“If you want progress, take up running. If you want meaning, run a church.”
-Kate Bowler, No Cure for Being Human
Why does so much of the Christian internet focus on self-help? It's a question I've been asking lately as I sift through religious Instagram accounts that promote "three easy steps" for improving a career, a marriage, or even a holiday celebration. Sometimes, this content is less about optimization and more about prescription. What is a Godly way to run your household finances? What is the Biblical view on job hunting? How does Jesus want you to shop this Christmas season?
As more churches learn to convene online or hybrid communities, I hear more leaders asking about digital content. We're in this moment where we know we need to create or curate. Yet some of the most theologically-informed leaders want to focus this content on self-improvement: finding the right career, discovering how to be truly authentic, or even baking the perfect yule log cake.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that we have an inclination to create self-help content. After all, self help is a $15 billion business in the United States, and Millennials can't seem to get enough. 75 million Millennials pay for self-help apps, services, or resources. Tens of millions more can't get enough of self-optimization podcasts, TikTok videos, or Netflix specials.
If we're looking to create or curate content that spreads, self-help is a logical place to start. The only problem is that it's not what the church is called to be.
The Advent season teaches us about living in liminal moments, spaces defined by a tension between the now and the not-yet. When congregations read texts from Isaiah or Malachi, or when they hear the words of John the Baptist in the wilderness or the song of Mary's Magnificat, we are not hearing a call to self-optimization. We are hearing an expression of hope amidst longing, a cry for God's presence amidst the uncertainty of our world. The arrival of the Christmas season on December 25th affirms that God breaks into our world to dwell with us in these fraught moments and vulnerable seasons.
Blog posts and podcasts that teach us to dwell with loss and longings will likely prove to be unpopular. In this cultural moment, we want to hear from influencers who can subvert the pain and turn tension into resolution. And we want that resolution to arrive as quickly as possible.
A helpful test for Christian content creators is this: does my content create hope amidst uncertainty? Or does it merely promise certainty?
Does my content teach us to be better, or does it simply allow us to be?
Church online is not about self-improvement. The four weeks of Advent teach us that the speed of salvation requires more waiting than our culture would want or expect. Rather, church online is about presence. It's about making known the work of God in a world that is so far from where we want it to be. It's about revealing the presence of a Savior who speaks not in three-step plans or self-help books, but in solidarity with our world's sufferings.