February 19, 2020

An Optimistic View of Blogging Evangelicalism: Community, Confessional Conversations and Adventures In Self-Criticism

On September 17th, I was privileged to present the following paper at the Civitas Conference: “After Evangelicalism,” at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thanks to Joel Hunter for inviting me to be part of a panel entitled: “Blogging Evangelicalism: Benign Influence or Ecclesiastical Menace?” It was great fun for me, and a super birthday present.


In most settings, it would be standard operating procedure to begin a presentation on “Blogging Evangelicalism” with the observation that Luther would likely have been a minor footnote in history had it not been for the melding of the ideas of the reformation with the technology of the printing press. From that well-worn observation comes a similar train of optimistic predictions and pronouncements about evangelicals and technology in general. Evangelicals, no matter how else we might characterize them, certainly approve of the wedding of technology and religion. Aside from the occasional announcement that bar codes and microchips are the coming of the anti-Christ, evangelicals usually come around to betting that the latest forms of technology are gifts from God with a God-honoring potential.

It is less certain exactly how evangelicals are going to take up with whatever technology they have a crush on. Television may be the devil, but it was also Pat Robertson’s way for the parousia to be broadcast live to a watching world. Church youth group record burnings have recently given way to Switchfoot concerts. Luther’s reformation goal of putting a Bible in the hand of every plowboy is now looking like every plowboy checking his wireless email.

In other words, if we are going to talk about blogging and evangelicals, we should understand that there is no way, whether scholarly or mystical, to predict where we will be ten years from now. Blogs may be on the shelf with C.B. radio evangelism, or they may truly be the arrival of a new Gutenberg revolution among evangelicals. I’ll predict something more than a fad and less than the rediscovery of the printed page. I’ll avoid calling the final result, but I’ll safely predict anyone who doesn’t take the time to understand blogging as an evangelical phenomenon will soon wish they had, if for no other reason than the current explosion and multiplication of blogs on the evangelical scene.

For the uninitiated, “blog” is a shortened version of the term “web log,” which refers to an internet journal, usually maintained and regularly updated by an individual. While blogs can take a number of forms and formats, the typical blog is a highly individualized, frequently updated, somewhat self-revealing, creatively shaped, journal featuring a diverse variety of content. Such journals generally feature “links” to other sources of information available on line, and usually allow comments from readers to be attached to the blog “posts.” (The presence or absence of comments from readers is a key factor in much of what I want to observe about blogs, but they are not universally seen as essential.)

My favorite, unflattering and incomplete analogy for blogging is the idea of a pirate radio station. One person, broadcasting from an unknown location, often anonymously, sending out their own point of view to whomever might choose to tune in, and subsequently, pass the word to others. The audience may be small or large. The broadcaster may be making significant commentary, or barking at the moon, but there is something undeniably appealing, anarchistic and, yes, evangelical, about the adventure of one person creating their own media weapon and fighting the good fight, as they see it.

This is the same adventure that allows every self-ordained preacher to begin a storefront church, a one man radio program and, eventually, a seminary in a 7-11. There are some evangelicals who worry about this, but bloggers will say that the great romance of blogging is the ability of one person with a few thoughts to create something that can look and sound- in its given medium- as credible as Christianity Today or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In fact, the heart of blogging is something that may be quite important: the power of self -publishing. By this, I mean the ability of any individual with access to a computer to publish a blog at no cost, to write whatever he or she pleases with no editorial controls at all, and to garner a readership for that blog based on factors that often have nothing to do with how “real” published authors are perceived.

Such potential is at the center of why the established, mainstream media is so confused and frustrated by the presence and influence of “new media” like blogging. Self-publishing creates an easily accessed and highly participatory free market of information, expertise, opinion and analysis. In this environment, blogging is among the most equalized of all current mediums of communication available to evangelicals, and as such, it deserves some efforts at comprehension by those considering what evangelicalism will look like in its future.

To understand the potential of blogging, I will use myself as an example. I have been blogging for 5 years, and within the world of evangelical blogging, I’ve achieved many of my goals. Currently, more than 200,000 “unique visitors” a year visit my blog. These are individuals visiting the site, not multiple page views by a smaller number. More than two thousand readers have taken the time to write me an email. Some have turned up on my porch, looking for me. My blogging has allowed me to achieve the goal of being published in Modern Reformation, to speak in churches and to be here reading this paper. All of this comes, not from my academic qualifications or the quality of my published writing, but because I’ve made blogging a second vocation.

