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Famous Ones: Is Influence Overrated?


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Eugene Peterson– translator of The Message and author of all my favorite books– described a period of boredom while serving as the pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church near Baltimore, Maryland. In an interview several years ago, Eugene admitted that a sort of negative ambition lay at the root of his restlessness. “I just thought, ‘Well, I’m 40 years old– I’d better make a move so somebody notices me’…In the best sense, ambition can be simply wanting to do your best. But, sometimes ambition can be simply the need to be noticed.”

As it turns out, our need to be noticed may not be helping the Kingdom anyway. A Barna study from 2006 showed that roughly 66% of Americans had never heard of the preacher T.D. Jakes. 60% had never heard of Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson. And what about Rick Warren, whose books have sold well over 25 million copies? 75% said they didn’t know who he was.

For all the time we have spent accumulating influence, for all the efforts to build platforms under our best speakers and leaders, what do we have to show for it? Large crowds, high sales numbers, and that elusively unquantifiable thing called “buzz”?

In our attempt to reach the world, have we created Christian celebrities instead? What if we have simply justified fame by calling it by a different name?

To be fair, crowds followed Jesus all the time. What is interesting– and instructive– is how Jesus responded to crowds. He fed them, taught them, and did everything He could to leave them or drive them away. In John 6, Jesus does all of the above. After performing one of His greatest miracles, the feeding of the 5000, the crowd got so excited they insisted on making Him king “by force”. Think of it: the people were going to make Him king by force. Isn’t that what He came for? Couldn’t God “use this for His glory”? In true counter-cultural form, Jesus retreated to a mountain by himself. Then, after the crowd tracked him down, He preceeded to preach his most offensive sermon, leaving Him with only the most devout– or desperate– of his disiples.

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Perhaps influence in itself is not evil. But neither is it automatically a tool in God’s hands. In fact, “reaching the world” may have little to do with super-individuals and influential leaders. It might just have more to do with quiet faithfulness and simple obedience.

Or, in the words of one of Eugene’s book titles, maybe the Kingdom is advanced by A Long Obedience in Same Direction.

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