We laid there in bed, hand in hand, staring up into darkness, at the ceiling we could not see. The silence of the house perched itself on our headboard. We felt nothing but relief that another day over and done. I imagined all of our responsibilities and duties bobbing above us, like balloons with strings anchored straight down into our souls.
I laid there thinking about my dream of being a published author. All day, every day, I know I am supposed to be writing, writing, writing. But I often don’t, because I am also supposed to be washing the sheets and taxiing the children and scrubbing the toilets and meeting with church members and eating lots of servings of leafy green vegetables. Being a responsible pastor’s wife is a lot.
Also, Morgan works full-time as a pastor while getting his master’s degree. With both of us living out our dreams, things rarely get done around here. I wonder if there is space in our lives for my book. It may not matter. Several agents have turned down my book proposal because I don’t have enough followers on social media or on my blog. I have been instructed to increase my platform. We love your writing, just please be more famous, they tell me.
My understanding of the gospel makes seeking fame as a form of success seem like a trick. If the least is greatest and the last is first, then fame cannot be a healthy Kingdom-focused goal. Even so, being famous has never been easier, thanks to the internet. A few months ago, a ten year-old at our church was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said he wanted to be a YouTube star. His answer made me feel unbelievably old and outdated. Maybe I simply don’t properly grasp this “internet fame” thing.
So, my newest responsibility balloon called “increase platform” is up there bobbing around with all the others. I keep cutting the string and telling it to get lost, and it keeps floating back to me. But the truth is, building a bigger platform makes me cringe.
There in the darkness of our bedroom, I tugged at that balloon again and thought of how last year, a well-known writer with a tremendous platform became a target when she announced her new stance on an important theological issue. The variety of response to her new views did not disappoint the drama-loving audience of the cyberspace world: uproar, debate, support, and outrage were all available in equal quantity. Not long after, another well-known Christian author’s life seemed to come apart at the seams. I’m doing great, though, she insisted. Apparently a failed marriage and a new relationship with a person of questionable character were just what she needed.
A strange cultural soup created by the blogosphere, a lack of women in church leadership, and a shift in what “women’s ministry” ought to be have led to these women’s beliefs and choices being analyzed and tossed about by the perfect strangers who have faithfully read their words for years. Without trusted women leaders in local positions of influence, readers have turned to women outside their actual communities for spiritual guidance. These readers have “trusted” these now-famous women, and many feel betrayed because their heroes are no longer who they seemed to be. But perhaps they always were exactly these “shocking” people they are right now, except their followers simply misunderstood their message all this time. Maybe we don’t always really know or see who is behind the words and images on our favorite blogs and websites.
It’s easy to forget how new the idea of online community is in the world. Internet fame kind of crept up on us, and then it simply was, and we all declared it very, very good. Publishers decided that online followers validate a person as a leader as much as real, actual people followers. Leaders of businesses, ministries, and churches used to be the go-to authors we could all “trust”. Certainly, some of them had character that failed under the pressure, but this online scenario is different even than that. When we elevate a Christian blogger or author based on a successful online presence, we have entrusted our faith to people who often have not earned that kind of trust with actual people we would consider like-minded in regards to our own ideologies. We would never do this in real life, declaring the pastor of a church we have never attended our favorite leader, but somehow it makes sense to do this in the land of virtual ideas.
Traditionally, pastors and church leaders work their way up through a system of church leadership, being trained and educated, assessed and mentored in their ability to lead people. Ministry leaders start an organization, building bit by bit and gaining influence in direct proportion to their ability to carry the weight of the labor and the people involved in that labor. These leaders slowly gain the trust of a few people, and then as they demonstrate their ability to lead a few, more come. These are real platforms with solid foundations based on actual relationships, and yet even then, the results are spotty and abuses of power occur.
