A.W. Tozer wisely wrote: “Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.” He wrote this in the 1940s, way before a self-centered culture ushered in by the arrival of digital media would become the new normal. He didn’t foretell the perils of social media, although we know that self-promotion is nothing new. However, the distinction made in Kate Motaung’s and Shannon Popkin’s new book, Influence: Building a Platform That Elevates Jesus (Not Me), warns believers to not fall into the trap of seeking adulation from the world at the cost of their purpose in life: to glorify God.
Social media is engineered to operate on the fuel of emotion, whether it be toxic (outrage, anxiety, comparison, anguish, tribalism), or for the purpose of flattery. It’s not always an edifying exercise to check-in on social media. There are enough blog posts, personal essays, and books that confirm the perniciousness of social media on the lives of those who claim Christ.
James Bridle, author of New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, wrote:
We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge and yet we have not learned to think. In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.
For the believer, one of the most insidious aspects of connecting with social media is that it stultifies us to the true horrors of our culture, our politics, and our humanity. Because our web usage is automatic, the advent of social media appears to have reduced us to automatons whose sensibilities become measured with hits of dopamine triggered by notifications—a like, a new follower, a new comment, or a starred review—entering our digital portals.
I recall an editor at a big publishing house ask me how many followers I had. She asked how many of them were influencers. It was the first time I heard the term influencer to signify a body of people, a class of select persons who occupy the echelons of the digital world driven by metrics and patented presence. Influence was no longer just a noun or a verb, but a classification so bizarre at redefining people’s identities in undiscriminating ways.
The editor would posit that my worth is evaluated by a satisfactory number she keeps in her head, whatever that may be.
Author Tony Reinke wrote: “If the glory of man is your god, you will not celebrate the glory of Christ. Or, if you come to Christ and treasure his glory above all glory, you will be forced to forfeit the buzz of human approval…If you want to follow Christ, the world will unfollow you.”
These are convicting thoughts indeed.
Rooted in the thesis of Influence, I sensed a certain shame about my motives on social media—not concerning my art of writing mind you, but the conduit by which my writing is shared: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, link-ups, Instagram. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I read this book when I did because it arrived shortly after I refrained from checking social media for some time. When I began to let go of the impulse to keep up with the news feed, I realized that social media had been an indulgence—like chocolate, like binge-watching a television series. I found I was justifying my usage of social media by claiming it was necessary for my profile as a writer.
Influence covers a broader truth that deserves commentary: we need to place an onus on the approval addicted among us, or the puffed-up influencers that own the conversations we follow closely.
Perhaps, as the book states, we ought to heed how we listen more than how we influence with our words. Maybe we ought to listen to the quiet influencers in our midst, those who lead by example and demonstrate with life application how to live for God, quietly. Theirs is a unique class of its own, built organically, uncontrived—Spirit led indeed. Motaung and Popkin impart the message that believers are not exempt from the trappings of pride:
Amongst both Christians and unbelievers in this selfie generation, Look at me! is far more common than Look to Him!
We honestly don’t need to try so hard. With God, the results will prove themselves over time, if they become at all visible to us.
If you choose a seat of honor and them someone more distinguished shows up, your host will ask you to move, which will be humiliating. But if you choose a humble seat, your host might insist that you move to a better spot, which would be an honor.
We must pause to think about this for a moment. Can we reflect on the power that humility has when we refrain from insisting on taking the stage to be seen by others? In lieu of agonizing over the favor of man, we can serve the One whose favor matters most. We are wise to sit in the back, observe, and listen, really listen, while pursuing humility.
When I grip my seed bag tightly, convincing myself that it’s all up to me to get the truth into hearts, the results are never positive. I become anxious over the future of publishing, our culture, and our nation. I become worried about what people thought when they heard me speak or when they read what I wrote.
Influence admonishes believers to never fear what others think, to focus on the task the Lord has for us. Motaung and Popkin remind us:
We shouldn’t be wringing our hands, worried about what people think, or obsessing over statistics and where it’s all headed. Instead, our role is simple. We get to be lamps, lit with understanding. We get to step onto our platforms, strategically shine, then leave the multiplying results to God.
Motaung and Popkin are not advocating for believers to jettison their online presence or disconnect from social media. Far from it. They distinguish social media as a capable tool to further the message of the gospel—a gateway into accomplishing the great commission. They encourage you to set aside the desire to pursue self-interest and invite you to examine your hidden motives in platform building as a believer in Christ. You may likely, after reading Influence, reflect a bit more deeply on the impetus for pursuing a platform at all. Because we can never evade the tentacles of social media (although I know a few Luddites who, somehow, have remained unobstructed by the digital snare), we can strategically use our influence to bless others, meet new friends, encourage others, spread hope, and ultimately, glorify God.
One day we will die, and all our social media accounts, websites, and speaking schedules will get swept into the sea. Even before that, it’s entirely possible that one day we’ll wake up and discover that our Twitter account has been hacked, our website has been compromised, our identity has been stolen. With a single crash, we could lose it all. The only grains left will be those with eternal significance—namely, any spiritual impact that our work for the Lord has had on readers and listeners.
Influence is filled with encouraging advice just as it is robust with gentle rebukes, Motaung and Popkin examine how we serve the Lord in our art. They explain personal anecdotes that reveal profound truths in the life of a writer who seeks to serve the Lord in all she does but fights against the urge to look at the numbers in the ranks of book sales, followers, and other likes. Read Influence and supplement it with Unseen by Sara Hagerty.