On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 3

I’ve been considering the question of whether or not Christian athletes should use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak about Christian faith.

I’ve indicated that I think they should not do this.  I’ll elaborate on a third consideration here and in a subsequent post turn to some constructive comments about how well-known athletes can embody Christian faithfulness.

It seems to me that this strategy doesn’t consider wisely our current cultural climate. 

It doesn’t take seriously our media-saturated culture of cynicism and its familiarity with well-worn manipulative evangelistic strategies.

Cynicism about evangelical Christians in American public life has as long of a history as does evangelism, going back at least to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Elmer Gantry (1927).

More recently, movies like “Saved” and evangelical characters on TV sitcoms point to a culture tired with evangelicals inappropriately exploiting opportunities to inject canned evangelistic messages.  Our wider culture views American evangelicals as judgmental, manipulative, superficial, and offensive.

And it won’t do to identify this kind of public profile with the persecution of early Christians or the offense of the cross.

Early Christians were persecuted because their alternative lifestyle was perceived as a threat to the imperial economic order.

And the offense of the cross had to do with the gospel’s call to embrace weakness and humility, to worship as lord the One who had disappointed corrupted Jewish messianic expectations.

In contrast to this, contemporary evangelicals have this public image—rightly or wrongly—because of their participation in the culture wars of the last forty years and a history of evangelistic strategies shaped by manipulative salesmanship.

Our culture perceives evangelical behavior as offensive, not the gospel.

We can claim that this is unfair or we might wish to put forward better examples of genuine evangelical Christianity.  At some point, however, we’ve got to reckon with this reality.

Given this cultural context, it may actually be counter-productive for Christian athletes to use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak of Christian faith.

Despite their good intentions, our culture is more apt to identify them as an advocate for one side in the culture war than as a gracious exponent of genuine Christian faith.

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10 responses to “On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 3

  • Dan Jr.

    Tim,

    I’ve been pondering this a bit when it comes to church marketing. Should churches market using billboards, mailers, or advertising of any kind? It seems the premise to marketing as you show in your previous post is to
    “invite consumers to participate in some kind of desirable reality that has little or nothing to do with the actual product being advertised”

    In some sense churches do this unknowingly promising; self-fulfillment, church that doesn’t feel like church, dynamic worship, stuff for the whole family. They also promote sermons with over-the-top or overstatement type titles to attract; “the best sex ever or become an unstoppable force or the secret to knowing God etc. But the collision is with reality. Life is complicated, God is alive but sometimes elusive, relationships aren’t easy etc. This type of communication I think has the opposite effect causing people to question our authenticity.

    All this idea of using our platform makes me wonder why we don’t take our cues from Jesus who consistently hid His own identity even asking some to be hush about it. Why don’t we allow God’s spirit to get the word out on His terms about our grace-filled lives and communities?

    • timgombis

      You raise some great points, Dan, including some that have bothered me in this whole discussion.

      Life is complicated and complex, and so is the Christian faith, and so are the ways that Christian faith re-configures life. Because of this, simplistic statements of Christian faith in “sound-byte situations” seems seriously inappropriate and almost always comes off wrongly.

      And as far as Mark’s “messianic secret” contributing to this discussion, there’s probably loads of payoff there. May have to think about that a bit.

      But the whole notion of churches marketing themselves at all seems to completely misunderstand the kind of communities that churches are. Think about it — to what extent do families market themselves? Why would they? If the NT mostly uses the family to speak of the church, why do we think of the church almost exclusively in terms of businesses?

  • John Thomson

    Tim

    Much of your reservation I share. In a debate on this kind of issue I would be much more on your side than the other. However, I’ll play devil’s advocate a little.

    I’ll start by saying to some extent my slight questioning is probably occasioned by the Atlantic. You’ll know if this is right more than I. As I perceive it, the States are much more likely to be outspoken and evangelistic as Christians in the public sphere than we are in the UK, especially perhaps Scotland. We probably need to be encouraged to be more vocal and forthright.

    I would say that if being a Christian is integral to who you are then this is bound to come out and indeed should. I don’t say the ‘celebrity’ should force it but when it is appropriate and natural should not avoid confessing Christ and giving a reason for the hope within.