Internet fame is based on perceived admiration. Well-built websites and well-crafted posts don’t mean the writer is as solid in their theology and character as they may seem to be. But we can’t wait to share their words and we call them our “spirit animal” and we buy their products and books. The phrase intellectual mania comes to mind when I think of how quickly we throw ourselves into the fan base of online writers we have never met.
If we find out they are not who we thought they were, our wounded hearts find a new way to wear our post-modern cynicism and mistrust of leadership. This is an unfortunate and all-too-common narrative.
The hard work of building safe and stable community and influence one faithful day at a time is archaic, and yet, it works.
Seven years ago, my husband and I began pastoring a congregation of beautiful people who had endured some challenging leadership in their past. Facing a dismal financial situation and a massive exodus of people, trust was something that did not come easily in our community. The loyal, tender hearts of our church wanted so much to be led well, though, and so together we all hooked our hearts on our ever-trustworthy Savior, Jesus. Along with a group of elders and deacons, we have led with open hands, repentant hearts, and have watched the love of God reignite the fire of our love for others when selfish ambition has threatened to snuff out our devotion to Christ. As a multi-racial, multi-generational congregation, we have survived difficult elections and mourned the pain of police shootings, seeking to listen well and speak slowly in safe spaces created to build our unity around the gospel, where we can offer compassion and empathy for one another. Our congregation has doubled and tripled and quintupled, resurrected from its near-death experience, and we all marvel at the lengths Jesus has taken so we could be rescued.
Our eternally famous God has earned our trust in ways I cannot adequately express.
I have learned in our church that we are all precious and famous to Jesus: the homeless vet, the stay-at-home parent, the business professional, the immigrant, the professional pastor, the single mom, the former addict, and the children most of all. None of us is internet famous, though. None of us is a celebrity. We are not shocked by one another’s struggles or victories, because we are a real-life, actual community. We aren’t perfect, and we don’t always say the right thing or see everything clearly, but we fight very hard to stay united in our love for God, His people, and the city of Austin, which we hope will come to know Him in dynamic and miraculous ways.
I don’t want to be internet famous, and have strangers assume I am some kind of person I am not. I don’t want to let down a million followers whose expectations of me might not be possible given my actual beliefs. I have it so good here in our church, where I am loved just as I am, flawed but earnest in my love for God and the people around me. Every Sunday that I am allowed to sit in our old blue church chairs, hold my husband’s hand, and know that we belong to a community like this is a desperate privilege that only the awesome grace of God could offer me.
I know this is all true as I look up at the balloons bouncing over my head. I also know my devotion to real community may mean I will never publish a book or speak at some highly publicized event. I shrink my influence by cutting the string on the balloon that tells me to grow my platform.
But even as publishing failure smacks me in the face, I know that there are more valuable things to seek than my own perceived admiration and popularity. So I slash the string and I tell the balloon to go find someone else who wants to be famous.
Beyond the walls of our bedroom, out there in the city around us, hundreds and thousands of people are living their lives without a hope beyond this life. Some of them are mostly happy, living the dreams they have built, while others struggle everyday not to rip their worlds apart with their fear and dysfunctional ways of coping with life. Some of them are famous in all kinds of ways. Most are not. God has asked us to be a light to all of them. Jesus didn’t increase His platform on earth by being more strategic with His branding and message. He sent the multitude away and made it hard to follow Him by telling people that in order to enter His Kingdom they must suffer painful loss and sacrifice their treasures.
Jesus didn’t try to be famous. He simply loved us to the very end, and died so that we could live. His humble sacrifice established something better than a platform; it created an everlasting Kingdom. All I really want is to follow Him and make Him famous in whatever way I can.
I thought about all of this while I gazed at the invisible balloons left there, anchored and floating over my head. Then I chose to hold tightly to my favorite balloon and let the rest go, one by one.
“Hey babe?” I whispered.
“I hope we make God proud. I hope He’s glad He made us, and gave us the chance to do this church thing.”
“Me too,” he said.
Then we both fell asleep and that one balloon stayed right where it’s supposed to be.