What is truly ironic is that my blog is far more successful, at this point in time, than hundreds of scholars, writers, pastors and people who actually write serious books. It is common in the world of blogging for a little known pastor to have a far larger general audience than a world-class scholar. Blogging rewards characteristics that scholars may feel are less than important, and blog readers, millions of them, have proven that they are quite happy to treat an acknowledged expert as the inferior of someone who never comes out from behind a pseudonym.

In the real world, I preach to 350 students and staff at a Christian school, and to a congregation of 20 at a tiny church in a neighboring community. Yet, on my blog, I have a large audience that considers me a worthy writer, a pastor and a mentor. Blogging has given me an internet ministry far beyond many of my superiors, at least in the medium of self-publishing.

From, therefore, my perspective as a layman, I will explore three optimistic considerations for evangelicalism’s possible blogged future. First, blogging has demonstrated the power to contribute to some level of community around the virtues of vulnerability and transparency. Second, blogging is a remarkable tool for the shaping of the confessional conversation that is essential to the health of evangelicalism. Third, blogging is a remarkable means for the difficult and usually avoided ministry of self-criticism within evangelicalism.

The power of the internet to create and contribute to human community can be readily observed in everything from e-harmony commercials to support groups for persons with little known diseases to forums and bulletin boards for particular perversities. Judgments on this power to create community are many and varied. Like its human creators, the internet shows our creative ingenuities and our depravity.

There is, however, considerable evidence that the communities made possible by blogs are among the most positive uses of the internet. This is particularly true in that bloggers are often considerably more vulnerable and candid than a minister or teacher in a church setting would (or could) venture to be, and most bloggers invite readers to comment and contribute to a discussion generated by a post. This ability to say “I am open to building relationships with others who share my particular struggles and questions,” has the potential to help foster- with technological boundaries- communities that bring an entirely different face to blogging evangelicalism than the stereotypical monologs of a preacher or the shallow answers available in much evangelical teaching and writing.

A prime example of this is a well-known blogger known as Real Live Preacher. In the real world, Real Live Preacher is the pastor of a small Baptist Church similar to thousands of others. On his blog, however, Real Live Preacher has proven to be a remarkably honest and candid writer, providing riveting reading to those of us who often wonder if anyone else shares our frustration with the shallowness of evangelical versions of the Christian life.

Real Live Preacher’s blog quickly became the center of a large community of like-minded readers and writers. Why is this significant for evangelicalism? Because, for many Christians, the price of Christian community has been to come to church with the pretense of having things together, using a particular mode of speech and certainly silencing an array of difficult questions. (Interestingly, Real Live Preacher wrote a book for Eerdman’s, but I would argue that Real Live Preacher the author is not at all the same thing as Real Live Preacher the blogger.)

With Real Live Preacher and the hundreds, even thousands of similar Christian blogs now proliferating in his wake, there are thousands of evangelicals experiencing not just the companionship of the occasional book or friend that affirms that their own questions and struggles are not unique, but entire virtual communities of fellow pilgrims walking together, questions and struggles intact. While “disembodied,” these communities are not without personal and pastoral significance in evangelicalism.

One vivid example comes to mind. Real Live Preacher posted two very moving episodes of his daughter being ruthlessly teased by bullies and “mean kids” at school. Immediately, a community formed around this experience, including parents of such children, those who carried memories of similar experiences as children themselves, teachers who see these incidents, and other Christians wanting to understand the experience of others. I have no doubt that such persons are present in most churches, but where does the church provide the venue for this particular discussion to take place? Where does the church allow such a community to form around this painful, but common, human experience? Are such painful and sometimes uncomfortable confessions welcome even in the small groups fostered by most churches?

