Stop Trying to Make Jesus Go Viral

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As a new Christian nonfiction author, I am bumping up against a common conundrum in both Christian media and ministry: how do we share the faith while avoiding the cult of personality? How do we draw others to Christianity with our offerings — books, podcasts, articles, films, preaching — while putting Christ at the forefront and not ourselves? It is hard to resist the lure of affirmation and praise, but as Christians, we must resist it by offering the truth instead of comforting, hollow bromides that widen our net of followers.

There is an interesting, revealing scene in Paul Schrader’s unsettling 2017 film “First Reformed.” Actor Ethan Hawke stars as the troubled pastor of a historic but fading church in upstate New York, a church that is consistently overshadowed by the megachurch it is associated with. In a “teen sharing circle” held in a bright, modern space in the megachurch, a young, hip pastor oozes Jesus-cool as he spouts feel-good mantras to the fawning youngsters on fire with the Holy Spirit. When a young woman relates a difficult real-life scenario, however, and asks where God is in her family’s struggles, the young pastor hesitates, and immediately turns the question over to the more seasoned, if less popular, pastor, who then offers both true counsel and acknowledgment of her pain.

If you’re doing it right, delivering a Christian message is often hard and lonely. Jesus warned of this in Matthew 10:22. But many of today’s Christian messages — or at least, those that garner mainstream media approval — offer affirming, upbeat scriptural takes with little meat on the bones. There is an emphasis on the application of Jesus’ message to social constructs and issues, which only sees mainstream light-of-day if Jesus is put forth as “radical” or “revolutionary.” While Christianity seems more inclusive and cool this way, church membership is dwindling and more people than ever identify as non-Christians. Why is this, when deconstructed Jesus has never been more sensitive and culturally aware? The idea that Jesus would be an eco-warrior if he walked the earth today won’t help us in life’s hardest moments — but the fact that he was the actual son of the living God and sacrificed himself to offer all eternal life will.

Christians in media who offer “hip Jesus” are often in a silo chamber of trendy theological concepts rocketing around to the same people over and over again, while the teeming, hurting masses around the globe who truly need the Gospel’s bedrock truths remain in darkness. Critical truths are often eschewed for other, less important truths that are easy to digest. An important truth is that Jesus loved and respected women and understood their worth. This is a snap to ruminate on, if you’re a Christian writer or podcaster. A critical truth is that Jesus saves. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can get to the Father except through him. This is a much harder concept to explore and defend — and make popular. The message, it seems, must meet the progressive moment to go mainstream.

Someone recently said to me, “Jesus was the original bleeding heart liberal.” This pained me, although I understood it was that individual’s expression of Jesus’ care for the poor, marginalized, and heartsick. But Jesus is the world’s answer not because of his intersectionality, but because he was and is the son of God, and it is this truth that saves. Jesus didn’t “cancel” sinners for problematic views. He extended grace and cancelled sin, everlasting darkness, and a future without God. It is not in his applicability to our genders, skin color, sexuality, or politics that we are saved. It is in both his holiness and humanness, in that he walked as God among us, where we find our own purpose in worship.

The goals of Christian products and media should be different from any other group touting products and ideas. The goal with secular products is sales and audience engagement – and sure, popularity, too – and there is nothing wrong with Christians in media wanting their offerings to be popular in order to advance the kingdom.

But don’t bend the arrow God shoots through your bow to offer temporary salve to today’s wounds. Those who offer Christian messages need to have different metrics for success. A human soul is priceless. If one person is brought to the cross by our offering of the truth, all our efforts have been worth it. And if our message resounds and many human souls are added to the heavenly roll call, that’s even better. But we must always take good care to maintain the integrity and profundity of Christ’s purpose, life, and works.

As a new author, I hope to remember this: that in the best scripturally based offerings, the messenger herself recedes as she writes or speaks. In that void, in that place she has prayerfully created and then joyously abandoned, Christ himself appears.

Deirdre Reilly is a regular Faith contributor to and the author of the book, “The Pretend Christian: Traveling Beyond Denomination to the True Jesus.”

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