The Plight of Religious Influencers and Their Followers

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Over the last couple weeks, two prominent Christian thought leaders renounced their faiths. Doing so in a very public fashion. Both used their respective Instagram accounts as a means to voice their change of heart to the masses. One explicitly said he was leaving Christianity behind (Josh Harris), while the other (Marty Sampson) said he was “on very shaky ground”. These expressions were heard and addressed by other Christian influencers. John Cooper, lead singer of the band Skillet, wrote a critical piece addressing the issue and the dangers of merely following men, not God.

Marty, a singer for Hillsong Worship, responded to Cooper’s retort with one of his own. He claimed that while he — Marty — had never met John before, he felt it unfair for John to put “words in his mouth.” He was upset that someone who didn’t know him personally had come to criticize him from afar. Marty went on to describe how many others, also struggling with their faith, had reached out to him directly. But as for John and other leaders? “Silence,” as Marty put it.

This back-and-forth can feel like a glorified shouting match. One side says one thing, the other side fires back. All the while fans are left wondering whose side they ought to be on. Which, consequently, becomes a critical issue. These are Christian artists, after all. Or rather, artists who so happen to be Christians. Both men are to stand for certain ideals. And those ideals have likely played a prominent role in helping them succeed. Their fan bases — whether they realize it or not — have stored up special places in their hearts for each of these men and the work they’ve done.

So if one of these influencers goes off script, like Marty, and questions his faith in a very public way, it can cause those following his work to question their own faith. The trickle down effect is real.

In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be the case. People would stand by their convictions. They wouldn’t be so easily moved by a public faith denunciation, even if it’s committed by one of their favorite singers. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a rather fragile one; living daily with shakier foundations of faith than we’d like to admit. A fact made all the more evident when those who have risen the ladder of fame and fortune find the time to change course and turn their backs on the very reason that got them where they are in the first place.

Marty’s story, like Josh Harris’ before him, is not an uncommon tale. These two men aren’t the first Christians to fall away from their faith after having achieved mainstream recognition. A friend of mine shared on social media how one of Billy Graham’s closest friends, Charles Templeton, also left the faith. As have Bart Campolo and Frank Schaeffer. So this isn’t anything new.

Newer Christians need not abandon ship. The captains we may have thought were leading the way haven’t jumped overboard — we just need to remember who is really steering the ship. Here’s a hint: it’s not any one of us.

Now, it should be said that Marty’s proclamation was not as overt as Harris’. He merely said he was wavering and that he didn’t know if he could call himself a Christian anymore. This is not the same as Harris, who not only decried a complete 180 on Christianity, but moved boldly to separate from his wife and children as he moves into a “surprisingly hopeful” new stage of life. Oddly enough, this “hopefulness” he speaks of does not seem to concern any of his three children or his wife of many years. Finding one’s self seems to allow for negating one’s previous commitments and responsibilities. But more on that later.

Sampson, on the other hand, has further complicated things by sharing photos of popular atheists. One such post included the late Christopher Hitchens, a journalist and public debater who gained fame for his sharp criticisms of fundamentalist religion and the state of radical Islam. Sampson has even said that Hitchens “makes a lot of sense” with his arguments. Again, this is all very dangerous ground. Not just for Sampson, but for the ones who have followed him so closely.

Such is the plight — and power — of those who stand on a public platform. When we elevate certain people to positions of influence, we are effectively given them permission to lead us; whether we realize it or not. And since Harris and Sampson have become two of the faithful’s chosen, it’s easy to entangle each man’s personal expression with Christian theology. Harris wrote books on dating from a Biblical worldview. Sampson writes and performs songs to glorify God. These projections are to be representative of Christ’s character; not the individual’s proposed way of doing things. In the past, we may not have questioned either man’s Biblical position. But given each man’s newfound proclamation, everything — past and current — now falls into question.

Were these men merely using Christianity as a tool to gain popularity? Were they drinking from the cup of fame and want more for themselves now? Harris’ move feels deliberate; Sampson’s like a cry for help. As such, John Cooper’s piece What in God’s Name is Happening to Christianity might feel like a harsh rebuke of Sampson’s public struggle. And I’m willing to bet that many might look at Cooper’s words and say he’s being unChristian; unsympathetic. Why would a fellow Christian say those things when it’s obvious this guy is hurting?