It appears to me that blogging has given a voice to thousands of persons who have been silent about matters that are, if not intregal, at least deeply ingrained in the darker, silent corners of Christian experience. Many of these are voices we need to hear, with the potential to create beneficial communities. Many are voices we find it remarkably difficult to allow in our churches. Can I tell anyone in my church that I read the lectionary blog of a lesbian Presbyterian Preacher for sermon ideas, and for an appreciation of a point of view far outside my own experience?

Recently, one prominent blogger wrote a lengthy personal post on his failure to visit a friend who was diagnosed with cancer, and had passed away after several months. I have no doubt that the honesty of this man is genuine, but it is significant that he realized that he could acknowledge his struggle and find community through his blog audience. I thank God for the communities made possible by the best evangelical blogs, and I believe we should encourage them, refer to them, and affirm them at every opportunity.

My second optimistic exploration is of a very different aspect of blogging; one that is more predictable evangelical, argumentative and contentious. Blogging among evangelicals manifests exactly what one would expect from a tradition where every person with a Bible, a brain and a blog can be a teacher, preacher or pontificator. Blogs carry on the long evangelical tradition of arguing over theology. An exploration of the blogosphere reveals everything from timid monolog, to courteous dialog, to spirited team conflict, to all out war to nuclear apocalypse.

When James said, “Let not many of you become teachers,” he clearly had blogs in mind. No one would blame the person who stands up in the middle of a 100-post comment thread and shouts, “Can’t we all just get along?” So, you may be surprised when I tell you that I am remarkably enthusiastic about the constant theological debate and battle that goes on in the blogosphere.

I would suggest that an ongoing confessional conversation is a foundational characteristic of protestant evangelicalism, and that blogging continues that conversation in, what will prove, I believe, to be an overwhelmingly helpful way. The footnote reads, “More evidence to come.”

Roman Catholics discuss what the church has determined the Bible teaches. Evangelicals argue about what the Bible teaches as if the church started this morning. More than one evangelical has taken that clearly marked exit to Rome because they were weary of the impression that nothing is ever settled in evangelicalism, and that even our confessions are worthless when compared to the latest sermon series by Brother Billy Bob.

One way I know, however, that I am an evangelical, is that when I don’t know what I believe about baptism, I don’t simply read a confession first or go to bed trusting the church to get it right. I read my Bible and go looking for a conversation partner. If I’m lucky, we’ll disagree and I’ll read my Bible more than ever.

Evangelicalism, at its best, is not an orderly classroom. It is a rowdy conversation, with Bibles handed out to every plowboy, street preacher, housewife and seminary professor. The worst thing Rick Warren ever said was “Never question what God is blessing.” That’s poor evangelicalism. In evangelicalism, every purpose-driven notion is debated by everyone from the youth director to the senior adult men’s class to the cranky Calvinist with his renegade Bible study. In evangelicalism, if we come to confessional consensus at all, it is only as the occasional pause between reading the text again, and again, and again, to hear the Holy Spirit.

If you believe this is a fundamentally healthy aspect of evangelicalism- and not everyone will- then you will see that blogs are potentially useful tools for promoting conversation, providing civility, sharing conclusions, linking resources and asking continuing questions.

For example, I regularly receive warnings from some corners of the blogosphere that my group blog ought to cut back on its diverse, evangelical free-for-all policy of discussion. These hand wringers remind me that the participants in the discussion are not all seminary trained, are not all ordained, and are not all predictably tame in their conclusions. To which I say, “Isn’t it grand?”

I do not say this because the sound of 31 people from 12 denominations debating baptism, or the canon, or N.T. Wright on justification is a stress-free, orderly, orthodox discussion. It is 31 persons, almost all laity, with open Bibles, doing what evangelicals would love to do more often, what churches find it not only difficult to do, but often counter-productive to do. A free-for-all discussion on baptism doesn’t go well with the current roadmaps to capital fund-raising campaigns or building programs, which, unfortunately, is exactly the problem in evangelicalism.

I bless the blogging movement because, with all its considerable warts, there is now more discussion and awareness of the Biblical story and relevant theological issues among millions of evangelicals than ever before. Those of us who have found blogs to be significant places of ministry are, I believe, universally in awe at the influence blogs have over the “wired” generation, who are being exposed to huge tracts of evangelical theology and Biblical teaching that most evangelicals of previous generations never encountered.

It will do us more good than harm and I am all for it.

