In his book Playing God, Andy Crouch writes of an incident with a well-known megachurch pastor. In the pastor’s study, Andy quizzed the leader about how he managed his power. “We are all servant leaders here!” he said. “We don’t care about power.” Then the two left and walked into an office space where church staff members were busy working. When the pastor entered the room, the staff immediately sat up straighter and acted busy—a visible sign that the pastor had power he didn’t want to admit he possessed.
This a fitting anecdote for the age in which we live, the era of the #humblebrag—the golden age of servant leadership, where leaders at all levels of society want to be known for their humility. This is a tension that doesn’t exist only for people in public vocations, but for influencers across the spectrum.
Because work is a gift of God that impacts humanity, every Christian has a sphere of influence. Influence is unavoidable.
Social media has democratized authority in numerous ways, deregulating influence in a manner that enables not just power brokers but people in many kinds of positions. We’re all public figures now. All possessors of influence. This is why it is important for Christians to pause and think deeply about how we’re presenting ourselves to the world.
Look at Me
The evangelical world has lately been wrestling with controversies over celebrity, power, and influence. Many people are asking good questions about the impact of megastars on the church. But what many of these discussions miss is the inevitability of influence.
For some called to public vocations, such as writing, speaking, or performing, this conversation is especially prescient. Inherent in the creative arts, there is an assumption of an audience. We want to be discovered, to have the world read our work, hear our speech, or consume our art. As I’m writing this article today in a downtown Nashville coffee shop, I’m writing with the hope that more eyeballs than my own will see it. I’m writing because I think I have something worth reading. The moment any of us press send or publish, we are saying, “What I have just created is worth someone’s time.”
You might be tempted to think it’s only creative or public vocations that must wrestle with such things, but this isn’t true. Because work is a gift of God that impacts humanity, every Christian has a sphere of influence. Consider your family, your immediate circle of friends, work colleagues, or your church. And in this interconnected age, anyone with a smartphone and a social media profile has a platform.
Influence is unavoidable.
Our Source of Power
We’re rightly suspect of power, especially in a fallen world. In recent years, many of our major institutions have failed us. Armed with a growing sense of cynicism about leadership and the tools of our media age, we’re wary of acknowledging our own influence or accepting others’. But we must be wary of adopting an impoverished view of power.
The Christian story reminds us that we have the responsibility to leverage power for the flourishing of our fellow humans and the stewardship of creation. Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 present a world breathed into existence by a Creator—and a human race sculpted by His hands, made in His image. We most resemble God when we assume power over creation to cultivate His raw materials and share them to help the human race thrive. This whole arrangement, God declares, is very good.
The cultural mandate here assumes power, a kind not given to the plant life, the animal kingdom, or even the angelic realm. A power reassigned from God to humans. Crouch writes, “Why is power a gift? Because power is for flourishing. When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be.”
Of course, it can be corrupted. Adam and Eve’s sin was a failed attempt at assuming more power than the Creator intended. And since then, man has often used his God-given endowment to kill, exploit, and hoard instead of create, cultivate, and multiply. It took only one generation for a man to use his power against his brother through violence. But the right application of power is not to abdicate it altogether or to pretend that influence doesn’t exist, but (through redemption in Christ) to use our gifts for the good of our neighbor and to the glory of God.
A properly exercised position of influence can lead many toward their Creator. Consider the reluctant influence of Moses, who had to be coaxed into a position of authority. Think about Jeremiah, the hiding and weeping prophet who was used by God, not to amass a large following but to be His voice to a disobedient nation. Then there is the apostle Paul, who urged his followers to “be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Embracing the Tension
So Christians must embrace the tension of humility and influence. We’re heralds of a message that must be heard and stewards of gifts that must be exercised. Yet we are servants of Christ. We live not for our own indulgence but for the glory of God. To hoard glory, seek after fame, and make our work about ourselves violates why we were created in the first place. It’s also not the path to true joy.
We’ve all seen the corrosive effects of corrupted power, a grasping at god-like status that began with one serpent’s seductive whisper. This occurs when power is our object of worship instead of the means by which we worship our Creator. Says Tony Reinke:
The aim to become famous is a pitifully pathetic god. Fame will never satisfy your heart. It may give you a buzz for a while, but those who try to feed on the buzz of fame are in for the harsh reality that fame only feeds unquenchable desires for more fame, eventually filling the heart with dread and anxiety of the coming day when the fame has passed.
C. S. Lewis, in his book The Allegory of Love, says, “The descent to hell is easy, and those who begin by worshipping power soon worship evil.” So how do we know when influence has become all-consuming instead of being properly used for glorifying God and loving our neighbors?
Wherever we are, our first question shouldn’t be “How can I accumulate more power?” but “What would I do with more power if I had it?”
We can use simple diagnostic questions. Those in more public callings might ask: Has fame or platform become my all-consuming idol, or am I willing to allow the Spirit to empower my gifts for the benefit of others? Those in less visible vocations might ask different questions: Do I work to earn the praise of those around me? Am I in this only to earn a paycheck and advance my career, or do I seek to genuinely serve those around me?
This honest dialogue with ourselves begins with a commitment of love and humility. Love, Paul reminds us, is the motivation for all spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 13). Bereft of love, we have nothing. It frightens me sometimes to think that I could gain the entire evangelical world and lose my own soul—that all my accomplishments could be refuse because of a lack of love. So when power tempts us, the solution is not to become sheepish about the work of our hands and hide the gifts God has given. Neither is it to pursue fame and fortune. Instead, it is to steward our gifts, opportunities, and resources, and to hold loosely the life we have. We do this by realizing fame and fortune are lesser pleasures than that of knowing Christ.
Power can be a lethal weapon that, used improperly, can crush those it was meant to serve. Used well, it can lead to human flourishing. Wherever we are, our first question shouldn’t be “How can I accumulate more power?” but “What would I do with more power if I had it?” Few Christians are prepared for the sudden gift of new influence. Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson and popular author and blogger, says this:
For more than 30 years, I have worked in the publishing field with Christian leaders, authors, and other creatives. During this time, I have witnessed the corrosive effects of fame. Very few have been able to handle the temptations that come with increased influence. I have seen leaders get prideful, greedy, and demanding. Sadly, it has increasingly become the norm in a world that values charisma above character.
We should embrace influence as a good gift from God and steward it wisely. Love and humility, flowing from our identity in Christ, will help us redeem that influence and leverage it for the service of others and the glory of God. Few of us will be truly famous, and few will have a kind of platform that attracts thousands. But all of us, regardless of where we stand, have someone looking at and learning from our life.
Love and humility are necessary guardrails that aid us in several ways:
• First, they remind us how our creative gifts were given not for self-gratification but for the good of others. We should constantly ask, How can I serve my neighbor with my calling, my gifts, my influence?
• Second, these virtues keep us ever learning and growing, repenting and forgiving—at ease with our God-given roles and yet close enough to the ground to understand our frailty.
• Third, love and humility keep us grateful and help us recognize the source of our giftedness. Gratitude is the antidote for entitlement.
• Fourth, these qualities imply the importance of accountability. They keep us tethered to the spiritual disciplines as a governor on ambition and encourage a greater disconnection from worldly values.
• Fifth, love and humility push us toward mentoring relationships that serve as a humble check on power and a way to disseminate our blessings to the next generation—a tacit admission that one day our time will pass and others will pick up the torch.
Illustration by Kikuo Johnson