The Sins of Self-Promotion

    “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   (Matthew 6:1-4 ESV)

One of the more disheartening things about Facebook, twitter, and the so-called “blogosphere,” is the realization that so much about contemporary evangelicalism is focused on marketing and self-promotion.  As a child, perhaps the most important thing I learned (aside from the incredible truth that “Jesus loves me, this I know”)  was that the Christian life was a life of humility. So much of Jesus’ teachings emphasized this point:

  • Take the lowest seat at the table.
  • Whoever leads must serve.
  • The last will be first, and the first will be last.
  • Pray in your closet, not in public.
  • Do your good deeds in secret.
  • If you do things to be noticed, you’ve received your reward.

All very unpopular teachings today.

 It’s a marketing world

The contemporary evangelical church (I’ll define “evangelical” in an upcoming post, as it really doesn’t mean what they think it means) has adapted to the contemporary culture, which is at its core a marketing culture. Everything in our culture is marketed, from products and services to politics, religion, education and truth. The new word on the street is “branding,” meaning to establish yourself as unique and identifiable. You’ve got to brand yourself because everyone is selling something, even if it’s just themselves. Everyone—whether a business, a personality, or a teenager—needs a facebook page, a blog, and a twitter account to establish yourself and claim your territory.  If you don’t have followers, you are a non-entity. I have fans, therefore I am.

A corresponding assumption in a marketing world is that there are scarce resources, both in what is being marketed as well as the audience being marketed to, giving rise to competition. Those doing the marketing present themselves as offering something that is special and scarce (more scarce than the market), something that you can’t get around the corner or get on your own. The concept is, “We have the best teaching, the best worship, the best pastors, the best Sunday School, and you need us in order to be special.”  Then there are those who offer something new, unique, and out of the ordinary, perhaps a visitation from God or an experience that no one else can offer.  Para-church ministries also market themselves as being special or doing special things that no one else will or can do, so you must support them as opposed to the ministry next door. Often the people who are the focus of the ministry are held out as quasi-hostages with the thought, “if you don’t support my ministry, these people will die or perhaps even go to hell.” Marketing is all about being special, because no one merely wants to be normal or ordinary.

The 2nd part of that assumption is that the market itself is scarce. At the essence of marketing is competition for a target market, because there aren’t enough followers/customers to go around. There are only so many “targets” out there, who have only so much money to contribute. Therefore, the competition’s on to get church members as well as contributor dollars (a church full of needy people can’t support a pastor).  Churches need to convince members to give 1st to the local church, then the crumbs can go to missions, etc. Para-church organizations, then, are left vying for the crumbs. This “scarcity” mentality, obviously, is not consistent with a belief in a God who provides, who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50). Furthermore, this thinking attempts to relocate the “faith burden” from the church/ministry leaders onto the members/contributors, who are told to trust God and give as a sign of that trust. The concept of scarcity is essentially anti-faith.

It’s all about me

Because I think about a lot of things and enjoy writing about them, I write this blog, as well as one business-related blog (which I have more or less suspended), and one related to my book (which is, yes, an attempt at cheap marketing). Because I blog, I have read a lot of articles on “how to blog,” etc.  All such articles focus on how to be special, and how to keep readers coming back and remaining involved. The same kind of thinking appears in any article about being involved in social media. Again, it’s all about branding (establishing yourself as “special”).  I tend to break all of those rules (because I’m simply not good enough to keep them), so I’ll never become rich by selling ad space or selling millions of copies of my book.

The more I read about what I should be doing in order to grow my blog and develop my personal brand, I began to see a trend: most of the folks writing this stuff are mainly writing to promote themselves. They really have nothing new to offer, and so far no one has been able to tell me exactly why I need to “tweet” in the first place. Twitter is mainly about self-promotion, and so is LinkedIn.  Twitter does not exist for you, it exists for Twitter. Every week I get emails from Twitter telling me I haven’t tweeted lately, or here’s someone new I should follow.  Seriously, why should they care?  Besides, most of what is being tweeted is not geared toward helping you, the reader.  It’s all self-promotion, about not forgetting that the tweeter still exists.

And as a target/consumer, I find myself thinking, why should I help you? Why should invest my time to read your crap?  If you’re really going to share something with me, fine. But don’t waste my time with self-promotion.

“Christian” self-promotion

One of the most famous moments of Christian self-promotion is told in Mark:

    And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:35-45 ESV)

The story is also told in Matthew 20, but with Mrs. Zebedee leading the way.  Either way, the boys were participating in this attempt at self-promotion, and the other 10 disciples were “indignant.”  My guess is that they were upset they hadn’t asked first.  Here is perhaps the first instance of Christian self-promotion, asking Jesus to be great in the Kingdom. Jesus’ comments are quite direct, yet still, how many of us still ask Jesus to be promoted, to the exclusion of others?  I have to give them credit for one thing, however: Rather than trying to pass themselves off as something special, they were at least honest about their desire, and went straight to Jesus with their request. For many of us (I include myself, not being immune to temptation), this would be a positive step.

 The “Self” in self-promotion

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the focus in self-promotion is “self.” That’s the point. It’s about promoting my church, my ministry, my needs, me.

What’s wrong with this picture?

From a marketing standpoint, nothing. From a Christian standpoint (“Christian” meaning that which is a Biblical, New Testament teaching), there’s not much right about it. Consider Paul’s comments to the Philippians:

    Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.    (Philippians 2:3-8 ESV)

But how can you become an in-demand conference speaker if you don’t promote yourself?  How can you become a worship star, or have a successful TV ministry? How can you attract thousands of people to your church, or become a best-selling author?

How, indeed.

Is all self-promotion bad?

By now, you’re probably asking, “Is all self-promotion bad?”  The answer, of course, is “no.” For example, I follow several folk musicians on Facebook just so they can tell me when they have new music coming out or when they may be playing near me. If they didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know. I also “like” a few Christian ministries because I like and care about what they are doing. Their “promotion” is focused on what they like to give away, not to build themselves up. Generally speaking, this type of self-promotion is done from a place of humility; as such, these folks present themselves, rather than attempt to raise themselves up.  In a world dominated by self-aggrandizing, it’s often humility that stands out.

Sometimes I think I’m not as successful as I could be because I am really bad at self-promotion. While a part of me would really like to be well-known and respected, I believe this is contrary to the ideal life of the Christian as taught in the New Testament, as well as contrary to my personality.Whenever I’ve tried self-promotion, I think I come across as a jerk. So for me, humility is not so much spiritual as it is safe.

It’s quite easy to adopt the marketing mentality of the culture and want to start competing for market share and notoriety. It’s natural to want to see your name in lights or your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone (to quote an old song).

It’s something else entirely to occupy the lowest seat and be asked by your host to move up to a place of higher honor.

 Seek Ye First

Matthew chapter 6 is a killer chapter. In a good way, that is. It starts out with Jesus saying, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people…” He teaches the Lord’s Prayer, talks about laying up treasure in Heaven, he considers the lilies of the field, and in v. 33 says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  When I was a teenager, this was one verse that we all knew, and we sang that little chorus over, and over, and over…  But we knew that verse.

It seems to me (and I’m talking to myself here) that if we took this seriously, we could avoid all of that striving and self-aggrandizing self-promotion. Maybe we’re so preoccupied with trying to figure out complicated theologies and business plans that we have forgotten to simply believe the simple truths.

We need to forget about seeking followers and fans, and just focus on learning how to be followers ourselves. And no, I’m not going to tweet that. #notweets




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