Having touched on the potential of this technology to provoke and foster community and further promote our essential conversation, I now want to suggest that blogging fosters the difficult, much-needed and generally neglected work of mature self-criticism within the movement.

Perhaps because every plowboy does have a Bible, it’s not surprising that evangelicals have an underdeveloped capacity for self-criticism. This is certainly related to an over-developed sense of individual authority. Evangelicals who gladly tell others that we are all sinners with no aspect of our humanity untainted, will, in the same breath, assert that Pastor Eddie is God’s anointed who shouldn’t be criticized. With God revealing himself, according to most evangelicals, not only in the Bible, but in various types of subjective, confirming individual experiences, it has become characteristic of many evangelicals to assume that God has assured them that their particular preferences are beyond serious review. Criticism is interpreted as condemnation or attack, and is seldom received well.

The result is the inability to tell one another that we have problems, or Heaven forbid, that we are wrong, without triggering schism and costly, bitter conflict. I’ll never forget listening to one of my young pastor friends, fresh from being empowered with wisdom at a “How-to-be-a-megachurch” seminar, telling some modest critics of recent alterations and additions to the worship service that if they didn’t like recent changes, they should go find another church. Such is the far-to-frequent pragmatic evangelical approach to criticism. Rather than incorporate the capacity for criticism into our ministries and relationships, we encourage one another to repent, shut up or move on. Hence, evangelicalism’s sad legacy of burned over and mistreated people who questioned the agenda, didn’t go along with the pastor, or voiced their opposition to the current direction.

Why would I believe that blogging would make any difference? I’ll cite three examples. The first is simply the proliferation of pastoral bloggers who are allowing their church members to raise questions, criticisms and reactions to their overall ministries and leadership by way of the pastor’s own blog. Tod Bolsinger, a pastor in California, has an outstanding blog called “It Takes A Church,” where he regularly summarizes his preaching and writing. The resulting interaction is not what we normally see on Sunday morning. It is deeper and more substantial. It contains questions, and criticism. Tod’s warm acceptance of the responsibility of pastoral dialog is facilitated through his blog. Bolsinger models what future evangelical pastors will do with blogs as instruments of ministry within and beyond the church.

A second example is two small town pastors who present a podcast known as “The Mayberry Driven Church.” In a humorous and low key way, they use their blog to foster a gentle critique of the weaknesses of the prevailing megachurch model. The blog is a community for similar pastors and critics. Without more than a spoonful of edge, these bloggers mount one of the finest critical examinations of a model that promotes itself as virtually unassailable because it its pragmatic record of success. Yet two bloggers, in stories and examples from their own churches, provide a much needed niche for those who see a legitimate place for the small church in a small setting and who resist the prevailing mindset of “whatever works is good.”

My favorite example concerns Jimmy Draper, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and until recently, head of Lifeway, the SBC’s publishing and resources division. Draper wrote a column in a denominational paper lamenting the disengagement of young pastors from the traditional denominational life of the SBC. He wondered if the SBC was noticing that more and more of these young men were followers of generic evangelical ways of doing church rather than distinctive Southern Baptist ways of pastoral leadership and denominational loyalty? He wondered aloud what the future held if these pastors decided to no longer identify with the SBC.

The column appeared on line, and was answered by dozens of younger SBC leaders linking and commenting on their blogs. They offered their answers to one of the very, very few invitations from a major SBC leader to say “What’s wrong with the way we’re doing things?” The bloggers answered…and Draper responded…by becoming a blogger. Now, a much larger dialog has ensued, with bloggers by the hundreds plugging into Draper’s blog posts and dialoging with him over their future in the SBC.

This had a tangible result at this year’s convention meeting, as the SBC sponsored a “Younger Leader’s Summit” that consciously took the concerns of these pastor’s seriously, and promised a continuing critical conversation. Make no mistake about it: it was blogs that made this reapproachment possible, and it is blogs that will carry this critical dialog forward. I know of no other medium that would have facilitated this process as well.

