Pastors and ministry leaders are constantly under pressure to “build a platform” for themselves. Granted, within the life of the local church, we typically don’t refer to this trend in such self-promoting terms. We instead speak in terms of increasing our ministry influence, having an online presence, and reaching new people in new ways.
None of these Christianese code words are bad in and of themselves. Indeed, anytime the gospel gains a greater influence upon culture, we should celebrate as Paul did in Philippians 1:18: “In every way…Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Still, as we consider the current landscape of prosperity theology and the blossoming “celebrity pastor” trend, it is clear that our world is not entirely different from the culture in which Paul wrote to the Philippians. There are many who proclaim Christ in truth. Many others proclaim him out of pretense and selfish ambition.
Christians, how can we be vigilant to guard against selfish ambition in our lives and ministries? How can we be sure that the priority of our platform is to champion the gospel, not ourselves? A comprehensive solution to the issue of self-promotion within the church is beyond the scope of this article. That being said, our answer to a single question goes a long way to illumine the true motivation which drives our platforms.
“Is this platform worth my life?”
A Perspective from Church History
Platforms are not a new concept within the church. On the contrary, Scripture records that prominent church leaders built platforms of influence only a short time after the ascension of Jesus. By the time of Acts 5:15, Peter’s reputation as a leader of the church warranted the people of Jerusalem to bring the sick into the streets so that “at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” Similarly, we can assume that the platform Paul developed through church planting enabled his writings to be regarded with authority throughout the churches of the first century.
That the Bible overwhelmingly affirms the leadership of both Peter and Paul illustrates that God does not view platforms as evil in and of themselves. At the same time, when we consider the ways in which both men were persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured on account of their platforms, we cannot conclude that God gives a Christian a platform primarily for his or her personal benefit. Instead, God gives platforms to Christians for the explicit purpose of spreading the gospel message, even if (or especially if) doing so brings about a personal loss on account of Christ.
Church history reveals that such a trend continued even after the death of the apostles. In his excellent book The Story of Christianity, Volume I, Justo Gonzalez describes the unique culture of persecution with which the Roman Empire engaged the church throughout the second century. Though it was illegal to be a Christian during those days, the Romans made no efforts to seek out or exterminate Christians on a large scale. Only when a person was formally accused of being a Christian would he or she be brought to stand trial in a Roman court. Even then, if the accused recanted and worshiped the image of the emperor, he or she would be pardoned and immediately released. These cultural realities meant that only Christians with some sort of platform incurred any risk of being imprisoned or executed on account of their beliefs, and even then only if they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their cause. A Christian would have never built a platform or developed a following as a means of self-promotion or self-preservation.
Reclaiming a Historical View of Platforms
In antiquity, the more a Christian was able to “fly under the radar,” the more likely he or she was to avoid persecution. In a very real sense, platform-building in the age of the early church welcomed the very real possibility of torture and death. Christians who became prominent to any degree were convinced that their work was more valuable than their lives.
Our twenty-first century perspective on platform building is entirely different than that of ancient Christians. A platform and a “personal brand” do more than expand the influence of one’s ministry. They also open doors for self-promotion and self-preservation, ranging from the affirmation of “shares” and “retweets” to the financial compensation of a book contract. We should be thankful that our ministries do not presently expose us to the same sort of persecution experienced by the early church. We should also be wary that it has never before been easier to blur the lines between God’s Kingdom and our own.
Whether you are a mommy-blogger building a larger presence on social media, a pastor seeking to replicate yourself via satellite streaming, a youth leader wishing to draw large crowds through games and events, or an author desiring to land a book contract, it’s worth asking the question, “Is my platform worth my life?” If your platform represents the way in which God has uniquely called and gifted you to take the gospel to the nations, then no cost is too great to engage in your work. We serve a God who desires that all people come to know his truth (1 Timothy 2:4); prudence would have you leverage your calling to reach as many people as possible for Christ.
If, however, your platform is primarily about self-promotion under the guise of gospel ministry, beware that “success” in your personal ministry does not come at the cost of your faithfulness to Christ. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Those who are guaranteed to partake in Christ’s resurrection will not be spared from carrying his cross. May our platforms enable us to die to ourselves and live for Christ, rather than provide us with new ways to live for ourselves.