In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore how healthy democracies descend into authoritarianism. Counterintuitively, “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.” A nation elects a demagogic figure who uses executive power to take control of the country. It’s happened in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four behavioral categories that signal a leader’s shift toward authoritarianism: rejection of the democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail the civil liberty of opponents.
The challenge is that some actions associated with these categories are not categorically wrong. This makes early identification of an authoritarian regime difficult. For example, autocrats frequently usurp democratic power by declaring a national state of emergency. But this doesn’t mean that declaring a state of emergency is an authoritarian act. To the contrary, it is often a necessary response to natural, economic, and military disasters which rescue countless lives. Only an anarchist would want to live in a state without these powers — despite the tremendous risk associated with them.
The ongoing conversation around toxic celebrity Christians faces a similar problem. While we can identify a constellation of character traits and behaviors present in most cases —secrecy, visionary leadership, narcissism, networking, church building, bullying, charisma, spiritual abuse, giftedness, sexual misconduct, creativity, addiction, profiteering, and platform building — that doesn’t mean every star in the constellation is immoral.
I specifically want to analyze one item in the constellation: platform building. Just like declaring a state of emergency, platform building can be incredibly problematic. It may signal toxic celebrity aspirations. But what if platform building is also a necessary good in the 21st century? What if platform building is the emergency response we need to reduce the number of Christian celebrities over time?
Before we can explore the positive possibilities of platform building, we must begin by describing the risks.
The Risk of Platforms
In Mike Cosper’s, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, he explores how Mark Driscoll built a platform in the early 2000s by creating a brand and using cutting-edge media technology like blogs, discussion boards, podcasts, video podcasts, and video streaming. Driscoll made his own press, which eventually grabbed the attention of the actual press. By the time social media became a thing, he was perfectly situated to capitalize on the potential, gathering hundreds of thousands of followers in a short period of time.
Operating Driscoll’s media empire required an enormous team, whose livelihoods were inextricably attached to his reputation. Their job was straightforward: make Mark bigger. The bigger Mark got, the more successful they were, and the larger the empire grew. Once the platform flywheel got spinning, it was hard to stop.
Tragically, the size of Driscoll’s platform gave him enormous latitude to bully and abuse others with impunity. It took a plagiarism scandal and the public revelation of terrible, uncouth speech on a message board to end his meteoric rise. Apart from these revelations, Driscoll could have continued his behavior, and may very well have remained the king of manly-man reformed theology.
It’s not a stretch to say: if Mark Driscoll never had a platform he couldn’t have perpetrated the evil at the scale he did. That is the risk of platform building. At a certain size, every platform creates potential cover for bad behavior. Platforms can create masks and personas that prevent the Christian public from seeing — or even imagining — bad behavior. Perhaps this fact alone gives sufficient ethical grounds to justify calling all Christians with platforms to shut down their social media accounts, end their podcasts, and stop taking publishing deals. Paul told Timothy and Titus that church leaders, “must be above reproach” (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:7). Can anyone with a platform be above reproach? Is a public mask always a dangerous lie? Do platforms inevitably enable abuse? Do they always create celebrities who are difficult to hold accountable?
If the answer to these questions seems obvious, it’s only because we’ve settled for simple, unidimensional answers informed mostly by cases like Driscoll’s. Our intuitional answers may be correct, but we cannot be certain if we bypass the nuanced work of careful ethical reflection about platforms more broadly. This is incumbent upon us, as we stand on the ethical precipice of an increasingly digital future and will likely shape future Christian norms.
A careful reflection requires us first to answer two definitional questions often side-stepped in the conversation:
1) What qualifies as a platform?
2) What qualifies as platform building?
What qualifies as a “platform”?
When I ask Christians “How many followers does someone need to have a platform?” I almost always get the same answer: more than me. What Tim Keller observed about material wealth is also true of wealth in attention: no one thinks they’re rich, because everyone knows someone richer. No one thinks they have a platform, because everyone knows someone with a bigger platform.