In all these cases, we see that blogs, with their encouragement of vulnerable community, reflective written communication and ongoing dialog, allow the critical dimension to exist in a more welcome and helpful way. Here at this conference, bloggers like Scot Mcknight and Anthony Smith provide great examples of why I am optimistic about blogging. It is possible for us talk to one another critically, and to stay in the same church, denomination and relationship. It is possible that criticism among evangelicals will not simply be the domain of “apologists” who must denounce all who differ with them as a threat to the truth. Blogging could, quite possibly, allow every pastor and Christian leader to become one of the rest of us, drink coffee with us, listen to us, and minister to and with us from a new point of common acceptance.

This paper has been an optimistic exploration of blogs and their potential effect on the evangelical future. Blogs are not the church, and in some ways, they may be critiqued as contributing to a further dissolution of a “face-to-face” church community, which is clearly the New Testament model. We live, however, in a world where technology is a reality in making both more human and, perhaps on occasion, less human. I would suggest that the human experience that stands behind the best blogs enhances the Christian communities that participate in blogging, and I have little fear that the church in the living room will be overtaken by the church of the blogosphere. I believe Paul would start churches, and that if he knew about the opportunity, he would blog to the Greco-Romans of our day.

Blogging provides a new and fascinating window through which we can observe, experience and study evangelicalism. Every presentation at the conference has reminded me of blogs that currently speak to the issues raised, potential blog posts for my own writing, and the possibilities of blogging in evangelicalism’s future. I were introducing anyone to evangelicalism, I would send them to churches, give them books, and recommend ten representative blogs. On those blogs, my student would see a diversity that is rare in church, hear conversations I’ve seldom heard in church and glimpse what a post-denominational, “wired” evangelicalism might look like.

Blogger Andrew Jones has suggested that the church plant of the future will involve choosing a name, an easily accessed coffeeshop and, of course, making a good-looking church blog. Jones is suggesting that blogging, as a means of self-publishing and community creation, will become essential to the formation of church communities in the future. He may be optimistic, and he may be manifesting that evangelical crush on new technology I mentioned earlier. I happen to believe he is substantially correct, and that we can welcome a spirit-led, Christ-imitating blogged revolution as a worthy goal of the evangelicalism of the future.

Comments

  1. One thing I would bring up in relation to the theological conversation aspect of bloging:
    This is one of the best methods to help us define orthodoxy as a body of Christ. I have been involved with ‘evangelical’ churches most of my life. I must say that the majority of people I have encountered within these churches can not articulate what they believe to be right doctrine simply because they have never tried. Of course, talking about doctrine leads to the questions of ‘why to I believe this’ and the like. While these questions are hard, they are necessary so that we might be able to articulate what the essentials of the Faith are, as well as the non-essentials we ourselves subscribe to, and (most importantly) be able to distinguish between the two.
    Talking theology in this way helps us reach out beyond denom. lines, and to find the communion of saints in the real sense, as opposed to the ‘communion of dispy, pre-tribers, who subscribe to (insert teacher/preachers name)’s views and therefore don’t listen to anything that counters such and such teaching… mean saints’. I believe that when we grasp the communion of saints, we will find ourselves rejoicing with the body, hurting with the body, and seeing to body as so much more than just the ‘evangelical’ tradition.

    Great paper. I would have loved to hear you orate it.

  2. One thing I find lacking in much evangelical blogging: Scripture. Quoted or referenced directly. I find much chatter about Scripture, in generalities, but little of it. Scripture can be quoted or referenced about almost any subject, and I think to do so would increase readers’ knowledge of Scripture, increase the perception of Scripture’s usefulness, and increase our reverence for the mystery of God’s Word. For example, some blogs are talking about how some Christians claim New Orleans was struck because of sin, yet the French Quarter was largely left untouched, and bars are racing to reopen. But both Noah and Lot got drunk after the Flood and after the destruction of Sodom (Genesis ch. 9, ch. 19). Is this coincidence an example of “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2:7)?

    Anyway…as a new reader to blogs, the potential for the frank discussion of Scripture is there, but I actually see very little Scripture.

