked the sawdust trail, the circus would eventually leave town and life would go back to normal or the new normal, I suppose?

The next stage in development was the parachurch missionary organization.  By parachurch, these organizations are run seperately from the denomination, are often subject only to their own board members, and seek funding for themselves.  Basically, any ambitious person, with some natural musical or speaking talent, interested in travel, can start a prison ministry, missionary training institute or what have you, and only with as much ties to the existing church structure as they want.  All one must do is set up their nonprofit, find investors, buy the bus and be on their way to preach the word as their adoring wife glows beside them.

Yet, as all things, the traveling Evangelist and other obvious Christian missionary efforts, including openly Christian contemporary artists, have become tired old tropes.  The in your face presentation, the lack of follow-up or one-dimensionality of the presentation, the realization that the novelty had worn off of the original form, the scams and scandals, has led to a third wave of influencer and that’s the one that doesn’t even announce the Christian intentions at all.

Sometimes this lack of openly expressed intention is to avoid legal prohibition.  For example, teaching English in Asian countries that would not otherwise invite Christian missionaries.  Other times it is to add a practical element, after preaching and charities failed to help solve many underlying conditions, which gave rise to micro-lending groups.  Sometimes this repackaging is to sell the mission itself as something exciting, an adventure rather than some kind of dull service opportunity, and part of an effort to make Christianity relevant to the next generation.

After watching the presentation the other day, I suggested to a left-leaning Mennonite friend that we go on tour together for sake of racial reconciliation and healing.  Why not?  I think I could probably work the crowd, with a little practice, and definitely believe in the cause, could leading faith-related seminars be my calling too?

In theory this cause-oriented Christian influencer thing seems great.  We can have sportsman’s banquets, business seminars, and TED Talk the unsuspecting heathens (or even the more traditional religious types) with a flashy Powerpoint presentation, funny stories and down to earthiness.  And yet, this does seem to get things out of order, it puts values first and repentance second. 

More troubling, from the Evangelist of the past century, to parachurch missionary organization of the past decades, to the influencers of the present, the distance between the activity and actual purpose has grown.  The Evangelist preached without providing adequately in discipleship.  The missionary went without being sent or accountable to the church.  And the motivational speaker, while referencing the Bible, never announced a Christian intention.  And it makes me wonder, how far can we detach values or ministries from the Church, and cause of Christ, before it becomes entirely self-interested and divorced from Christ?

At what point is it all just a moneymaking scheme, devoid of actual spiritual substance?

I mean, we’ve all seen it, the shyster, the con man, the ministry with a board of directors full of families and “yes man” friends, the Televangelist, the guy selling a product, an ideology, a Ponzi scheme.  There is sometimes a very fine line between the less scrupulous, eyebrow raising efforts, and the more accepted manifestations.  Are we some day going to have Christian pornography, subtle Christian themes, maybe an actor pick up a Bible and read a passage before the main event, to hopefully plant that seed of influence? 

Where does it end?

The Rise and Fall of the Christian Influencer

David Ramsey, James Dobson, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham, and Bill Gothard are familiar names in conservative Mennonite circles.  Ramsey with his financial advice, Dobson with his focus on the culture war, Zacharias with his appeals to reason, Ham for his fundamentalist theme park and Gothard an earlier version of life coaching seminars.  The point of all of these men, at least as expressed, was to advise, consult and influence.  They are all men who took aspects of their religious values and turned it into an enterprise.

None of the men above represent a church denomination.  They rely on selling merch, the loyal support of people like you and donations to expand their reach.  They have built ministry campuses, a literal ark in the state of Kentucky, a few massage parlors here and there, and are only accountable to their own ministry boards.  Usually the focus, at least initially, is around one illustrious character, a strong personality, who is too often surrounded by the cult he has created rather than those who will challenge.

There now seems like a parachurch organization for every niche.  The list of bloggers, authors, evangelists, producers of all sorts, continues to grow and especially now in the age of social media.  It costs me nothing but time to set up my account on WordPress and start spewing out my perspectives.  Perhaps, if I were a bit more ambitious, I would write a book, do a book tour, and eventually be at your Lady’s Tea event sharing what I learned about life and love from the book of Ecclesiastes.   Book your reservations now as available slots are filling fast!

