A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a conference for youth and community workers. The person who had invited me didn’t know me well but had been involved in an online campaign that I had helped start.
I soon realized my host was under a misapprehension that I was a lot more well-known than I actually am.
So, very enthusiastically, he decided to introduce me to the 300 or so people at the conference by saying, “Well, I am really excited everyone because today we have Jon Kuhrt here to speak to us.”
You could tell by the way he said it that he was expecting some kind of response – maybe a smattering of applause or perhaps even a whoop. But all he got was blank faces.
Undaunted, he continued to introduce me, and then decided to conduct a straw poll to verify his belief in my fame: “So who here has heard of Jon Kuhrt?”
You can visualize the tumbleweed blowing down an empty street. It was an awkward moment, to say the least.
I think a total of two people put their hands up. One, rather unconvincingly, said, “I think I have…” That proved to be the highpoint.
The other said, “I know his brother. Does that count?”
My host could not hide his disappointment with my lack of fame. The only person who was happy about the whole episode was my wife. She thought it was hilarious.
It made me reflect on the whole issue of profile and self-promotion within the church.
It reminded me of when I once was asked to write a prayer resource for a large Christian network and the leader encouraging me to do it said, “It will be very good for your profile.”
And with social media, we can all be addicted to self-promotion. Many people don’t seem to be able to do anything without telling the world they are doing it via Facebook or Twitter.
More than ever we have opportunities to promote what we are doing, thinking, feeling and achieving. And shares, likes, retweets and blog stats mean we have instant statistical feedback about how many people are interested.
But Jesus gives an incredibly countercultural example when it comes to profile and promotion. He went out of his way to downplay what he was doing, avoiding big crowds and consistently not doing what his supporters wanted him to.
Even his brothers did not understand his approach: “No one who wants to be a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (see John 7:4).
Jesus’ approach challenges our own cravings for recognition. Speaking on platforms, tweeting and blogging should never become too central to anyone’s identity. It’s dangerous.
With the rise of social activism within the church, it can be a subtle temptation for us to want to be known as someone concerned about poverty and justice rather than someone truly engaged in the work.
Following Jesus is not about being unduly modest or withdrawing from public engagement.
The key factor is making sure there is integrity between who we are and what we present to others – our public profile needs to be in sync with our private actions.
And our motivations need to be right – the light of faith should shine out so that others can see it, but not in order to make us look good.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in “The Cost of Discipleship:” “Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible.”
Or as a wise colleague of mine used to say, “What is done on the pavement is more important than what is said on the platform.”
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @jonkuhrt.