Unfortunately, there is no agreed-upon sociological definition of a platform — partially because every media format and social media platform uses unique metrics.
For example, consider how various media platform defines “notability.”
To be verified on Twitter you need to be in the top .05% of follower count or mention count. Generally, that’s over 10,000 followers. Unfortunately, neither TikTok nor Instagram clearly defines notability, but over 50,000 followers places someone in the top 2.5% of Instagram creators. YouTube channels with over 10,000 subscribers are in the top 2%. Any hosts of podcasts consistently charted in one of Apple or Spotify’s top podcast charts qualify as notable in their field. From my own experience running a podcast network, a podcast typically needs to receive 3,000+ downloads per episode to be charted in Christian charts. Other comparison metrics are more difficult to compare because of their opaqueness or unavailability: page views on blogs, subscribers on substack, and top charts on Amazon.
But there is at least one other metric to consider: real life. The average person does not have thousands of people consume their content regularly. If you do, you have a platform by virtue of the simple fact that your voice is louder than most of your peers. If a megachurch is defined as any congregation with more than 2,000 people in average weekly attendance, then perhaps we can use that number (drawn from the real world) as a heuristic for defining a digital Christian platform can be loosely be defined as, “Any digital platform or medium which reaches a trans-local audience of 2,000 individuals or more.”
While every social platform is different, 2,000 followers places you in the top 2-12% of users on most. When it comes to podcast downloads 2,000 often lands you close to the top podcast charts (depending on how diluted a topical space is). As for newsletters, blogs, and books, I struggle to understand how consistently influencing 2,000+ people would not be considered some sort of platform.
I find it ironic when creators with 20,000+ followers go after megachurch pastors with 2,000 attendees. Who really has more influence in a highly online culture? How often is our critique of megachurches and platforms a covert way of shielding our own influence? A careful, honest definition of platforms–as I propose above — not only protects us from self-righteousness, but also forces individuals with large and small platforms to intentionally reflect on how they use their platforms, and how the platform might be changing them.
What is platform building?
This is a far easier question to answer. Platform building is using time, money, or energy to expand your audience and the reach of your content. Sometimes platform building is ugly and dishonest. Again, we need only look at the archetype of toxic celebrity, Mark Driscoll, to find an example. He paid a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy his book from locations across the country to land it on The New York Times bestseller list.
But other forms of platform building are morally sound. If you are a communicator or thinker with something valuable to contribute to the church, there is nothing wrong with spreading word in multiple ways: podcast tours, writing tours, paid advertisements, book or podcast reviews, and more.
Many people will look askance at the previous paragraph.
Some of them will be public figures, who offer regular jeremiads against platform building. But I’ve discovered that just because individuals combat platforms publicly, doesn’t mean they don’t play the game privately — spending money on book, newsletter, or podcast ads. I know multiple communicators who publicly critique platforms who refused to come on our podcast because our platform isn’t big enough. I’m not bothered by this — they have limited time, and are trying to maximize their reach (aka platform size). I only wish they would be honest about the ethical nuance of platform building publicly.
Others will critique my view because they are well-meaning idealists who think, “If it doesn’t grow organically, it’s just marketing.” While the ideal is noble, it’s out of touch with reality. Hardly anything of substance grows entirely organically on digital platforms. That’s how Google and Meta make their money.
In other words, there is hardly a book on your bookshelf whose author or publisher didn’t pay to advertise. There’s hardly a successful podcast you listen to whose host hasn’t gone on multiple podcasts (aka a podcast tour). There’s hardly a newsletter or blog you read, whose author hasn’t written for multiple outlets (aka a writing tour).
As a podcast host, I can tell you that it’s not uncommon for authors — even those critical of platforms and marketing on their public platforms — to ask us to publicize their books. Sometimes they even offer us pre-written copy to post on social media. If it’s a good book, full of salubrious value, I see no problem with this. I want to share their wealth of knowledge.
