Paying for Likes

If you are an author of some sort, the new marketplace for content is electronic. While books are obviously still written and published, gone is the image of a bald curmudgeon sifting through a stack of randomly mailed authorial submissions with a cigar in his teeth and a tumbler of bourbon in his hand. If you were a particularly skilled author, or caught him on a good day, he’d leap from his wooden swivel chair and yell for the bouncy-haired blonde secretary in the flowery dress to drop everything and get him an appointment with whoever this brilliant unknown author is. At least, that’s how I imagine it from every old movie trope I have ever seen.

No, today the publishing game begins (and often ends) online. To peddle a book, you must sift through a myriad of publishing websites searching for their guidelines for book submissions. Each one is slightly different, but the gist is the same: send a proposal, a sample of the writing, and prove your platform.

A friend of mine explained the platform game to me as a cost-benefit analysis. Basically, enough people have to know who you are to prove to a publisher that they will actually buy your book. Otherwise, why would they go through the hassle and expense of editing, designing, and printing something people will walk by in the bookstore and say, “Who? No thanks.”

Enter the internet. Any idiot with two thoughts and a computer can write a blog (case in point), post a video, build a platform. The positive result is the possibility for any skilled writer hiding in obscurity to rise to fame as the next Rowling or Chesterton. The negative result is the oversaturation of garbage from a generation that has been bred into thinking its individual creativity is the next best thing that everyone should read whether it’s good or not.

Enter the social media marketplace of buying likes. Yes, that’s a thing. There are sites that make their greenbacks by selling authors positive feedback on their platforms. The positive result is the rapid build of said marketability for individuals. The negative result is the fake security of your mom paying the kid down the street to play with you because you have no real friends. Or taking your cousin to the prom or something.

The very idea makes my skin crawl, not just because it results in even more garbage flooding the marketplace, but because it fosters an attitude that precludes the hard work of slogging up the mountainous landscape. It’s hard work to get good at a craft like writing, and gaining real fans or followers comes with an inherent risk of rejection and vitriol—especially if you write things that are intended to provoke strong emotions. Paying for success is as fake as Packers fans bragging about their team’s victories because they’re “part owner.” Congratulations: you did almost nothing.

For my whole ministerial career I’ve seen the church proverbially trying to pay for likes. I’ve seen “seeker services” peddled to a generation that demanded a “non-church” church. I’ve purchased coffee from a professional grade coffee shop in the narthex. I’ve seen churches rebrand without their denominational label because they didn’t want to discourage anyone who might be driving by that is stupid enough to confuse a church for a yoga studio. I’ve seen rusty-jointed congregants walking in a literal parade with a rainbow flag in the full expectation that all the gay people are just waiting around for some church to be “open and affirming” and come running. I’ve seen programs and “strategic plans” rise and fall, start and stop, raising hopes that this is the thing that will make the church the next Billy Graham Crusade, all ending in the thunderous crash of oblivion and broken promises (Mars Hill, anyone?).

The opposite is bad too, of course: doing nothing and having no plans to expand and attract followers is as obsolete as blindly mailing a publisher a manuscript. Sure, you can sit back and say, “If people want the truth, they know where to find me.” But if the shingles are falling off the roof, there’s a thick layer of dust on the pews, and the pastor looks annoyed that there are actually people in the sanctuary, the populace will walk by with a “Who? No thanks.”

As expected, there’s a middle ground. It comes from the ground floor of a proper goal. Is your goal to be the next Willow Creek? That’s the wrong goal. Is your goal to maintain the status quo until the church closes? That’s also the wrong goal. 

Is your goal to preach the gospel in season and out of season, authentically communicating through your personality the awe-inspiring graciousness of Jesus Christ to any and all who bless you enough to sit through a sermon? Now you’re on to something.

Preaching is hard work, and it comes with the inherent risk of rejection and vitriol—precisely because it is intended to provoke strong emotions. Just like good writers write because it is in them, good preachers preach because it is in them. As Paul Scherer wrote, “Say it stumblingly, say it poorly; but say it, because it is part of you.”

And woe to me if I ever become blinded or salivary by the number of likes I get.