Why We Need People with Platforms

Celebrity culture can be toxic, but you appreciate well-known Christians more than you realize. Also, a new announcement about your subscription.

In a large convention hall, filled row after row with folding chairs and people filling every possible space, a popular preacher approached a platform, opened his Bible, and preached.

That man was Billy Graham. It was 1971 in Chicago and McCormick Place. And somewhere in that mass of people were a young man about to become to go to a trade school and his mother. Their family was broken, patched together by a mother who worked multiple jobs and a step-father who was a mailman who sometimes brought the check home and sometimes spent it at the racetrack. They came to see Billy Graham because they first saw him on television. And that night they worked their way out of their seats, walked down the long aisle, and came forward to acknowledge their newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

That young man was my father. His family had no church-going history, only faint traces of a long-ago abandoned civil religion. But this moment changed the trajectory of one family. Today, we are going on three generations of Christians, not perfect, flawed, and sometimes dysfunctional, but who believe that the man from Nazareth whose name is Jesus, rose from the dead and is our Savior and Lord.

The Holy Spirit could have used any means to deliver the gospel message to my father. But I’m glad Billy Graham, the preacher from North Carolina, had a big enough platform that a previously disinterested family saw him on TV and went to hear him preach in a big convention hall in Chicago. I think about this every time I read another well-meaning, but anguished lament at what some call the “celebrity culture” of evangelicalism.

To be sure, there is a problem. We often reward people for their gifting instead of their character, disobeying the Bible’s clear teaching to avoid putting up a “novice” in a position of authority (1 Timothy 3:8). We too often think the trait “ability to teach” cancels out the other necessary temperaments like “gentleness” and “kindness” and “self-control.” And way too often we think because someone can wow a crowd they can lead a team.

However, something is mystifying about the demonization of platforms. First, I find it ironic that quite often the critiques come from people who themselves have someone significant reach and are often published in mediums designed to go consumed and go viral. If a book on celebrity culture reaches The New York Times bestseller list does that subject the author to the same level of toxic fame that is critiqued in the book? If a podcast on “the problem of platform-building” goes viral, do the hosts need to repent? Maybe the only worthy critique of Christian celebrity should be given by lay church members who have no bylines and are doing the ordinary work of serving others!

But more importantly, I don’t know that we are thinking very deeply about this idea of platform. Sure, there is a kind of all-out pursuit of fame that is toxic, prideful, and sinful. Today there are perverse incentives to become a thing by being the most strident voice, by outrage, by victimhood as an easy way to become popular. And there can be a kind of hero-worship that reflects the sinful tribalism of 1 Corinthians 1.

Yet, a public platform itself—an audience that readily listens, reads, or consumes content created by gifted Christians—isn’t wrong. And I think everyone knows that. Think of the people who have influenced your life in a big way, whose work you admire. Somehow their words found their way to you, like Billy Graham’s preaching found its way to my father.

I think of the way the writing of Phillip Yancey critically shaped me in my younger years or the sermons I heard on Moody Radio by Chuck Swindoll or David Jeremiah while driving in my car to work while in college. I’m glad Yancey had a platform big enough so that I somehow discovered his work. I’m glad Swindoll and Jeremiah had ministries that were national enough to reach me on the radio.

I think of the work of people like JI Packer and John Stott and Tim Keller and DA Carson, how their work shaped my theology. I’m glad publishers decided to publish them and conferences asked them to speak and websites hosted their articles. This stuff changed my life.

And let’s go further back. Have you been shaped by C.S. Lewis or Charles Spurgeon or Martin Luther King, Jr.? If so, it’s because they had somewhat of a public profile and their words found their way to you. Or let’s go further back. Have you been shaped by Augustine? Calvin? The church fathers? They had platforms. They had big voices. So big that their words have rocketed through the centuries and we still read them today.

I actually am glad for the mechanisms that publish, produce, and broadcast good gospel teaching around the world. I’m grateful for organizations that publish gospel-rich content. I’m grateful for gifted authors. I’m grateful for speakers who manage to have an audience beyond their local church.

So can we appreciate the lifting up of gifted, godly voices while also being concerned about a kind of vain and shallow seeking of glory? Can we distinguish between heeding the calling to write or speak or preach while also resisting the faithless pursuit of fame for fame’s sake? It seems Paul’s instructions for us are helpful: “I know how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot (Philippians 4:12). Paul was content speaking to small groups and would not shy away from preaching to large gatherings.

Those of us who create should embrace this tension. We write or speak or preach because we have a message we believe God has given us. We would like an audience. It would be dishonest for us to act as if we are writing books or preparing sermons or recording podcasts that we hope nobody reads or hears! Of course, we want our message to go far and wide. And yet we can do this while holding the results more loosely, by simply being obedient to our callings and allowing the Lord to expand or contract our public voice. We should create with excellence and do the very best to let others know about it, but at the end of the day, our callings are to be faithful and let God do the work. God may grant us a massive audience or a small niche audience or no audience at all. The question then is not, then, is a platform wrong, but how will we steward our influence to serve the church and lift others? Will we resist the perverse incentives that reward extremism at the expense of excellence? We will be grounded in the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture reading and local church life? We will rest in our smallness before a big God? Will we submit to spiritual accountability?

I’m wary, like many, of the lure of celibrityism, but I’m thankful for those who, faithful to their callings, were used by God to influence my life with their gifts. I’m glad Billy Graham showed up at that packed convention center in 1971.

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photo credit: Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College