Back in the early 19th century, Charles Finney was a religious “influencer.” These days, that term is applied commonly to lifestyle vloggers on TikTok, the app that’s been downloaded over 2 billion times worldwide.
Finney has been called the “father of American revivalism” and he developed a methodology that emphasized creating the right spiritual environment for conversion. He wrote, in What a Revival of Religion is: “Men are so sluggish, there are so many things that lead their minds off from religion and to oppose the influence of the Gospel, that it is necessary to raise an excitement among them, till the tide rises so high as to sweep away the opposing obstacles. They must be so aroused that they will break over these counteracting influences, before they will obey God.” Finney’s then pioneering evangelistic techniques–the emotion-arousing music, the advertising, and the altar call–gained him may converts, but to a different gospel which is not another, but a perversion of the gospel of Christ Jesus held by the Reformers.
As Michael Horton wrote: “Thus, in Finney’s theology, God is not sovereign, man is not a sinner by nature, the atonement is not a true payment for sin, justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality, the new birth is simply the effects of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns.”
Finney was a pre-digital religious “influencer.” But sinful man, no matter what epoch of redemptive history, needs not the influence by inducements to save himself; he needs actual saving and that is by way of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom.1:16). Finney the “influencer” did not treat his revival attendees as sinners in Adam, desperately needing to hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Finney’s crowds needed not his influencing techniques rooted in man-centered Arminian and even Pelagian theology; as the unable-to-save-themselves sinners they were, they needed the only comfort of belonging, by God’s grace through faith, to the Savior Jesus Christ who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all “my” sins and redeemed “me” from all the power of the devil (belovedly familiar, right?).
Finney as the religious “influencer” led many to imbibe a false gospel rather than the Gospel being proclaimed by faithful Christian churches, where the ordinary means of grace bring sinners to true faith; the only faith that grants the everlasting privileges of union with Christ.
Finney’s pioneering religious “influencing” techniques were influential in later televangelism such as that of Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker and in the social media of today. Today, almost every prominent, and even not-so-prominent, pastor and Bible teacher has an online following, and Covid restrictions spurred online religious services of all kinds, including “TikTok church” livestreams, which are not of actual Christian churches. Social media, especially TikTok, has been called the new medium of revival in the 21st century.
Peter Park, an elder at Lighthouse Bible Church in San Jose CA, who has researched TikTok “evangelism” thinks that “there’s going to be more and more Christians that call themselves Christians, that won’t ever be a member of a physical local church. But they’ll be part of these types of social networks. And they’ll be receiving some truths in these videos and they’ll go pick and choose what they want to watch…”
It’s most likely only the exceptional few among Christian church members who do not avail themselves of social media to read or listen to religious content. It’s so readily available with just a click anytime the urge strikes and you don’t need a chair by a lamp; you’ve got the smartphone right there with you all day long, available no matter what you’re doing. We might not come under the spell of “religious influencers,” but certainly we are exposed, as we click around, to religious influencers other than the Gospel-feeding pastors and elders of the churches we saints in Christ Jesus regularly attend.
I’ve heard it said that a hindrance to the Christian life is not making more of an effort to avail oneself of all the faith-building content on social media. That raises some red flags, since it raises the question: what faith, and also, are you regularly attending the faith-building preaching and teaching of the Gospel amidst the congregated fellowship of the church?
John Owen, in Communion with God (Works, v.2), said: “Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.” The privileges we Christians have are enumerated in the Gospel which we Christians all need faithfully and regularly proclaimed to us, the congregated worship service being the primary means, so we become ever more acquainted with the privileges that are ours in union with the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, ruling, and coming-back-in-glory Christ.
On social media there are not only the Finneyan, emotion-arousing, false doctrine religious influencers, as well as church- growth promoting, self-fulfillment, self-esteem building “Christian” influencers, but also what is called the “Story of Us” influencers. Sharon Janis writes, in her book Spirituality for Dummies: “in a nutshell, spirituality relates to your own personal experience and relationship with the divine…Dogma can muddy the waters of a spiritual path.” But as J. Gresham Machen rightly observed back in 1932:” What many men despise today as “doctrine” the New Testament calls the Gospel.” The “Story of Us” is a different gospel, because rather than focusing on Christ Jesus and His work, the focus is on your own, or someone else’s, personal spiritual story. That’s an inversion of the apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Cor.4:5–we preach not Jesus, but ourselves.
The privileges with which we Christians need to be ever more acquainted with are not those of feelings and emotional experiences, but the privileges that are ours by the faith that unites us to the Christ Jesus of the Gospel. Christ’s apostle, Paul, rhetorically challenges the saints in Christ Jesus in Philippians 2, saying: If any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. His intent is to have the saints respond, as they are believers of the Gospel he proclaimed to them, “of course those privileges are ours as it has been granted us to believe in Jesus Christ and suffer for His sake.”
“Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.”
The “evangelism” of TikTok and other social media may well be a hindrance to our Christian lives, because it may direct us away from acquaintedness with our privileges that we know only as we hear and believe the Gospel once for all delivered to the saints, and exercise those privileges of union with Christ in the like-minded, encouraging and admonishing communion of our local Gospel–proclaiming Christian church.
And there we are being equipped to be useful witnesses, out in the world of religious “influencers,” to the everlasting privileges that are enjoyed only by abiding faith in the Lord and Savior of the Gospel, Christ Jesus.