The scene: First-century Capernaum. Jesus’ disciples are proving their fallibility by squabbling while their leader’s back is turned.
The subject: Who among them is the first among equals; who is ‘the greatest’? Not content to simply be part of the greatest itinerant ministry team in history and to have the Son of God in their very midst, they grasp for this further accolade. Though they’re too embarrassed to tell him what they’ve been talking about, Jesus’ legendary response has passed into idiom. But we’ll get to that.
Fast-forward 2,000 years and it seems a new generation of disciples is behaving exactly the same way: building Twitter followers and Facebook likes; balancing book promotion with ‘platform time’ at major festivals; booking up media appearances and making sure everyone knows about them…all for the sake of ‘the gospel’.
Today’s Christian leaders are part of the Platform Generation, quietly competing in that same game of ‘Who is the greatest?’ by building a brand and a reputation that might make Jesus famous, but won’t do their profile any harm either. In the face of dwindling church numbers, many leaders are consciously or otherwise embracing the fame culture – and perhaps there’s an uncomfortable link between the two.
The Platform Generation is quietly competing in a game of ‘Who is the greatest?’ by building a brand and a reputation
The handbook of the profile-building movement is Michael Hyatt’s Platform. Although not specifically intended for pastors, bloggers and other ‘famous’ Christians, the book – written by a Christian and published by faith-based publisher Thomas Nelson – details an almost mechanical method to get noticed in an age of self-promotion.
Many British Christians who fit into one of the categories have demonstrably implemented the strategies listed in Hyatt’s book: the self-titled website; the rhythm of blog posting; the introductory video with a personal message. The method is spreading because it works. Many Christians owe their appearance on a major stage or an improved book deal to Hyatt’s techniques.
‘Which of us is the greatest?’ they all ask.
OPPOSITES AND INVISIBLES
At the other end of ideology, another new book suggests a very different path. Neither author nor publisher is Christian, but it presents a message which, in the age of platform, the Church desperately needs to hear. The author is New Yorker David Zweig and the book is Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion (Penguin). Even the title is like oxygen; a one-line riposte to an aspect of culture that we all know is flawed.
Zweig’s contention is that standing behind the people in our society who take the credit, praise and accolades for their work, there’s a secret army of very differently motivated individuals without whom they would be nothing. Behind the classic album stands the unseen sound engineer. Behind the championship-winning goal scorer lurks the physiotherapist who nursed him back to health. These people are Zweig’s ‘invisibles’ and, as we meet them in his book, it’s hard not to wonder whether they don’t have a healthier perspective on work, life and recognition.
The desire for fame and praise is rife in modern culture, not just inside the Church. Zweig tells the cautionary story of Neal Pollack; a writer who managed to create such hype around himself that no one noticed that his books weren’t all that successful. During the early 2000s, he scored six-figure book deals and had movie and sitcom projects in development, and all the while his writing continued to flop at the bookstore.
He and his publisher had created such a web of hype and self-promotion that for a while he managed to sustain the idea that he was ‘the next big thing’, even when the evidence suggested otherwise. By the end of the decade, the deals had evaporated, the movie hadn’t happened and Pollack found himself in considerable debt. Deeply unhappy, he had learnt the hard way that hype cannot hide a lack of substance forever.
‘I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding was a way to success,’ he told an interviewer in 2013. ‘But it’s not true.’
Invisibles isn't an attempt to deflate the collective ego of the world's self-promoters. Instead, it points to the value of the many people who hold different aspirations. These people are just as successful and often just as powerful and even wealthy as their more famous counterparts. What Zweig discovers is three key characteristics that are present in almost every invisible he met. All three seem like fine – indeed, biblical – traits for a Christian to pursue.
1. AMBIVALENCE TO RECOGNITION
Jim Harding is an airport wayfinder. He’s a man who, if he’s done his job properly, you’ll never even imagine exists. His role within the vast empire of airport design is to create signage and ‘cues’ that lead people almost subconsciously around a vast terminal. Tricks include painting a wall that people are required to head towards a specific and different colour or subtly changing the shapes of information signs to denote a different part of the airport.
The whole point of his work is to prevent journeys becoming confused or interrupted.
There’s no possible way (outside his own niche industry) for members of the public to recognise and commemorate his good work, only his failures (‘Who designed this airport layout? It’s terrible!’).
Harding is a perfect example of the first invisible trait: ambivalence to recognition. He is motivated by his own high standards, not by feedback from the consumers who unknowingly receive his help each time they search for their departure gate.
