How to Liberate Ourselves from the Perils of Platform
#AmplifyWomen is a two-month-long series running on CT Women, designed to generate a new conversation about women’s leadership and discipleship. Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere? launched the series and was followed by an interview with a mentorship expert. This week we hear from Sharon Hodde Miller on how sharing your platform with others is an act of stewardship and a model of discipleship.
For my doctoral research, I met with women at evangelical seminaries to hear about their stories, their hopes, and their dreams. The women represented different ages (ranging from 22 to 65), different races, different life stages, and different church experiences. The one thing they had in common was their evangelicalism. As I interviewed each one, I was surprised by one common theme: the guilt.
Over and over, I heard from women who agonized over their decision to enroll in seminary: Can I justify the huge financial risk? Will I be able to find a job afterward? Is this a self-serving decision? Because of these looming questions, the women cataloged their motives relentlessly. While some women doubted the purity of their ambitions, one woman freely described her education as “selfish,” since she had enrolled in seminary simply “to get closer to [God].” Other women were not so nonchalant; their self-searching had become paralyzing.
What I am discovering, however, is that this female angst is not limited to seminary. It’s also visible in discussions surrounding self-promotion and platform—a term used to describe the size of one’s following or audience, online and elsewhere. As evidenced by recent conversations on social media, scores of women experience similar struggles with guilt as they grapple with the intersection of self-branding and vainglory. Their questions mirror those of women in seminary: Can I justify social media shrewdness for the sake of ministry? Am I growing my platform for the right reasons? Am I promoting myself or Christ?
These women, along with the women I interviewed for my research, are rightly concerned about their motives. In the age of social media, which caters to narcissism and self-commodification, the line between promoting your message and promoting yourself can become blurry. As Beth Moore put it in a post about platform, "We’re intentionally building up followers and followings for ourselves and excusing it and confusing it with building up the church.” In other words, many of us are sacrificing discipleship at the altar of platform.
The peril of platforming self
Like Moore, many wise leaders are sounding the alarm against the pitfalls of platform. In addition to Moore’s post, Ann Voskamp responded with her own, warning: “The greatest venom of fame can be that you start thinking mostly about yourself — to the point of death by self.” Likewise, Christine Caine has regularly cautioned aspiring leaders to examine themselves, lamenting, “People are trying to build their platform more than their character.”
Christianity Today editor-at-large Katelyn Beaty also warns against the effects of branding on our personal lives. “Social media and the pressure of platform are forcing us to see every moment of our day as something to potentially offer up in the name of brand,” Beaty told me. “The pressure of personal branding asks us to put a price tag on our most precious moments, with our families or friends or God.”
These are all sobering words, and young leaders are wise to heed them. And yet, the response to this discussion has not been uniform. Women of color, in particular, often have a different response: there is no guilt, no hand-wringing over “how to use one’s platform.” Helen Lee, director of marketing at InterVarsity Press, explained why: “For many of us women of color, the idea of lamenting the challenges of building a platform was such a disconnect from our realities; it’s a privilege to even be engaging in such a conversation.” Most women of color “don’t even have the option,” she said.
Christina Edmondson, dean of intercultural student development at Calvin College and co-host of the podcast Truth’s Table, had a similar reaction. She admitted the conversation “feels distant from how I think about myself.” Fellow co-host Ekemini Uwan agreed. Like Lee, she considers it a luxury to think about branding. “We are trying to fight for our liberation here, to follow Jesus, do this work, love our neighbors, and love our white brothers and sisters,” says Uwan. “It’s a privilege to have the time to strategize on platform.” Their podcast was birthed out of this very sense of urgency. For Edmondson and Uwan, the podcast is not a device to elevate their platform but rather an evangelistic tool.
In short, the discussion of platform exposes more than our sinful ambitions. It also exposes a broken system that rewards and perpetuates a specific kind of woman while marginalizing another. This marginalization is antithetical to the way of Christ, but if we pay attention, it points to a better way forward.
The power of platforming others
At the conclusion of my research, I combed through interviews to understand why some women agonized over their motives while others did not. While I couldn’t draw any hard conclusions, I did discover a correlation: The women who engaged in less self-scrutiny were able to articulate a “felt need.” That is to say, they were in seminary because they felt needed as leaders, teachers, and equipped disciplers. They identified gaps in the church or in women’s ministry, felt their unique gifts and callings might help to fill those gaps, and moved forward with a sense of urgency for the Body of Christ. These action-driven women seemed less entangled by self-doubt.
This finding, along with the testimony of women of color, suggests two ways to resist the temptation of platform. The first is counterintuitive: The way to liberate women from a self-centered view of their gifts is to preach a more robust vision of women’s gifts in the church. When excessive self-examination becomes another form of narcissism, women need more than a warning about platform; they also need a biblical notion of their gifts and strengths. In short, they need to know that they are needed. In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul reminds believers that our gifts are given “for the common good,” which means it is faithful, not selfish, to steward our gifts. It is what God expects us to do. There is no virtue in angst if we never get on with the work, so we must instill in women this sense of corporate need.
The second way to resist the self-centered pull is to, in Edmondson’s words, see platform as a kind of “currency” and “extend our platform and use our platform to lift up others.” For those whose platforms are small, the idea of “platforming others” might seem like too much of a sacrifice, but in these instances the parable of the Widow’s Mite seems especially relevant. Whatever the size of our influence, we must give it to God and others as if it were abundant rather than scarce. Platforming others is an act of stewardship, but it’s also a model of discipleship. How we use our influence (even modest influence) sets an example for ministry, which is one of the reasons I began featuring 20-something writers on my own blog this year.
Platforming others—particularly those without platforms—also helps to effect change. Author and co-founder of the Influence Network, Hayley Morgan, has an Instagram following of over 28,000, but she recently reevaluated her social media presence after she noticed “everyone is starting to sound and look the same.” Morgan worries this uniformity can “become a burden for the girl in the pew at the local church live up to,” but it also has the effect of excluding women who are different. By platforming others, we swim against the current and encourage others to do the same.
For those of us who speak, write, blog, or influence in any form, we have a choice to make. The gravitational pull of platform is self-ward: Whether it’s brazen self-promotion or the narcissistic paralysis of self-analysis, the end result is roughly the same. Unless we actively resist this pull by submitting our platforms to the first and second greatest commands—love God and love others—we will slide back toward self-orientation. Resisting that urge requires more than a silent resolve to make our platform about God and others; it requires action. We must use whatever influence we have, big or small, to elevate others, just as Christ elevated us.
Of course, soul-searching has its place. Both Edmondson and Uwan affirm the value of praying and acknowledging that platforms are, “by nature, glory thieves.” But if the mere presence of sin invalidates the calling, then none of us could go. We are, each and every one of us, called by God in spite of ourselves. As Christ’s followers, we have already been commissioned and sent— to make disciples, build up the church, preach good news to the poor, and testify to the in-breaking kingdom of God.
Sharon Hodde Miller is an author, PhD, pastor’s wife, and mom of two. She blogs at sheworships.com, and her first book releases in October 2017.