All of this said, I’m not suggesting that all (or even most) platform building is ethically sound. Spending and touring occur on different scales. There is a conversation to be had about how much money someone should spend on marketing. There’s also a major difference between organic endorsements gleaned on a writing/podcast tour, and paying someone to say kind things about your work. Likewise, speaking engagements with extravagant paychecks are quite different than small honorariums paying someone for travel. People motivated by greed become “peddlers of the word of God” (2 Cor. 2:17). Similar warnings should be made to individuals motivated by fame or narcissism: preaching the gospel for the sake of self-promotion is deadly, and will eventually shipwreck your faith.
The trouble with your motivations is that they’re invisible to everyone outside of your own head. This explains why many people critique platforms by psychologizing their owners. More often than not, they limit their Bulverism to individuals who disagree with them. This suggests their critiques have little to do with genuine insights into someone’s motivations but has much to do with the critic’s predisposition to impugn the motives of those with whom they disagree.
In more ordinary circumstances, marketing and touring are simply part of how someone gains a hearing in the hurricane of social media static. It is far closer to Paul taking and creating as many opportunities as he could to preach the gospel: in synagogues, in houses, on the Areopagus, in prison, before rulers, and beyond. He had a knack for grabbing attention and used it for good.
Christians must develop a more nuanced view of platform building. “It’s bad!” isn’t just simplistic, it promotes dishonesty. We should carefully consider how much time, money, and resources we spend building them. Likewise, individuals with platforms should regularly reflect on their motives: Do I want wealth? Do I want fame? Am I self-promoting?
But in the digital era, spreading ideas looks like paying for ads, and touring content across digital mediums. This creates a complex ethical situation, but not an insoluble one if managed reflectively and responsibly.
Do platforms always or frequently lead to abuse?
While there is no study to prove my conjecture, I have a hard time believing that the majority of people with a platform (as defined above) use it to abuse others. While there is no doubt that the risk increases as a platform grows, there is still no absolute connection.
Even if you limit this question to those with over 100,000 followers, the answer isn’t clear. It’s not hard to create a list of ostensibly high-character leaders with massive platforms in the last century: Tim Keller, Beth Moore, Russel Moore, and Jackie Hill Perry. Some grew their platforms quickly, and others slowly. Some entered the spotlight in old age, others at a young age. But what is undeniable, is that they have platforms and seem to manage them unto the glory of God, not unto the abuse of others.
While we ought to continue the conversation around platform building and abuse, it must become more nuanced, because all platforms are not created equal. A platform of 2,000 is much smaller than a platform of 10,000, which is much smaller than a platform of 50,000, which is much smaller than a platform of 500,000.
The problems change at scale, and no assessment of the platforms can ignore this responsibly. Otherwise, we’d be forced to seriously critique the most serious critiques of platform building. Mike Cosper’s Twitter followers doubled from 14k to 31k after the release of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. He could have made his account private, stopped using it, or shut it down, but he didn’t. Does that compromise his integrity? I don’t think so. Katelyn Beatty’s new book Celebrities for Jesus has multiple paid ads, many featuring her picture. She could have sought a book contract that banned advertisement, but she didn’t. Does that compromise her integrity? I don’t think so.
The simple reality is that if you have something valuable to say, you need a platform to say it. You can bemoan the state of publishing and yearn for an idealized world where platforms don’t matter — but you’d be building castles in the sky. Without a platform, most creators cannot make a living, most publishers cannot sell books, and most ideas would stay where they started — in someone’s head. Moreover, part of how humans determine the worth of a work is by asking, “How have other people responded to it?” While popularity isn’t the same thing as “good, true, just, and beautiful,” it’s hard to imagine a world where a truly good book, podcast, or newsletter is totally ignored in perpetuity.
If the very people critiquing platforms have platforms, and actively advertise their work on platforms, maybe we need to go deeper than simplistic aphorisms like, “Platform building is wrong.” (For the record, neither Cosper nor Beaty fall into that kind of simplism, but I do see others take their work in this direction).
