Recently on social media I slammed what I called “personal branding” and included a screen shot of a piece of a text conversation in which I not only said that all the personal branding out in the social media world made me want to puke (it does) but so did the “people of the brand.” The latter was pretty stupid since I made no attempt to define what I meant by personal branding or to identify whom I meant by the people of the brand. In one broad sweep, I inadvertently threw the whole Christian publishing world under the bus and, this, after working with teams of godly people in publishing who were not remotely on my mind. Forgive me for that.
The slam was toward what I see as a deadly viral infiltration within a much larger force that, for lack of a better label, we often call the industry. This term, too, is unfairly broad-sweeping because there are individuals working within it with godly character, motives and practices. Good Lord, I want to be one of them and clamor and struggle and fight to be among them. Sometimes I win the fight for my soul and other times I don’t. But the tweet started a conversation online that went on for days and made it obvious to Karen Swallow Prior (who also published an article today) and me that a nerve had been hit. We watched dialogues ensue between many women out there who are frustrated, trying to do what it takes to build a platform and yet avoid getting sucked into the maelstrom.
This post is to give a little more space than Twitter can offer to the subject. I’ll try to be as straightforward as I know how in what I meant by personal branding and should have made clearer at the time: Self-sales.
By the people of the brand I meant those who do it ad nauseam and those who train, coax, pressure or help people to. I’m not talking about selling books. I’m talking about selling ourselves, though let’s admit the two can be about as easy to separate as the peanut butter and jelly in your sandwich. Selling our souls doesn’t always involve money. I could sell my soul just for the power of having a blog that attracts hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s about notoriety, an understandable and legitimate goal out in the world market. But we are Jesus followers.
We’re attempting to sell ourselves in the name of Jesus. We’re being tutored in the post-Christian modern art of self-glory for God’s glory.
We’re intentionally building up followers and followings for ourselves and excusing it and confusing it with building up the church. I know, I know. We’ve all heard this a thousand times.
“None of us like it,” we’ll reason. “But this is the world we live in. This is how it is now. We didn’t come up with it but we have to accept it. It’s a (here goes) necessary evil.”
The thing is, “necessary evil” is still evil. I don’t think that excuse is flying with Jesus. For Jesus-followers, “necessary evil” is an oxymoron.
If we don’t push back against this mudslide, the church will become the Tower of Babel with a cross on top: an assemblage of people who’ve been successfully seduced into thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to hammer daily in the public sphere building up a name for ourselves in Jesus’ Name.
We’re trying to become godly versions of 2 Timothy 3:2-4.
2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.
We’re out there in front of the world trying to be godly lovers of self, godly lovers of money, godly proud and arrogant, godly slanderous, godly brutal, godly treacherous, and godly conceited and godly about how we love pleasure more than we love God.
We’re fighting a losing battle at the cost of our souls. There is no godly way to self-promote. Yet God’s way of spreading the hope, truth and life of Christ is still through people and, yes, in part by making use of their personalities. Sometimes it’s a fine line and it’s up to each of us to learn how to identify when we’re crossing it. We’re people of the Spirit. If we yearn for Him to, plead for Him to, He will be more than happy to cause us to gross ourselves out when we’re doing it. I ask for it just like that. In those words. Ask to know quickly. Ask to know before you post or even seconds after it. Maybe one of the godliest features in all of social media is “delete.” Also trust your gut when you know you’re being advised to do something in order to build a following or sell a book that feels gross.
What troubles me most is that I believe many individuals start with a pure heart and God-infused desire. We deeply want to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ and testify to His greatness, His goodness, His grace, His cross, His forgiveness, cleansing, healing and love. All these avenues – books, blogs, podcasts, live broadcasts, social media posts and so on – offer tremendous means of communicating the gospel and, with diligence, some actual discipleship. But I’ve been neck-deep in this now for well over 30 years. I’ve lived long enough, experienced enough, witnessed enough and heard enough to tell you point-blank the devil doesn’t take a potential threat to the darkness lying down. He can’t sleep with a light on so he does everything he can to cover it. If he can’t get us to quit, he’ll settle for making us hypocrites and narcissists and, in the wording of Galatians 3:3, what we started in the Spirit we end up finishing in the flesh.
He’s shockingly patient and scheming because the same approach doesn’t work across the board. He studies us, knowing that all humans by undisciplined-nature are addicts. All he has to do is figure out what kind of crack to put in your pipe and the seduction is on.
The seduction we’re talking about here is being known. Seen. Heard. To be worshipped would be the ultimate but that may be too obvious. The sickest part is that we’re being intoxicated into thinking that all of this is to make Jesus known. Self-promotion becomes justifiable as the means to the end-goal of Jesus-promotion.
It’s not working. It’s never going to work.
And yet this is the world you and I were entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve. I don’t know what you’re going to do with all of this. I’m probably not going to drop off social media any time soon because it’s one of the most effective ways of reaching people that we have ever had at our fingertips. I’m also probably not going to make all my posts blatantly gospel-oriented because, for me, that can become just as showy and smug and, if it’s all I do, I lose access to the very people I hope most to reach. I try to retain some common ground (TV shows, for instance) if I want people on the other side of the street to occasionally come sit in my yard and visit. This may not be your way but it’s mine for now. It’s not without risk but none of this is.
I’m going to keep trying to live a tiny sliver of my life out there on social media in hopes Jesus will be evident in my teaching, relating, writing, dialoguing, mothering, grandmothering, friending, suffering, questioning, laughing and crying. And I’m going to plead with God every morning to help me die to my own rotting flesh and live in His Spirit and not misuse my big mouth. And I’m going to try to sit at this social media bar for a few minutes every day without becoming an alcoholic. If I can’t do it, I’m going to quit. Or at least go into rehab. Because this place is deadly.
I don’t have tidy solutions to offer in this post. What shifts into sin for one person may not be sinful for another. God looks at our hearts. Knows our motives. He’s onto our bull. He alone can call out a well-played humble brag. All I know how to do is repent on my face for my own sins and catch myself in my own self-promotions.
There is a way to do this, I think. It’s just expensive. It just won’t be the money-maker or the power broker going forward that we could acquire if we do the Jesus-thing the world’s way. All who push back will take a pay cut, whatever form of currency their pay may be. The answer will be found in serving God as faithfully and as purely as human hearts and souls know how and let Him build His own following and determine who listens to what voice and when. As the saying goes, let each of us tend to the depth of our ministries and let God tend to the breadth. The fight will be fierce and let me promise you this: should Jesus entrust you with a large platform for a season, you will never be more at risk of compromise and cowardice than when you are at the top tier. You may reach some heights doing the honest-to-God Jesus-thing but the greater temptation will be the attempt to stay on top. What goes up must come down. Fight it and you’ll make a fool of yourself. Stay steady on your feet on the Merry-Go-Round and you just might still be standing when the music quits playing and the amusement park closes.
I want to make it. I want you to, too. I want to get to that finish line keeping my eyes on the One waiting for me there. I want to love Jesus with everything in me and serve Him audaciously and faithfully. I think it’s possible out here. I just don’t think it’s probable. It will only happen for those who are willing to fight their flesh to the death by the power of the Spirit holding tight to His Word.
This is what I know for certain. It would be unspeakably better for us to drop into obscurity than sell our souls. We may have to make the biggest sacrifice in our entire social media culture: we may have to settle for being unknown.
3 We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:3-10
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