Most of you who read this blog know that I am a part of the Ozark Christian College community as a professor and administrator. It is a community that I love. It is a community that I am fiercely protective of. I believe in our mission to train men and women for Christian service, and I’ve dedicated my professional life to that purpose. Recruiting students to that mission has always been one of our most important tasks. Notice that I said “recruiting students to that mission” and not “recruiting students to our college.” There are all sorts of strategies and techniques to recruit students to a college, but student numbers don’t necessarily matter if the students you recruit aren’t sold out to the mission of the institution. Ozark is unapologetically a “Jesus school.” We would rather close than abandon that mission, so more than most schools, Ozark must recruit students to a mission, not just to an academic program.
As we were recovering from the Great Recession about ten years ago, we launched a recruiting strategy called “Just One.” “Just one life can make a difference. Ozark Christian College prepares each student to make a difference for Christ. Will you be just one?” The strategy was accompanied with numerous short videos highlighting the work that Ozark graduates were doing for the kingdom all over the world. It was remarkable to see what God was doing through our graduates. Haitian children were being fed. Women in crisis were being cared for. The gospel was being preached to thousands. Just one of our graduates baptized over 10,000 people in his lifetime. Just one of our graduates was serving Christ in a country in Africa hostile to the gospel. Just one of our graduates has been sharing the hope of the gospel with prisoners for almost 50 years and started another ministry almost 20 years ago to rescue girls from sex slavery in Asia. It’s awesome stuff; inspiring stuff. It’s hard to watch the videos and not think “I want to be a part of that!” It was a successful recruiting strategy, but the mission of the college was the underlying assumption of all the videos. These individuals were not out for their own accolades, notoriety, fame, or fortune. They were people who were sold out to serving Jesus wherever he led them.
I will defend that recruiting strategy. I think it served its purpose well. However, I can’t help but wonder if it is a dangerous message to a generation discipled by platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. We’ve always been a celebrity obsessed culture, but only recently have we become a culture where celebrity was perceived to be within the grasp of every person. An unknown girl with a TikTok account could literally become globally famous tomorrow. You are only one viral moment away from being famous (or infamous). We are no longer merely obsessed with celebrities; we are now obsessed with celebrity.
I’ve written about this before. Our obsession with becoming known has turned all of our institutions into platforms. Rather than seeing our churches, or places of employment, or colleges as institutions which transform us; institutions in which we get to participate in something greater than ourselves, we now see them as platforms existing only to prop us up. In such an environment, it is tempting to watch a “Just One” video and see the platform and not the mission. It is tempting to ignore the selflessness, the sacrifice, and the service and instead focus on the notoriety, the success, and the self. It is tempting to note the impressiveness of the individual and miss the glory of God.
This brings to mind the specific perils of Christian celebrity. There have been so many terrible stories regarding “famous” Christians in recent months. Some have publicly lost their faith. Some have been exposed as manipulative hypocrites. A few have been outed as craven and depraved. All of this has led to a healthy amount of reflection on the dangers of Christian celebrity. It is a little ironic that our age of hyper-connectivity and “publicized privacy” might actually be contributing to a growing skepticism about celebrity. On the one hand, we are seduced by quick celebrity in a technological era, but on the other hand, our technology has also allowed us to see the realities of sin and brokenness in the human condition. It’s easy to become a celebrity today. It’s equally easy to become undone as a celebrity today. As it turns out, our celebrities are a lot like us (or much worse than us) which has led many to grow cynical about celebrity, especially Christian celebrity. So we are in this weird moment where we are both seduced by and repulsed by celebrity.
How should a Christian live in such a moment? I think that now, more than ever, a Christian in this world must learn to live suspended between two visions. The first is the vision of the throne room from Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4. The throne room mocks our posturing for notoriety and celebrity. The throne room obliterates our pretense with the overwhelming presence of a holy God. None of our ways of being in the world make any sense when removed from the vision of God on His throne. The second vision is the crowd that broke Jesus’ heart. You may remember the story in Matthew 9. Jesus sees the crowds as sheep without a shepherd and as a field without workers. Upon seeing the crowds, Jesus is moved to compassion. He wills that his disciples would similarly be moved to compassion, to prayer, and to action. The vision of the crowd – lost, helpless, harassed, in danger – startles us out of self-obsession. The needs of the crowds chastise my petty need to be known or comfortable.
What the world needs, what the kingdom needs, and what Ozark needs are people set on fire by the vision of the throne and the throng. We need people who have been captivated and moved by a holy God and a lost world. We need people who choose to serve rather than to be served, people who are more excited for the name of Christ than they are for their own name. I guess you could accuse me of not really saying anything new here. This is the kind of person who has always been of the most use in God’s kingdom. This is exactly the kind of person who I remember seeing in all of those “Just One” videos, the type of person who would be kind of horrified about being the focus of a “Just One” video. But it’s often the things that have always been true which are easiest for us to forget. And so we need reminded from time to time that the Christian in this world is suspended between the throne and the throng.