The answer is simple: Sampson is a leader. Leaders are the servants of the ones who have appointed them. And when a leader loses focus, loses vision, or loses his faith, it’s the responsibility of other leaders, and those who share in the faith, to call them out. What sounds like a scathing criticism is meant to be a wake up call. This is something the modern Church has such a difficult time navigating. How do we hold to truth while lovingly reminding our leaders — and our fellow brothers and sisters of the faith — that Jesus is the most important part of our lives, not a modern thought leader? That’s a difficult space to tread, especially when our culture believes being offensive could be more egregious a sin than sexual immorality. We cannot expect ourselves to be perfect in this, but we need to have the expectation that we have the courage to walk in it regardless.

For those who have not chosen the limelight, there is another issue at hand. By building a relationship with someone’s body of work, often over many years and what could be many positive experiences, the idea of breaking ties may feel non-negotiable. It could feel like losing a good friend. It could make us question everything we ever learned along the way.

By comparison, I love the works of C.S. Lewis. His words speak to me in ways that are inspiring and eye-opening, but I do not — and should not — hold Lewis in higher regard than Biblical truth. Lewis, like many other writers, is but another megaphone for something bigger. His work points back to the One who gave him the words. It’s not the other way around. The same is true for any of our favorite voices; whether they be recent defectors or lifelong followers of Christ. Our heart response ought to be the same in the wake of ever-changing trends and ever-changing faces.

From a 10,000 foot view, one could argue that Sampson could have done things differently. A more mature approach would have been to step down. Take a break. At the very least, don’t make a spectacle of your struggle so as to potentially lead others astray. But one could easily counter and say that by venting his vulnerabilities, it might give other Christians a safe space to vent their own frustrations. To let others see that even those at the top have similar ailments.

And though I’d agree with being vulnerable, we have to be careful in how we do this. What is the end note of Sampson’s admission? Is he hopeful to retain his faith? Is he encouraged to dig deeper into the relationship that first inspired his songs? The jury might still be out on that one. As for Mr. Harris, his path appears to be set as he heads off into the sunset for whatever new truth he is seeking. His story isn’t over though. One can only hope and pray that he makes a U-turn in the same way he recently did with regards to his faith. Again, time will tell.

In light of all this, perhaps we need to reconsider whom we give the glory when success comes to our doorstep? As a writer, I sense this tension all too frequently. Who gives me the words to write when I have none? It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that we are the center of the universe when words flow and ideas generate as if out of thin air. I’m not immune, nor is anyone else, to the trap of self-glorification. And knowing that, my response to someone like Marty Sampson or Josh Harris ought to start with compassion. But it shouldn’t just end there. I am also called to move in a direction of sound correction and belief. The same way anyone else who follows Christ would and who just so happens to have followed either man’s work over the years too.

I’ve never been a person with a million subscribers. Or thousands waiting eagerly for my take on a current issue. But I’ve witnessed the walks of those standing out in the open and I sense the unsteady ground one can stand upon. The draw of public admiration is very real. It’s a temptation not to be taken lightly. Both Christian and non-Christian face this same demon. For the Christian, we need to be especially aware of its snares. The world is watching us, if anything more closely than any other persuasion. We’d best be prepared to stand for truth. Otherwise we risk becoming pawns instead of kings and queens, sons and daughters, of the Kingdom.

As a close friend once said to me, “it is better to be rude than to be ruined.” We are all influencers, even if we don’t have a major publishing contract or a record label. We all are extending our influence to someone near us. That is a reality every Christ-follower need be aware of. It does not take the movements of popular worship leaders or even the words of a great wordsmith to change a culture. It takes only the coordinated efforts of the Body working together to make real change. This is the plight of the Body as a whole. The words of Christ are what we hinge ourselves upon. Everything else is an extension of that foundation or an attempt to usurp it.

Writer, host of The Writer’s Lens podcast

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