Harding’s approach is a challenge to anyone, including Christian leaders. To what extent is my writing, preaching and even my behaviour in relationships and on social media driven by internal motivators? Do I write jokes in these articles (they’re often quite hard to spot) because I genuinely think they’re the best way to convey a particular point, or because I want people to think I’m funny? To some extent, I know I’m motivated externally in these things by a desire to be liked and recognised as a person of ‘quality’.
Harding is his own best critic as he knows he has achieved excellence when he hits his own targets. How often do I truly try to please God, rather than people, in my work?
How often do I truly try to please God, rather than people, in my work?
2. DEVOTION TO METICULOUSNESS
The second of Zweig’s invisible traits is all about excellence. Freed from the need to please a ‘public’, the men and women he meets delve deep into their chosen specialisms, becoming experts through the practice of meticulousness. They’re the engineers who triple check before a band goes on stage; the librarians who constantly revise their classifications and filing systems.
Zweig’s key example is David Apel, a perfumer (or ‘nose’ as they’re called in the trade) with a large Park Avenue fragrance company. He follows Apel’s intriguing journey as he attempts to create a bespoke fragrance for the rapper P. Diddy (real name Sean Combs).
Against a backdrop of heavy competition, constant interference and very probable failure, Apel focuses wholly on getting his concoction absolutely perfect. Drawing on decades of hard work and experience, and working through scores of not-quite-right combinations, Apel eventually wins the race against his peers and goes on to produce one of the most successful men’s fragrances ever. What gave him the edge over the competition? His inability to accept anything less than perfection and his total disinterest in the glamour and social capital of gaining access to one of the world’s most famous entertainers.
How often do we accept second best in our work? How often is ‘good enough’ a working substitute for excellence? When we’re liberated from the need to receive praise and recognition from others, extra time and energy is freed up, allowing us to do a better job. When we’re motivated by our own standards and by God, meticulousness suddenly becomes a more valuable and important virtue.
When we’re motivated by our own standards and by God, meticulousness becomes a more valuable and important virtue
3. SAVOURING RESPONSIBILITY
Dennis Poon is the lead structural engineer on the Shanghai Tower and on three of the five tallest buildings being constructed in the world today. Poon is the true invisible man. He stands silently behind the award-winning architects and ensures that their visions don’t end in structural disaster.
While architects can become celebrities – at least within the construction business – structural engineers such as Poon are largely unknown beyond their own peer groups. Like Jim Harding the airport wayfinder, Poon’s work is only ever noticed when something goes wrong.
What motivates Poon and others like him is the fact that he is so heavily relied upon. His work matters to an incalculable degree, because people could die if he makes a fundamental mistake. He is the kind of person who is not only driven by the heavy responsibility of his projects, he’s happy to take on more. This ‘savouring’ of responsibility is common in all of the invisibles Zweig met, and psychologists suggest there is a correlation between this trait and a sense of personal fulfilment within them. It seems the invisible traits offer a more substantial sense of job satisfaction than the route of public recognition.
Savouring responsibility doesn’t just set the invisibles apart; it’s also its own reward. It is well illustrated in the early Church – that utopian Christian community we often quote but rarely imitate – in which ‘all the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need’ (Acts 2:44-45). The early Church was full of people who savoured corporate responsibility instead of striving to become the greatest.
BECOMING THE LAST
"Our role as Christians is to bring glory to God, not ourselves, to build his kingdom, not our own"
Back in Capernaum, in Mark 9, Jesus responds to his bickering followers. He calls them together and tells them: ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’ (v35). To the disciples it was a stinging rebuke that must have rung in their ears for days afterwards. Their whole worldview of power, influence and leadership had been turned on its head.
In a culture of self-promotion and personal ‘branding’, those words should have the same effect on us. No matter what the culture-enhanced temptations, our role as Christians is to bring glory to God, not ourselves; to build his kingdom, not our own. Invisibles suggests a different way of living that is no less dynamic or influential. We might not all be called to be complete ‘invisibles’, but we can learn a great deal from those who are.
The ideas presented in Zweig’s book, which I highly recommend, are so radical and countercultural they remind me of Jesus. It’s a book about focusing on excellence, hard work and healthy motivation, and it serves as a timely reminder to a Church that has become a little too obsessed with celebrity and self-promotion that God meets us on our knees, not on our platforms.