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. 

What Are ‘Christian’ Values?

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The culture war continues. 

The latest salvo in the fight is over the current segregation of public restrooms.  The proponents of change and traditionalists battle it out for control on social media and in the public arena. 

Both argue the moral inferiority of the other side.  Both claim to be defending the security of their loved ones.  Both threaten to take punitive measures against those who do not comply with their demands. 

It is a fight where nobody seems to win and everyone comes out a loser.  But what if this two sided debate is actually false dichotomy?  Could there be a third option solution where all could win? 

Perhaps, if all sides of this struggle for control could put down their rhetorical and political weapons for a moment, there is a better example to follow?

I believe there is a better ‘third’ way that is neither dogmatically religious nor demandingly progressive.  I believe there is an alternative where all can win and none lose. 

However, before I can get to the solution I need to discuss where the other options fall short and to do this I have defined a few categories. 

(Please understand in advance that there is overlap between my categories and many people may not fall neatly into one or another.)

1) Liberal ‘progressive’ or secular values are marketed as love, tolerance, inclusion and open-mindedness.  The promise is a more fair or high-minded society, but the result is often as petty and even more divisive than what it seeks to replace.  It is morally incoherent, in one breath claiming to be non-judgmental and making more allowance for free expression, but in the next moment enforcing strict dogmas of politically correct language and behavior. 

Those who do not comply with the moral edicts of progressives should be prepare to be shamed, belittled and bullied into silence.  Those who fall away, question or challenge the new orthodoxy will be labeled as a bigot, racist, homophobe, misogynist, hateful or insensitive.  The shouts of “don’t judge me” are often only a tool to drown out dissent and not a consistently applied principle.  These bleeding hearts are out for blood as much as those they accuse of lacking understanding or compassion.

2) Conservative ‘nationalistic’ or established values are the present cultural norms and current notions of common sense.  This is the flag waving proud patriotic perspective held by those who believe their own values (football, freedom and frequent beer consumption) represent the greatness of the American past, present and future.  These are the biggest defenders of the status quo, their status quo, and never minding that their current cherished culture was formed yesterday.

These are the people who complain about outsourced jobs while simultaneously shopping at Walmart and criticizing as lazy those who aren’t as successful as them.  This is the moral majority of the moment that sees their own privileges and preferences as fundamental rights without respect or consideration of those who see differently.  They have also abandoned the traditional values of their parents and grandparents yet still condemn those who go a step further than them.

In their eyes America was almost always right.  Historic injustice is white washed with a brush of romanticism.  Slavery, racial inequality, segregation of schools, massacres and other abuses against native people are forgotten.  The sins of our modern imperialistic aggression and global hegemony are downplayed.  “It’s ‘merica, baby, land of the free, home of the brave!”

3) Religious ‘fundamentalist’ or traditional values are those out of the mainstream who claim to represent God’s will and freely judge all people—especially those outside of their own sub-cultural group.  These self-proclaimed sanctimonious gatekeepers to the realm of moral truth annoy everyone who doesn’t share their own interpretations.  People call them the “Bible-thumpers” and they come with a “holier then thou” attitude that is a major turn off to those outside their own cult.

They pose as authorities on spiritual matters.  However, their knowledge doen’t seem to know much beyond their proof-texting and dogmas.  They use “the Bible says” and selectively quote the Old Testament when it suits their own agenda.  But gloss over and don’t deal honestly with other culturally inconvenient Biblical realities like captured brides, naked prophets and daughters sacrificed in God’s name.

They make fun of the sensitivity of the progressives and then cry “persecution” when they themselves are opposed.  They feel entitled to a special privileged position in society as God’s favorites.  They use grace as a cover for their own sins without extending the same to those who sin differently or disagree.

4) Faithful ‘Spirit And In Truth’ followers are those who pick up the cross and live to be a consistent example of self-sacrificial love.  These are those who seek to be the literal embodiment of Jesus Christ. This means they follow his commandments to love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have them do for us and, while seeking to purify themselves of evil, leave judgment outside to God. 

It is a way that doesn’t seek power to impose on others and instead is committed to self-sacrificial love and leadership by example.  It is the beautiful alternative to the endless cycles of reaction, retaliation and repeat again.  It forgives and frees others of their sin debt to us.  It builds a new identity in Jesus and is a truth that is lived more than preached.

How are Christian values different from progressive values?

