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Propped: Three Laws on being a Creative but not a Self-Promoter

by AJ Swoboda

Lessons always hit hard in the world of self-promotion.

In a good way, of course. Turns out, there are all these secret tricks on Twitter. By sheer happenstance, I had discovered that by placing a tiny “period” ( . ) before a reply to someone, the reply would be translated as a Tweet itself. And, as such,every one of my followers would see it for themselves.

Revolutionary, I thought at the time. As we all do when we uncover some new trick on social media that can expand or amplify your voice, I went to work trying out the new trick. My first “reply-as-Tweet” was sent when a friend—a rather famous friend, I should add—posted a reply to one of my Tweets earlier that day (the content was meaningless as I recall nothing about its substance). But—knowing I very well could catch a wave of attention by doing the “period trick” in front of my reply to him—everyone would become aware that a famous, cool, brilliant theologian was talking directly to me.

So I used the period.

In about one minute, I got a response. Without skipping a beat, one of my Twitter buddies reached out almost immediately and asked; “Hey, why did you put that period in there?” He didn’t know about the trick, I thought. I thought I was going to teach a novice the ways of Twitter. Again, he pushed back, “No, why did you do put that period in there?”

I knew I’d been caught. After a brutally honest phone call, I learned a lesson. My friend told me I should be careful about doing the “period thing” (his words). It looked dirty, he said. It was true: I’d been caught in the shameless economy of social media self-promotion—a dark world where every post becomes about the creative’s own self. In what turned out to be one of the most helpful lessons of my young social media career, I discovered, first, that it really doesn’t make you look good to be a constant self-promoter. And, secondly, that I am in desperate need for a community of people in my life who have the guts to direct message me at a moment’s notice out when I’m being a narcissistic self-promoter. I’ve since learned my lesson, thanks to a truth-telling Twitter buddy.

This puts me (and others like me) in a conundrum. I write stuff. Lots of stuff. And I want to share it with others. Mostly because I believe what I say to be true. There’s the rub: how can we learn to boldly share our voice without being constant self-promoters?

Well, it’s tricky. And I think the answer is closer to home than we’d like to admit. One of our biggest problems, at the end of the day, is that we often lack a true belief in our hearts that if nobody ever read our stuff, Jesus would still be our friend. And that notion—I see you rolling your eyes—is a bare minimum to any creative who has a public vocation in writing, blogging, preaching, teaching, or anything else demanding you to put your ideas out there. Gospel is necessary for the creative. And the gospel is essential because it becomes our constant reminder that we don’t live according to the competition-based economy ruling our world. We are loved “just as.”

Competition rules my mind; always has. What I’m describing here as the “competition-based economy” is one, I believe, virtually none of us have escaped. Competition is in our bones. And in Cain-like fashion, we spend most of our energies jealously examining what everyone else has and how we can come close to their attainment.

Most of us were raised in a culture that set the framework for—in the timely words of David Brooks—“the professionalization of childhood.” His On Paradise Drive illuminates for us the kinds of Egypt-like pressures of performance we put upon children’s backs in their earliest years of their formative development. As soon as they’re old enough, we place children in teams that force them to compete against their peers, we give unnecessarily heightened attention to their grades, and we demand constant attempts by them to excel in all they do. In short, we’re burdening our children to live their lives like we live our lives—in break-neck, “survival of the fittest,” capitalistic, competition.

And we almost never escape it. Perhaps the sickest dimension of competition is when we actually win. For when we do win, we sit proudly, high, boastfully on our ladders of success looking down on the pitifully unsuccessful below. Yet such a way of looking upon others is not only harmful, it is simply ungodly. Paul, in writing to his young friend Timothy, reminds him to speak respectfully toward those above him and treat “younger men as brothers.” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). The irony of Paul’s direction was that that Timothy—pastoring the church in Ephesus—was permitted only to look up at, or, eye-to-eye toward others; Timothy could never peer down upon anybody. And that as the leading Christian in his town.

Paul’s thinking on the subject couldn’t be more succinct than when he writes that a Christ-follower should never “Lord over anybody.” One can’t help but assume that in saying this, Paul is putting a no-compete clause between brothers and sisters of the family of God. Competition, the kind we see in our world and the kind that we teach our kids to live within, is not a Kingdom ethic.

As I’ve pulled together my own thoughts, read the Scriptures, and talked with others, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that the most important roads of maturity that we can walk down is to refuse to play the competition game as we’ve been handed it. We must experience, personally, intimately, emotionally, physically, and spiritually God’s incessant plea to us in the gospel that we are loved in the state we are in. The economy of the gospel entirely undermines our economy of the “survival of the fittest” that orients us toward break-neck competition toward one another.

How can we be creative without being competitive self-promoters?

That is the question for me. I really struggle when social media becomes an unchecked, wild, boundary-less environment for self-promotion and personal self-interests. It just feels dirty when every one of my Tweets is about me. Every time I post something about a book I’ve written, or something I’ve done, I feel almost guilty; and I’ve come to believe part of that is a healthy response of the Holy Spirit. The Christ follower isn’t intended to live a life propping themselves up for the world.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t boldly put our ideas or work out there. We must, if it is in our bones. My friend Joshua Butler really helped me think through. Recently, he reminded me that social media should become a place of service to help life others’ voices, as a place to lend or own timeline to other’s work, to let your Tweets be redemptively sacrificial. That really freed me. I can use social media to serve. I don’t need it to be all about me.

Does that mean I’m going to stop sharing my own work? No. I believe in what I do. And I believe others should see it. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t speak it. And hopefully a few people are helped. But I guess I’m coming to believe the days of having a Twitter account or Facebook timeline that is merely my own publicity department is coming to an end.

Here are my three new rules. They’re just mine. Don’t feel oppressed by my rules. Pick and choose as you want:

1. I seek to leverage my own voice disproportionately for the sake of others’ voices.

2. I seek to invite “truth-tellers” to call me out for any waft of narcissism or constant self-promotion.

3. I choose to live in the gracious love of Jesus, being okay with the little voice I have while  not trying to make it louder than God is letting it be.

Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and a number of other universities and Bible colleges. Previous to this, A.J. served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. His doctoral research at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) explored the never-ending relationship between the Holy Spirit and ecology. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. A.J. is the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way (Kregel), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.

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