There’s good reason for the church to be wary of social media influencers—particularly those who speak to spiritual matters. We aren’t wrong to be disconcerted at the idea of Christians being led by online personalities who might be more charismatic than theologically sound or more creative than credible, especially when the influencers are disconnected from church discipleship and discipline themselves. Algorithms, monetization, and viral moments create endless temptations and adverse incentives that can seduce even well-meaning creators into serving themselves and the worst elements of pop culture.

Yet I’m also persuaded it’s possible for Christians to speak faithfully in that tension, and that we do ourselves no favors by running away from the reality of social media’s influence.

I was reminded of this while attending this month’s Black Christian Influencers (BCI) Conference, where founder Jackie Horbrook succeeded in curating an atmosphere that was both aesthetically dope and substantively gospel-centered. Christian creators in fields as varied as theology, activism, and fashion came together to discuss how to use their platforms to glorify God—and how to navigate the risks that come with staying on the cutting edge of culture while centering Christ.

Those risks are not as new as they may seem. In John 7, Jesus’ brothers essentially tell him that he’s not maximizing his potential as a pre-digital influencer. He needed to be more outward-facing, they argued, and show off his miraculous works more frequently because “no one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret” (v. 4).

That advice exposed their failure to understand Jesus’ true mission. Even though he’d become a popular public figure, his purpose was much more significant than a few “viral moments.” Jesus wasn’t pursuing influence for its own sake; his message and timing had to align with the Father’s plan of salvation. “My teaching is not my own,” he told his amazed audience. “It comes from the one who sent me” (v. 16).

That text should guide Christians who have a social media ministry and influence the lives of thousands or millions of people. We must never be more concerned with growing our platforms than with stewarding our influence faithfully. God has not placed us in this position to flex and revel in the admiration. Christian influence comes with a cross. Its purpose is far more about self-sacrifice than self-indulgence.

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Or it should be, anyway. The design of the medium will always make that model of faithfulness counterintuitive. Successful influencers are proficient at protecting their platform and knowing what their audience wants, which puts them in constant danger of audience capture. This happens when we pander to our audiences, giving them only what they expect to see and want to hear in clever ways—following their lead maybe even more than they follow ours.

A faithful ministry cannot do this. We must tell the truth to our audience instead of tickling their ears (2 Tim. 4:3).

This may well be bad for business. Piling on an opponent will always get more likes than in-group critique. The conservative crowd wants to hear about how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are ruining America, and the social justice crowd wants an endless review of white evangelism’s misdeeds. Neither wants to hear about how they themselves fall short of gospel compassion or truth.

But if our public witness is dictated by digital rewards, we’re far from Christlike. A chapter before his brothers’ confused advice, as his ministry was drawing large crowds, Jesus did what would be unthinkable to some influencers: He gave the crowd a hard teaching that caused many of his followers to desert him (John 6:53–66). The purpose of his ministry was never to pacify or flatter his audience by affirming all their self-perceptions and preconceived notions. He was there to edify them and bring them to the cross. Likewise, an influencer unwilling to lose followers for the sake of truth cannot engage faithfully.

Many influencers will also face a temptation to imitate and endorse popular culture. For those engaged in social justice and action, too often our theology can become flimsy and ambiguous. Messages about the Christian sexual ethic and the sanctity of life start to disappear from our platforms. We don’t want to lose secular political allies, offend the custodians of culture, or go viral for having “regressive” views. I myself remember hesitating to critique the Black Lives Matter organization’s alternative to the traditional family ethic. I supported the racial justice message in principle, but I knew many of my peers would construe any disagreement as disloyalty.

Too few of us have the boldness to engage secular activists and academics while upholding the authority of Scripture. We are too busy trying to fit in. Some of us are just happy to be invited to the table and to be associated with this person or that institution. But we do not deserve to wield influence in the church while being simps and sycophants to the secular world.

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That description is neither hyperbolic nor hypothetical. I’ve seen Christian influencers scrub their platforms of content they’d produced with saints like Jackie Hill Perry after being called out for nothing other than the “offense” of sharing a screen with Perry while she spoke the gospel truth. They look more like Simon the Sorcerer than Jesus—using the church to further their careers at the expense of the gospel (Acts 8:9–25).

A Christian influencer, to be worthy of the name, must be a teacher with a cross. We must use our talents and recognition to lead people toward Christ, not ourselves.

This is a high standard, but it is a standard Christians can and do meet, as I saw firsthand at the BCI Conference. From comedian Matthew Hudson spreading the gospel through satire to Ekemini Uwan loving her neighbors through advocacy, Christian influencers are using social media in furtherance of the Great Commission. This is a new medium for the church—and for church accountability—but it is an opportunity to follow Jesus in pointing those amazed by our teaching to God.

Justin Giboney is an ordained minister, attorney, and the president of the AND Campaign, a Christian civic organization. He’s the coauthor of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.

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