Self-Promotion and Our Fear of Obscurity

Bono apologized last week for U2’s (and Apple’s) aggressive automatic insertion into our iTunes libraries with their latest album Songs of Innocence. Bono explained it as,

Drop of megalomania, twitch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we’ve poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard.

It’s hard to know how sincere of an apology this is, but it is remarkable he uses such honest and self-effacing language: “self-promotion,” “deep fear,” and “megalomania.” It is perceptive and insightful.  

We all love to be praised and celebrated. We want a name for ourselves. We crave a platform of respect. We desire to be important to other people. We want our work to be appreciated. In some shape or form, this is true for all of us — perhaps especially for pastors and Christian leaders.

Pastoral Renown

The allure of renown can be great in the local church. It’s an ancient and deadly problem recast in new and sophisticated methods. The mechanisms for platform growth are easily accessible to anybody with a phone and an email address. Granted, you may not have anything worth saying, but you certainly have the means to tell us all about something.

The pursuit of pastoral renown soon minimizes the call of the gospel. We not only cease to find our identity in our Redeemer, but we exchange it for something completely foreign to the gospel that in turn blinds our ability to even see the exchange. Our motives cease to be informed by Scripture and rather become infused with the narrative of success and the American Dream. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

At least Bono acknowledges this age-old lurking desire to exalt ourselves. And we in the church should be even more ready to openly name it. There’s significance in naming it because until we do, we will operate under the false assumption that we are being truthful, and thus recreate the lie over and over again, all the while showing the lie to be true. And one terrible sad thing ministers have shown the world in recent media is our propensity to live lives of untruth.

Pastors Are Not Salesmen

It can be easy to forget that we pastors are not salesmen. We're not pushing a product called “the gospel.” We can’t develop an elevator pitch clever and concise enough to secure the sale. The oddity comes when we do create products that we then market and push — for worship pastors, our albums, and preaching pastors, our books. In that moment, we inch our way to becoming salespeople. And if we’re going to be good salespeople, then we need a marketing strategy and a platform, lots of followers, etc.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with pastors having platforms. We find men and women in Scripture with God-given platforms called to do a number of different things. Even John the Baptist was given a platform to herald the coming King. Where these products become dangerous is in the areas they so tempt us toward — success, fame, money, acclaim. The need for rich accountability cannot be stressed enough. But even all the accountability in the world cannot curb this inner craving and appetite for our own prominence. What can we do?

Develop a New and Better Craving

Rather than spending much of our time as pastors looking at other churches for approval, looking at other pastors for thoughts, looking at leadership gurus for how to grow our churches and looking at other worship leaders on how they manage their platform, we need to look to Jesus. We must cultivate spiritual desire. That’s really what deep communion with God looks like: cultivating appetite.

We’ve truly grown at cultivating one appetite in particular, success. Upon tasting it ever so slightly, we’re hooked. We want it. Desire it. We seek after it. Oh, it may wear a different mask for each of us, but there it is. The only real way to destroy it is to replace it with an even greater appetite. The only way to become satisfied is to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

Cultivating spiritual appetites requires beholding Jesus, and beholding him requires patience and self-forgetfulness.

Cultivating spiritual appetites requires beholding Jesus.

We need to develop the kind of patience necessary to sit in the Spirit and behold the glory of the Lord. Only then will we be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Patience moves us to sit, to wait, to listen, to arrest our affections and curb our wants. It takes time to behold Jesus. It takes time to really see wondrous things.

Take Time to See

There is a misconception that love for God should somehow spontaneously erupt in the life of the Christian. And yet, we all actively create scenarios that make us happy. We spend calculated time planning dinner parties and weekend getaways and vacations, actively planning things that we know will make us happy. But somehow we just assume our love for God should sprout from nowhere. It takes effort. It takes time to see him. If we don’t see him with the eyes of our heart, we can’t authentically fear him; if we don’t fear him, then we will be overcome by all the fears and worries of this world and miss out on our chief purpose on this planet — to glorify and enjoy him. If we don’t see him, we will end up making the aim of our life our own renown, rather than his.

If we are to cultivate spiritual appetites, we not only need Spirit-filled patience, but an embrace of self-forgetfulness. Only then will we begin to write songs and write stories as an overflow of the heart versus grabbing a share of the market. C.S. Lewis’s statement on humility, “Don’t think less about yourself, but think about yourself less,” is fundamental to creating an appetite for God’s renown. After all, for him to increase in our lives means our lives need to decrease (John 3:30).

Glad Anonymity

Why are we pastors not happy with anonymity or content with being nameless? A pastor’s job description is to make God’s name great. Yet many of us find that responsibility less than satisfying, which might possibly mean we’re in the wrong line of work, or simply that we need a serious reorienting to take place in our hearts.

If you’re a pastor, perhaps make a fresh effort to stop pursuing your own renown. Stop building your platform. Will God raise up voices and songs and messages for his purposes that are greater than our originally intended purposes? Absolutely. But when he does, we should be able to tell that God did it, not us. Let him make you known outside of himself and his church if he so desires.  

Pray that he would open your eyes and give you the patience necessary to behold wondrous things in this word (Psalm 119:18).

Pray for a spirit of self-forgetfulness that finds value and identity in the Creator who has fearfully and wonderfully made you (Psalm 139:14).

Pray for God’s help to make the aim of your life not about you, but about his renown (Psalm 135:13). By the Spirit, reject megalomania and self-promotion, and put your fear in God, not obscurity (Isaiah 8:11–14). Find the joy and contentment that comes in receiving his good for your life.

(@josephtenney) is the music and arts pastor at Church at the Cross. He lives in Texas with his wife, Kimberly, and their two girls, and is a singer-songwriter in their band March of Morning.