There are some similarities.  Jesus broke from the established religious and cultural standard.  He identified with the societal outcasts and was full of compassion for hurting people. 

But Jesus did not turn to more law or greater regulation of offending behavior as the solution.  He did not urge a political fight or demand his voice be heard by government authorities.  He did not lead massive protests against the privileged and powerful.  Instead Jesus showed the example to follow, he offered his own life as atonement for the sins of others and forgave offenses.

How are Christian values different from ‘traditional’ American values?

There are many who characterize America as a ‘Christian’ nation and really do a disservice to the truth in this.  America does have some ‘Christian’ values reflected in its history and did certainly provide a haven of religious freedom. 

However, this conveniently glosses over the fact that founding fathers were not faithful.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut out portions of the Bible he found disagreeable.  Ben Franklin lived immorally according to a Christian standard. 

The individualism, materialism and entitlement mentality of modern America is not in the least bit reflective of the teachings of Jesus.

How are Christian values different from religious and Biblical fundamentalist values?

Oftentimes it seems those who are closest to the truth who are the furthest away.  Or, at least, this was the case with those who inherited the Scripture in Jesus day and thought of themselves as experts in morality.  But human efforts, even the most diligent of human efforts, cannot bring anyone a step closer to the truth. 

The truth, as found in Jesus, is not an accumulation of knowledge and careful application that leads to moral superiority.  No, the way of Jesus is acknowledgement of our inability—it is humble, repentant and is fully dependent on the grace of God.

Putting down Peter’s sword

We could have everyone forced to use the ‘right’ restroom without accomplishing anything more than Peter’s sword:

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” (John 18:10-11)

Peter thought he was defending the truth and mission of Jesus, but actually stood in the way of God’s plan.  Peter, who was rebuked on several occasions for his lack of understanding and overzealousness, treated the servant as sword practice.

By contrast, the John’s account treats the man Peter wounded as a unique individual with a name: Malchus.  And, in a parallel account (Luke 22:51) Jesus demonstrates a different way, he heals the ear of Malchus—a man sent to bring him to his death—and showed the true Christian value.

Peter was fighting a losing battle.  He had his own vision different from that of Jesus.  He thought he was defending truth when in reality he was a part of the problem.  He thought his act was one of total commitment to the cause when it was in fact the opposite.

Peter’s act is perfect a metaphor of what happens when those of us who claim faith in Jesus go out militantly defending our own religious values with political force—we cut off ears.

And picking up the cross to follow Jesus…

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  ‘Never, Lord!’ he said.  ‘This shall never happen to you!’  Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.'” (Matthew 16:21-23)

Here Peter was completely willing to fight for the kingdom of God, but for his enthusiasm is called small minded, a stumbling block and mouthpiece for Satan.

Can you imagine how Peter felt? 

Jesus continues…

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?'” (Matthew 16:24-26)

This was not what Peter or the other disciples had in mind.  They pictured themselves as co-rulers of a worldly kingdom and had been arguing things like who would sit on the right hand of Jesus on his earthly throne when they finally defeated Rome.

But Jesus paints a picture entirely different.  He’s predicting his death, a painful and humiliating death on a Roman cross, while urging them to follow the same path of self-sacrificial love.  He was trying to explain a reality bigger than their worldly political visions and values.

What are Christian values?

Jesus, after being baptized, after receiving the Spirit’s anointing and being tempted in the wilderness, announced the start of his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

That is where we start.  That is Christian values in a nutshell. 

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…”  (John 3:17-18)

That’s the good news.   Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone, but to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, forgive impossible debts, reconcile relationships with God and bring freedom to those condemned to death.  It was a message of restoration and hope, not condemnation.

Christian values begin and end in living out the example of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was not a progressive, not a defender of cultural status quo nor a religious fundamentalist, his values were higher and spiritual.  He was not seeking legal power or political advantage so he could impose on others, that wasn’t his fight.

“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'”  (John 18:36)

Having Christian values means one shares the same priorities as Jesus.  It means talking up the cross of self-sacrificial love and showing the way of grace.  Jesus was not a cultural warrior seeking to impose values by force of law or a sword, instead he is an advocate for those lost in sin. 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what restroom your neighbor uses, that is an argument where both sides lose and a distraction. What matters is how our own attitudes and actions reflect those of Jesus Christ. 

We must put our rhetorical swords down. We must love our (political) enemies and heal rather than cut off ears.