The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

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11 thoughts on “The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

  1. Demosthenes

    > Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work.

    I think this also leaves out one particular cause of the decline of amateur Christian blogging – the ability to freely express Christian beliefs being curtailed by employers in recent history.

    For example, I used to blog about Christian topics, but no longer would due to any strong argumentation of a biblical perspective causing me to land in hot water based on my employer’s code of conduct that extends beyond my work correspondence.

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  2. Linn

    I’m a teacher of almost 40 years who sometimes jokes that I’ll know how to use chalk and pencils when the lights go out at the zombie apocalypse. Having gone form chalk to tablets in my career (all my students are on devices during some part of the school day, as well as homework), I think we will be doing more and more of our “reading” on the internet. AT some point, pastors and teachers need to do a better job of teaching discernment in reading material, just like in the old days. I was an early, avid reader, and I remember my parents introducing to me to children’s classics and later more grown-up classics. I missed the whole teen romance craze because I was too busy reading better books like “Great Expectations.” Churches need to do the same with their congregations, and then make the better blogs/other online reading materials part of sermons and discussion groups. Having intellectual tools for decision making really do aid in being a discerning reader.

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  3. Great Post. I, too, was intrigued by Challies’ article on Christian blogging. As one myself and a general follower of his I always enjoy what he has to say on writing. I think you make a good point in highlighting the increase in the need of social media if one is to blog. I’ve been doing so on Christian themes and youth ministry for nearly 10 years and am always in a tension of how and when to do the social media promotion. Part of me recoils at the thought of being a greasy promoter of my own stuff and part of me realises that it isn’t going to be read otherwise. I have had a break from it for a while, posting to my own profiles and the like, but some of my closer readers don’t believe the break is worthwhile as they don’t have a problem with it. It’s amazing that in this day and age we have become so familiar with the promotion of self no one really questions it. I know this was a fine point in a broader article that you wrote but it something that strikes me regularly.

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  4. “One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this.”
    While alleviating some of the need for heavy social media promotion by individual writers, I don’t think I’d call them a bulwark per se. All content publishers are are subject to the same algorithmic meat grinder that social media has become. They have known brands and command large reader bases, but the content flows across the same gerrymandered BUMMER (see Jaron Lanier) medium. How can these large ministry publishers encourage less social media if social media is the primary channel of their delivery, promotion, and consumption? How can they avoid being complicit in the commodification of their readers?
    Writers and publishers both would do better to opt out and explore new forms of distribution outside of the social media.

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    1. I think that’s a good point, re: does being dependent on the traffic brought in by social make a website complicit in its overuse. “Bulwark” is too strong a word. I do think though that the kind of blogging that Tim specifically has in mind—short, daily content—is pretty much 100% dependent on social media, due to the death of RSS. If you’re an average reader and you’re not using social media to get to a page, there’s a REALLY good chance that page is a professionally edited site rather than a WordPress blog.

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