  3. Michael Rew: I couldn’t agree more about the need for more Scripture being referenced. It has been my experience that by and large, Christendom is ignorant of what the Word actually says. I’m not talking about differing on interpretations. I’m talking about people not even knowing what the Scripture says. I call it “whisper down the lane” theology, and I wrote about it in my blog:

    http://theologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2005/08/whisper-down-lane-theology.html

    steve 🙂

  4. Some questions. Not angry ones. Just curious.

    Why does a blog have to use scripture if it is not a Bible study or Bible teaching blog? Are we supposed to “quote” scripture to substantiate everything we say? Can’t we write as humans, or as those who are living out the Biblical story without citing references? Why, for instance, would a confessional or autobiographical blog post have to include scripture? Why are bloggers any different from other writers? Some use scripture and some do not. C.S. Lewis, for example, was a great Christian writer who knew the Bible well and wrote “out” of its worldview, but he rarely wrote about scripture or cited it.

  5. imonk,
    I agree. Christians in this day and age take for granted that we have passage and verse Bibles. First century Christians didn’t have the scriptures, in the form we do, yet they spoke and wrote about Godly themes that have impacted us 1999 years later. Such is the power of Christian speech.
    Eugene Peterson said something in “reversed Thunder” that stuck with me. He pointed out that Revelation is full of OT (scripture) but it comes out in John’s “conversation” with His audience, as opposed to direct quotes. I think that Christians would do better to know what scripture says and let that knowledge invade their talk (seasoned with salt if you will) rather than know verse and passage to quote on such and such a topic.

  6. Scriptural reference can be necessary in some contexts and superfluous in others.

    In this paper, for example, I see no need for Michael to have included scripture. He is speaking from his own vantage point and experience.

    On the other hand, had he, in support of his arguements for the place of blogs in evangelicalism, talked about a minor prophet’s unconventional means to evangelize Israel, or Paul’s use of some sort of new papyrus in his letter to the Hebrew church that they rejected because it was made of pig intestines, I would have to say, “Oh yeah? Gimme a verse.”

    There are cases where one better have a verse to back up one’s theology or I ain’t buyin’ it. Conversely, not every idea expressed necessitates scriptual reference.

    Michael, question: do you see any evidence to point to the possibiity (just looking for a hint here) that there could be an inherent danger in evangelical blogging with regard to offline Christian community and fellowship? Could the one threaten to supplant the other for some folks?

    Thanks for sharing your views on this subject.

  7. The entire session Joel Hunter and I sponsored was on that topic. I won’t recreate it, but I will say that we concluded that blogging aims at what it cannot do: create face to face community. I am more optimistic about blogging as creating “tentative” communities, and the possibility of further community. I am also hopeful that it will foster aspects of community that are difficult in the real world. But I utterly reject the idea of the e-church or anything like it. Except for Landover Baptist 😉 and any offering you people take for me.

  8. I was not trying to imply that a chapter/verse “prooftext” needs to be given for every point. The point that I thought Michael Rew was making and that I was agreeing with is the absence of Scriptural truth in a lot of the things that Christians talk about. Christians, by and large, do not appear to base their beliefs on Scripture, but rather what they think they once heard someone say that God said, and they just take their word for it. That is NOT the biblical model of teaching or learning, and lends itself to all the relativism we see in our Christian circles today, blogs included.

    I realize now that Michael Rew did say that Scripture should be quoted directly, and I don’t know that I fully agree with the “directly” part, but Scriptural truth should definitely be informing our beliefs, our “worldview” (per your other more recent post, iMonk), and our comments.

    For example, iMonk, when you and I and others got into a discussion about the church building in Gary, Indiana (you had posted pictures and there was a lot of discussion about how sad it was that the building was no longer being used as a church, etc.): There were a lot of comments about why we needed buildings, etc., but none of the comments were coming from a Scriptural point of view (or, at best, were OT references without the whole context of the NT). When I and others tried to make points based on Scriptural bases, one person even commented that we were trying to be “holier than thou”. That’s where I just step back and scratch my head.

    oh, well. I’m getting used to being scoffed at here in the replies I get 😉 hehe

    steve 🙂

  9. This is a good discussion and I’d like to trackback to a post I’m preparing for my blog, but I don’t see a trackback link here. You do offer them in other iMonk posts. I’m curious how you decide which posts to allow/not allow trackbacks, Michael.

    Thanks

  10. Fantastic paper. I especially appreciate the self-disclosure in how your blogging success came to be.