Patheos@5: From Mainline to Progressive to…? Celebrating the Evolving Christian Journey #Patheos5yrs

Exciting news, friends! We’ve graduated to kindergarten!

That’s right … Patheos, the little religion-site-that-could, is turning five this month! And I couldn’t be a prouder Mama. I remember the day we launched the first beta site, a few of us huddled around a computer monitor, anxiously watching to see if anyone would come. We were thrilled to have 7,000 unique visitors on that first day. Today, our small team has grown (but not by much!) and our readers have multiplied to some 6 million unique visitors a month. Not bad for a religion start-up in one of the worst economies on record. We are proud to say, today, that we have succeeded at creating a unique and vibrant online platform for “hosting the conversation on faith.”

My own journey at Patheos has been quite the ride. For starters, I don’t think I’ve ever been hired for a job specifically because I was a Mainline Protestant. I remember Leo Brunnick (Patheos’ co-founder) nearly jumping out of his chair in my interview when he learned I was a Presbyterian. “That’s perfect!” he said “I don’t have any Presbyterians on my team yet!” I can’t say I expected to ever hear that in an interview. I came aboard in March of 2009 as the first “portal” manager (we call them “channels” now) and it wasn’t even clear what or how many portals I would be managing! I remember helping to launch the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant Channels, but very soon, I became the sole Mainline Protestant Manager, responsible for curating a team of writers to represent the Mainline Protestant “perspective” on faith (just a wee task) on this new multi-faith site.

I remember some of my first, very fine columnists: Greg Garrett, Fred Schmidt, Monica Coleman and the indefatigable Alyce McKenzie and John Holbert (colleagues at Perkins School of Theology who have been graciously and tirelessly offering weekly lectionary posts on the Old and New Testament for Patheos for nearly five years. Kudos, Alyce and John!). It was a joy to be surfacing and sharing thoughtful perspectives from the more liberal side of the Christian spectrum. Voices I respected, was inspired by, and longed for more of. The first work conference I attended was called Theology After Google, hosted by the forward-thinking Claremont School of Theology. There, I met a vibrant community of progressive thinkers, many of whom would become great friends and co-conspirators for my journey (thanks, Philip Clayton, Bruce Epperly, Doug Pagitt, Tripp Fuller, Tony Jones, Jana Riess, and Adam Walker Cleaveland, to name just a few).

As my peripheral vision of the Christian blogosphere grew those first couple of years, it became clear that there was a significant number of fantastic and relevant voices on the web that didn’t really identify as Mainline Protestant, nor did they fit into our more theologically and politically conservative Evangelical Channel. They identified more with the label “Emergent” or Post-Evangelical. I realized that the moniker for my channel was too narrow … and besides, it was completely unsexy. I mean, who called themselves a “Mainline Protestant” when asked what kind of Christian they were? It seemed that people either responded with the descriptor Evangelical, Progressive, Liberal, or a particular denomination (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist). So, in the spring of 2011, we re-launched the Mainline Protestant Channel as the Progressive Christian Channel, and had a big coming-out party at the first Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. There, we hooked up with veteran emerging Christian bloggers Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt (I won’t go into the details of how Leo, Tony and Doug spent the weekend together in a small RV in the sweltering woods outside of Durham … for the record, I chose wisely to sleep in a tent far, far away), and threw a great Progressive Christian party, complete with delicious Patheos Punch, every night until 2 am to meet and greet potential bloggers and partners for our “new” channel. It was a blast, and nothing’s been the same since.

Fast forward to May 2014 … and the Progressive Christian Channel is alive and kicking with some 50 bloggers (in various levels of activity, ahem! you know who you are), including some of Patheos’ all time top-traffic drivers (thanks, Slacktivist!). And while we could always be more diverse – and continue to work on that – the Channel represents a rich feast of a variety of theological perspectives, denominational affiliations, spiritual practices, church expressions, political opinions, sexual persuasions, and generational shifts … and includes voices from progressive evangelicals (if one can be so, which many say you can’t … but that’s another post for another day) to post-evangelicals to, yes, mainline protestants of all stripes, to very, very liberal protestants … to even those who are walking out the door of Christianity, having been burned one too many times by the faith they love. From those who have been around a while and doing this work a long time (one of my favorite days at Patheos was when Marcus Borg agreed to blog with us) to the new voices just testing the waters (I’m expecting great things from this gal who gets her own blog later this month), we’re arguing about the big and little things — God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sexuality, Heaven and Hell, the Bible, community, sexuality, movies, church life, Christianity’s gatekeepers, sexuality, politics, race, interfaith relationships, each other, sexuality, and just about every other thing you can imagine under the sun. To be a person of faith means that everything reveals something of God and is game for theological sport. And that’s as it should be.