Maybe we need to instead say that platform building is dangerous, just like declaring a state of emergency is dangerous. But the analogy doesn’t end there: sometimes a state of emergency is necessary. In the same way, the creation of more platforms may be the necessary antidote to the Christian celebrity problem.
Platforms as the Prescription for Celebrity Christianity
While all celebrities have platforms, it’s not true that every Christian with a platform is a celebrity. In fact, the most effective way to reduce the total number of Christian celebrities is to increase the total number of non-celebrity platforms.
Part of this is simple math. If you have 100,000 Christians with the time to connect with four Christian platforms per week, you net 400,000 weekly engagements. If there are only four major platforms for them to engage, you end up with four Christian celebrities. But if there are 80 platforms for them to engage, you end up with 80 small-scale public figures.
As the internet becomes increasingly niche, audiences are gravitating to small content shops addressing narrow band topics. If you’re interested in smoking meat on a Kamado Joe, you can find someone to scratch that itch. If you want tutorials on how to blend make-up on olive-colored skin, you can find someone to scratch that itch. If you want a sardonic, secularized, center-right take on current events, you can find someone to scratch that itch. The same applies in the body of Christ, as creators address niche interests: trauma, public theology, LGBTQ issues, prayer, Bible backgrounds, cultural apologetics, Bible journaling, church history, counseling, sex, media, technology, communication, conflict resolution, family life, education, and more.
These small shops are actually quite sustainable monetarily. Creators only need 1,000 readers/listeners to support them $10 per month to make a great living. Better yet, increasing the number of small-scale platforms dilutes the extravagant profiteering associated with toxic celebrity Christian culture.
The problem is that many everyday Christians are stuck in the pre-digital model when media outfits and celebrities told them who to pay attention to. These tended to be Christian generalists whose primary virtues were their gifts in communication. The older model makes celebrity culture inevitable, because there will always be a smaller number of gifted generalists, and the streams of communication were limited to those with the right network of relationships. In other words, it’s a much steeper, hierarchical structure.
The new model tends to be much flatter: bypassing networks and tastemakers, and giving priority to specialized individuals with an ability to connect with a niche audience. If your ideal is, “We should elevate those with something good to say,” then you should appreciate this flattened model because it shortens the distance from creator to consumer by cutting out institutional middlemen. (Of course, there are some deeply troubling problems with this model, like conspiracy theories and misinformation).
To embrace the new model, Christians must leave celebrities behind, and actively seek out smaller-scale platforms, investing in them via Patreon, donations, or subscription fees. Once this happens on a large scale, there will be less incentive for most individuals to build massive platforms. If you’re able to make a decent living with a highly engaged and interested audience, the drive to grow diminishes. (Of course, there will be exceptions who must heed this warning: platform building for wealth and fame is a soul-destroying endeavor).
But what about the local church?
At some point in this article, I can imagine people shouting, “We don’t need any platforms! We already have the local church.”
To that, I say, “Amen.” You should make your church the chief place you learn, grow, connect, and give. But this isn’t a zero-sum game. Finding a small number of teachers who help you deepen your walk with Jesus isn’t anything new, and it isn’t anything wrong. Give them $10-20 per month above and beyond your tithe.
Put differently: my spiritual life would be impoverished without the work of non-local Christian thinkers, writers, and speakers. They play an important role in the body of Christ, which we can keep in check by keeping them small and modestly funded.
If you leave your church because your pastor can’t speak like Ben Stuart, then you’ve got a serious problem. If you constantly correct your pastor with the teachings of John McArthur, then you’ve got a serious problem. But if you’re learning inside church and outside of the church, that’s not wrong. Thank God for the gift.
To end celebrity culture, we must embrace the priority of the local church, encourage healthy, small-scale platform building, and issue uncynical warnings to the few who reach celebrity status. Critiquing platforms from a platform is like throwing stones in a glass house — especially if you’re growing a platform through your critique. Instead, we need to carefully assess how platform building goes sideways, and how it can be deployed for good.