August 19, 2013
Accountable for Attention?
Influence can be a sweet poison.
A couple years ago I attended the E2 Conference on technology and innovation. As is the nature of most business-tech conferences, there was plenty of Kool-aid for the drinking. Industry experts and leading technology vendors were selling visions of how "Facebook-like capabilities" would transform business from a strict "command and conquer" authoritarian style of giving or following orders to a more “dynamic, collaboration-centric” way of working. They talked about how everything was changing. Everything. In their future, people won’t just be able to work from home, the entire concept of work and the economy will shift from providing products to “providing value.”
Yep, they really talk like that.
Though there were many reasons to be skeptical of these latest industry bandwagons, middle-managers for the Fortune 500 companies and tech analysts were buying it all. Literally.
Some of us had our doubts about the buzzwords, but were uncomfortable speaking up. After a couple sessions this was all so flatly apparent that if you questioned it you would be mocked. It was as if someone had posted a sign: Buzzkill not welcome.
In the middle of this romp through Rainbow Kingdom, Ross Mayfield, VP of Business Development at SlideShare, took the stage and spilled the Kool-aid.
"The best minds of my generation are trying to figure out how to get people to click on a link” he said. “That's horrible."
The appeal of influence
I share Ross’s sentiment. But my concern isn’t for the technology industry—I’m more worried about Christian leaders. While the appeal of influence has always been a temptation for Christians, I think we are increasingly confused about its relationship to leadership.
Paul Pastor noted this in his recent article "Can You Drink this Cup?"
"Because we believe that influence is what gives us significance in the kingdom, we lose sight of the truth. We've been romanced by the lie that the 'young influentials' are the real leaders of Christ's church worthy of emulation."
Evangelical Christianity fell into the influence trap long ago, when a zealous desire for the salvation of souls subtly became a pragmatic metric—like clicking a weblink. Typically, when we ask questions about how healthy a church is we just mean "is it growing"? Technology has allowed us to quantify the impact of the sermon as well. A sermon that gets lots of downloads is better than one that gets no downloads, isn’t it?
Impacting the heart
I was congratulating a friend of mine on a beautifully delivered sermon recently. He told me, "A good sermon impacts the heart. It doesn't just sound good." True enough. But I can guarantee that if the sermon had been poorly delivered he would be relegated back to mid-week services and slow Sundays regardless of how many hearts had been impacted, a statistic which is very hard to measure.
And what of the Ross Mayfields of the Christian world? Traditionally we have called them prophets. Their calling is to speak an unpopular truth and to pump our stomachs in event of a Kool-aid overdose. We are confused about them too. Often the most inflammatory religious voices claim to be prophets. But prophets aren’t just baptized attention whores.
The ancient church used to say that its prophetic role was to remind the Emperor that he wasn’t God. Prophets might garner attention because they are always upsetting someone’s grasp of power. But their role is hardly a grab for power themselves. Jesus himself reminds us that prophets are unwelcome in their hometown and are often killed. Prophet-ing is a tough racket.
By our modern ministry assessments most of the prophets were failures.
But of course we know they were a success.
What does that mean?
Rowan Williams asks in Where God Happens:
What if...our success (if we still want to use that not very helpful word) [was] measurable only in the degree to which those around us were discovering a way to truth and life, and since we are not all that likely to know much about this simply on external grounds, we might never know anything at all about our success. We'd only know the struggle and weakness out of which we attempted to speak to each other; beyond that, who knows? We could be confident only in God's unfailing presence with us for forgiveness and in God's unceasing summons to us to act for the reconciliation of others.
It may be that through struggle and weakness and seeking reconciliation we get put in the spotlight. It is equally possible that we will be critiqued for not developing our gifts or not being effective, or, to use the parlance of our leadership culture, not “bearing fruit.” We may not get invited to the leadership training meetings. We might not have important people ask us for our opinions. We might even humbly attempt to show love in some small way to a single person day after day for years and years of our lives and never receive so much as a thank you for the effort. We may even fall into a dark night of the soul and wonder if God has abandoned us and if we are doing anything that matters.
To return to our technology metaphor, we might not get any clicks. Ever.
I’m not advocating a wet-blanket approach to ministry where only our failure can be a testimony to our true faithfulness. But what if we found a renewed focus of “influence accountability” for those of us who have been placed in ministry?
I know many pastors who will not look at financial giving records because they know that they might be inclined to pander to the requests of the bigger givers or to be judgmental towards those who are not giving. Wouldn’t we be wise to put similar disciplines in place for the temptation of monitoring influence?
Some of us are so attracted to attention that we need the help of the church to remember we are not God.
It often seems to me that the best souls of my generation are trying to figure out how to get people to pay them attention.