Social media influencers have one of the hottest jobs. Creative and passionate people are making themselves famous on social media by building huge followings around their passion, their situation, their silliness, or whatever unique schtick imaginable. Because we are a device attached culture, millions are listening to these media storytellers. Once upon a time, it was our parents who were the storytellers in our lives, even long before a word was ever written down. Social media influencers have evolved over the generations to include pastors, teachers, books, town criers, radio, television, the internet, etc. Who isn’t using reviews for restaurants to decide on dining options these days? Just like the subliminal messages we receive from advertising, there is a subliminal impact on our culture from the social influencer.
Today, when there is no lack of availability of information, the social influencer has a profound impact on our culture. The power that influencers have on the actions, hopes, dreams, and the daily decisions of many people in today’s world is stunning. As Christians, we must heighten our awareness of this and then consider our response to these phenomena. In his introduction to Everyday Theology, Kevin J. Vanhoozer says it this way, “Everyday theology is simply faith seeking everyday understanding: a grasp of what is going on in ordinary situations, an attempt to make sense of one’s surroundings.” The world of technology isn’t new, but the impact continues to amplify. So I beg the question, knowing that all to be true, what do Christian leaders do with it? How can we leverage the influence game to be sure that our students are under Christ’s influence above all others?
With at least 95 percent of American teens online, most are not aspiring to “typical” jobs but want to find fame online (Fotrell). I recently had the opportunity to interview a blogger/YouTuber who shared her personal experience. She said:
“I began blogging when I was in college as a way to get free clothing from some of my favorite designers and boutiques. If I wore their clothes and tagged them on social media, I earned free clothes. The whole philosophy behind it was to look good doing fun things and get people to want to be me. It was fun, and within a few months, I had thousands of followers. I was popular. I added advertising, and then I was making money. Now I have a YouTube channel where I help plan weddings, do interior design, and give advice to other budding bloggers. I get more than 25,000 direct messages a week. I’ve had to hire a staff of three just to keep up. My follower base exceeds 1.5 million, and I make a very healthy living. I guess I am really successful because people want to live my life and be me.”
The rise in the popularity and success of social media influencers cannot be denied. Being connected to technology is a deeply rooted part of our culture today. With that connection, along with the desire to be entertained, a certain mindless connection is built. If we allow influencers to make our choices, determine our next move or purchase, what happens to our ability to learn and discern? This is where Christian schools have a tremendous opportunity.
Building Awareness of Cultural Influences
So how do Christians navigate this? In Ephesians 5:1–2, God calls us to be imitators, just not imitators of men: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (NASB) The first step is to build awareness of our cultural influences, combating the cultural influencers by asking God for wisdom about how to live well in this world. H. Richard Neibuhr would reckon that this is how Christ can transform culture, by not separating secular and sacred and by following Christ’s example in how he lived. We cannot avoid the parts of culture that we disagree with or that make us uncomfortable; we have to acknowledge them and then address them through a biblical lens. The reality is that each generation is challenged to abandon truth and grace, to give up in despair, and to tune in to and accept the secular worldview that shouts in every aspect of culture. The Christian is not to retreat from culture but is commanded to advance on culture (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).
Influencing in a Transformative Way
Opportunities to be countercultural and Christlike influencers come in many different areas, but for our purposes, let’s focus on our work in Christian schools. If we are to influence in a transformative way, we have to engage, relate, listen, and learn in order to understand. It is not about changing others but being willing to be who (and what) God has called us to be. It is not by our power to make change but Christ’s power to avail ourselves to his will and strength. By growing in our faith we grow in discernment, and that discernment allows us to serve with our whole heart—and at the end of each day, resting and knowing that we did all we could without regret. What this means is that in our work, we cannot compromise biblical principles in the name of personal or organizational advancement. Faced with a compromising decision, we must stand firm to be a faithful presence, serving witness to Christ and his Kingdom.
Making the Choice to Live Differently
In his book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber mentions three influences on individuals that allow them to decidedly live out their vision of what is meaningful, right, and true. These influences are convictions, character, and community, and it is through those influences that we can purposely live our lives through a moral lens. Reading these words should remind us of the disciples and how, despite the radical way in which they each lived their lives after meeting Jesus, they followed this same pattern. They made choices to live differently, and I believe that we have to make those same choices in order to honor God with our lives. If we live our lives with conviction, boldly following Christ according to his “standards”, we will be living against the grain of culture, just like them. To know God is to read Scripture in both historical and contemporary social-cultural context as part of the larger narrative of the Bible. Our work is an act of worship, something that God has called us to, a gift that we have been given.
Creating a Radical Christian Culture
In the realm of Christian schooling, a great opportunity presents itself to be at the front lines to make immediate and direct commentary about today’s culture and to create a radical Christian culture on our campuses. We have an obligation to build a biblical foundation for each student. Christian education emphasizes character and faith formation as much as academics. To have a radical school culture we have to check ourselves to be sure that our Christ-centered focus and biblical integration are more than words or empty rhetoric. We need to be a place of authentic disciple making, which means we have to be sure that we are examining ourselves closely in how we are living our lives. James K. A. Smith directly addresses this in his books, You Are What You Love and Desiring the Kingdom, when he charges us to be attentive to not only the curriculum but to the ethos of the school as well. Living Christianly must become a fluid part of who we are and how we live. Balancing and maintaining appropriate curriculum, discipline policies, and personal/pastoral care for students continues to get more difficult.
As educators, we have to be deeply rooted in our own common beliefs and practices in order to make wise decisions and seek just solutions for our school communities. When we do that in sync, we practice what we preach and we have the place to influence in a positive way. Just like Christ, it is about building relationships on trust in order to point to the truth. We must take the time and make the effort to understand the cultural contexts that impact our students. The question we need to answer and live out is how can our school be the influencer in our community and in the world?
Jennifer Thompson is the chief operating officer for Christian Schools International. Reach her at gro.enilnoisc@nospmohtj.
If we are to influence in a transformative way, we have to engage, relate, listen, and learn in order to understand.