But the parachurch is the downfall of the church.  Too often these ‘ministries’ have come at the expense of the local body of believers, submitting and serving each other in love.  Too often it is something guided more by the spirit of Diotrephes, wanting things our own way and seeking those who agree, rather than by Christ.  That is why we have seen a growing number of scandals come to light, of leaders forced to resign by outside pressure or disgraced after death for their hidden sinful deeds.  I know, speaking for myself, it is too easy for me to shun deeper involvement in the actual church because it is difficult, not determined by my feelings of inspiration, and this is something that must be repented.

Jesus was willing to serve, but he didn’t determine the cross he was required to carry and, instead, submitted to the will of the Father.  The disciples, and St Paul, likewise, were not Lone Rangers, doing it their own way, without accountability or oversight.  Those with gifts aren’t to use those gifts to serve themselves or build their own empires.  They were sent and commissioned by the church, under the umbrella of those ordained to lead, and not independent contractors pursuing their own pet causes.

The Christian life is not about values, certainly not about self-promotion or having the right program either, but is about our Communion together with other believers, both past and present, and with Christ.  From that, the Holy Spirit, from our accountability to each other, our true obedience, transformation will come from inside out and love will flow out to change the world.  The values and culture coming from that rather than taught at seminars, religious institutions or Bible schools.

We don’t need more influencers.  We don’t need more parachurch organizations or a return to tent revival meetings either.  Many of these things are mere human efforts that will ultimately fail.  What we really need is the body of Christ, to partake and participate together in the life of the one true Church. 

Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

Made In Taiwan

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I started writing this blog while going through security at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport and feeling sad because of what I left behind for a return to the old routine. But I’m also grateful, once again, for the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world to meet someone and make a few friends along the way.

And, speaking of new friends, when I had arrived a couple weeks earlier, the Taiwanese taxi driver—commonly referred to as “my friend” by the Filipinos working there for his habitual use of those words when answering the phone—was there (with my hosts) to fetch me at the airport. And, indeed, he was extremely friendly and only a few years younger than me. He could also carry a conversation in English.

We were both into cars.

We agreed, passing a Tesla, that the electric vehicle was too expensive and impractical.

Taiwan has a wide variety of vehicles. I saw everything from scooters, big rigs and strange small trucks to Audi’s, Beemers, and Bentley’s. Of course, I also saw Ford Focusses, like my own sitting at JFK Discount Parking, and a few other models also found in the United States. Sedans are much more common, pick-up trucks (besides the occasional Ranger) are almost non-existent, and did I say that scooters are everywhere once you get off the highways?

I used all forms of public transportation while there, taking a city bus or employing “my friend” to drive us in and out of Hsinchu City to the malls and restaurants there. We also rode the train to Houli Flower Farm, in Taichung, to take in the flower exhibit and horse ranch there. We took the express train, by accident, on our way to the zoo to Taipei. We thought we could use our “Yoyo” card (or at least that’s how “悠遊卡” sounds when you use the card) and stand on the express, but the conductor politely informed us we needed tickets and found us some seats. However, the more economical and efficient option was to take the direct line bus and we did on our later visit to Taipei.

My time in Taiwan revolved around the life of the Filipino workers there. I stayed in an apartment near the dormitories where they live. The Filipinos are drawn, away from their families and friends back home, by the better pay of electronics factories in Taiwan. It is not easy for them, but oftentimes their families rely on the extra income they earn and thus they make the sacrifice. With these Pinoy expatriates, I dined on the local Filipino and Taiwanese fare, explored the aforementioned touristy sites, and visited a small Filipino church (of a Protestant variety) in Hsinchu—enjoying a Sunday afternoon with “Pastora” after the service.

The food in Taiwan was delicious. One of my favorite dinnertime destinations being the “Shabu-shabu” restaurants—each place at the table had a burner, you would go, salad bar style, to select from an array of meat, seafood and vegetable options, then cook everything together in the boiling pot full of water.

Some pictures…

Oh, and in case you were wondering, McDonald’s still tastes like McDonald’s on the other side of the world. We had some while at the zoo.

Anyhow, here are some pictures of me horsing around at the flower farm…

Taking in the sights around Hsinchu City…

A Buddhist temple…

The smaller of two malls in Hsinchu City…

On top of world in the amazing Taipei 101…

National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Some random observations: A long dress don’t make a woman religious in Taiwan. The country, especially the region where I was, is bristling with industry and the multi-floor factories, scattered amongst the small farm plots, were no doubt churning out many goods destined for the United States. The cities have gardens in backyards rather than graffiti on the walls and crime is relatively low.

My only regret from the trip is the short layover in South Korea and not being able to visit some friends living there, otherwise it was an awesome trip and I look forward to next time!