    ‘Our culture perceives evangelical behavior as offensive, not the gospel.’ I’m sure that in some ways this is indeed true but I am equally sure there are times when it is not true. Often, I am sure, the real antagonism is not our clumsy ways but the message itself. Anything that is exclusive and denies people the autonomy they so crave is viewed with deep hostility. The person who advocates it is on a hiding to nothing from the word go. A flawless packaging will be castigated because the package itself is unacceptable.

    If we wait until the culture is ready to accept us we will wait forever.

    Having said this, I would not put ‘celebrities’ up in a church pulpit simply because they are celebrities. They need to have developed Christian maturity before they have a voice in church. I am not for marketing through celebrity advertising. Then again we should remember marketing is not evangelism.

    • timgombis

      The cultural contexts do indeed differ, John. In the culture wars in the States evangelicals have felt free to be quite aggressive and have invited equally aggressive responses. The interchange over the last 3-4 decades has poisoned whatever conversation there is over religion and related matters so that evangelical Christians have been left with quite a bad cultural ‘image’–for whatever that’s worth.

      In thinking about Christian public behavior, we simply must take this into account, however fair it may or may not be that such perceptions exist.

      What’s difficult in all of this is that if a person does live holistically, his identity will come out, as you say. In such cases, Christians ought not to shrink back from speaking frankly and honestly. I’m only saying that Christians should not view their fame as a “platform.” If it comes up, speak frankly. But I think there’s much to be said for being wise and perhaps even reserved in a context that is so fraught with tension and conflict.

      And as for the offenses created, when evangelicals are simply clumsy, that’s just being human and faulty. I’m thinking more in terms of American evangelicals being militantly aggressive, judgmental and quite outspoken because of the heat of the culture wars. When we encounter folks who are offended at such behavior, we’ve typically associated that offense with the offense of the gospel. That’s not a good move, to my mind.

  • S Wu

    Tim, I am really encouraged by your posts – both on this issue and others. Please keep writing!

    John, like you, I do not live in the USA, and I realize that Tim is writing in his context in America. Like you, I have been thinking about what Christians should do in the public square. As I search the Scripture, I find myself agreeing with Tim when he said the following in his post.

    “And it won’t do to identify this kind of public profile with the persecution of early Christians or the offense of the cross.

    Early Christians were persecuted because their alternative lifestyle was perceived as a threat to the imperial economic order.

    And the offense of the cross had to do with the gospel’s call to embrace weakness and humility, to worship as lord the One who had disappointed corrupted Jewish messianic expectations.”

    Wherever I go, I find that that people cannot deny a Christian lifestyle that genuinely cares for the poor and disadvantaged. I find that people do see glimpses of the resurrection power of Christ in our cruciform life. I don’t hesitate to proclaim the risen Lord as our King, but every time when I do that I ask myself whether my church community and I myself are committed to that cruciform lifestyle. Unfortunately, as it is, all too often the world (in the affluent West) is cynical about the superficiality of the wider church. The earliest church – for example, Paul himself – was able to speak to kings and rulers, but the earliest Christians were mostly poor and marginalized (socially, economically, politically and religiously – and all these are interconnected, of course). (Check out Bruce Longenecker’s Remembering the Poor regarding the economic profiling of Paul’s churches.) That’s why their testimony was so powerful. I am not suggesting that only the poor can testify to the gospel. I am saying that there is much to learn from the cruciform life of the earliest Christians.

    • timgombis

      Thanks for this, S. I must say that I’ve seen that non-Christians are indeed quite attracted to the gospel when they’ve seen Christian communities living cross-shaped lives, caring for the poor, doing good on small scales in local neighborhoods. Such behavior commends the gospel to others.

      In the States, we’ve had no shortage of public Christians denouncing others while living hypocritical lives. That’s created a poisoned public conversation. Christians quietly doing good is a wonderful antidote that works in the other direction and is far more attractive to those outside the faith than what evangelicals have portrayed to this point.

      I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in the States, that’s the sad state of affairs.

  • John Thomson

    I don’t in principle object to individual Christians being active in the public sphere politically, yet I am not too enthusiastic about it for practical reasons a) too many are good at speaking but not doing b) too many are completely out of their depth c) the sphere itself is shark-infested and it is virtually impossible to be righteous and escape unscathed d) power easily corrupts

    Quiet, low key involvement in doing good is much freer of political baggage, less easily derailed by power and prestige issues, less married to political ideologies, and more concrete in its effects.

    This does not mean of course that christians should not get involved politically however I do think we should be less starry-eyed about what it more often than not manages to achieve.

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