I haven’t had too many bloggers leave, but when some of my favorites have (nakedpastor, you are missed!), many more come along to share their opinions, debate with their readers, and make us think, laugh, burn, shake our heads, and even cry. You know, we’ve been criticized at Patheos for having too little editorial control over our bloggers … and I suppose that’s true. We don’t tell our bloggers what to blog about (although we send a lot of prompts) or how to say it. We let them say what they want (of course, they’ve been carefully vetted to blog with us in the first place) and then allow their opinions to stand or fall in the marketplace of ideas. And whether you think that’s good or bad, what sites like Patheos have done for the better I believe, is flung the doors of the “conversation” wide open to the whole congregation — a conversation that was once limited to the purview of academics with degrees in ivory towers, or pastors in powerful pulpits, or PhDs at exclusive conference tables — flung it wide open to a young, sassy female pastor in Kansas, to an unassuming yet prolific Left-Behind blogger in Chicago, to a passionate Christian lesbian in Atlanta, to a poetic and prophetic campus minister in Boulder, to a liturgically-tattooed Lutheran pastor with a penchant for swearing, to a “formerly fundie” with a knack for saying what many of us are thinking, to an outspoken, cut-to-the-chase African-American communications professor in Dallas, to a middle-aged married straight guy from Southern California who is a radical LGBTQ-advocate …  The conversation is now open to you, and you, and you, and me, and all who have a compelling idea to share, a voice that resonates with others, and the guts to take the plunge, claim that voice, and offer it up to an often mean and nasty world.

It’s surely brave and courageous work to be a blogger, and I’m regularly in awe of those who do it. I marvel at you who approach the blank screen again and again, parse your words and pour out your hearts, and then click the “Publish” button, having absolutely no clue if your little missive will go crazy viral, or get just one lousy “share;” no clue as to whether you are about to get bashed, praised, criticized, challenged, ridiculed or generously supported, day after day, even year after year. (Has Tony Jones really been blogging for 10 years? Can you even imagine writing (and getting criticized) consistently – daily often – for a full decade?) It’s beautiful work you all do, it’s art, and it’s making a difference in the world.

In one of the first posts I wrote for Patheos, I offered this:

One of my very favorite things about church is communion. I’m always moved by the steady flow of people; all shapes and sizes, embodying so much joy, grief, wonder, questions, longing and hope, coming forward week after week to be fed at the table. I’m always struck by the audacity of the invitation to “come,” whoever we are, in whatever state we find ourselves, to be a part of the feast. To be God’s friend at the table.

When considering this new group blog, I had this vision of a table, where people representing the many faces of the Christian faith would gather for conversation and be nourished. There would be pastors, parents, scholars, laypeople, artists, spiritual directors, seekers, young and old alike, with various theological leanings and church backgrounds, all sharing stories of communion with God, self and the other. They’d come with their convictions as well as their questions and all would be welcome. In this feast of voices, we’d all glean something of what it means to be vibrant, hopeful people of faith in an ever-changing world.

I hope this is what we still do, five years later, here at Patheos. To be able to help host and nurture the progressive Christian conversation gives me immeasurable happiness. I’m so very grateful for your companionship along the journey thus far. Thank you to every single one of you who writes or otherwise contributes to the site. Thank you to the team at Patheos – my generous colleagues who have become friends – who make coming into the office every day joyful and truly interesting. And thank all of you for joining us at the table. I hope you’ll keep coming, just as you are, and sharing your voice and your spirit with us.

Happy Anniversary, Patheos!


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One response to “Patheos@5: From Mainline to Progressive to…? Celebrating the Evolving Christian Journey #Patheos5yrs”

  1. Happy Birthday! Thank you for sharing those wonderful reflections. Patheos’ Progressive Christian Portal is a source of information, inspiration, and blessing for many. Onward and upward! – Roger Wolsey, Kissing Fish and The Holy Kiss