The Future of Evangelicalism Online

The Future of Evangelicalism Online October 2, 2012

Evangelicals are neither loved nor respected in the American public square.   This is due in part to our enduring and principled commitment to truths and values the rest of mainstream society rejects, and in part to a tendency in media and academia to present a caricature of evangelicalism that elides its virtues and exaggerates its vices.  But it’s also due in part — in large part, we must confess — to a thoroughgoing failure amongst evangelicals to represent themselves, their views, and their vision of the Christian life in a manner that’s intellectually compelling, meticulously informed, and suffused with charity and grace.

What has long been lacking is a kind of Op Ed Page for evangelical America, a gathering place for the best evangelical public intellectuals to reflect on matters of common concern.  Younger generations of evangelical writers can be identified, cultivated and projected into the most important conversations of the day.  Where Catholicism has organs such as First Things and a longstanding tradition of thoughtful reflection on policy and society, evangelicalism has neither.  It should have both.  And if our intentions for the Evangelical Channel at Patheos are realized, it will have both.

The time has come to re-envision the Evangelical Channel at Patheos: what it can become, what it should become, and how we can get it there.

History and Opportunity


Launched in May 2009, Patheos sought initially to be a WebMD of religion, a trusted advisor in the space of religious thought, and so it constructed a library of information on over 100 religious traditions and sects.  It also created a series of portals that presented content by and for members of particular religious traditions.  It soon became clear that the most extraordinary vitality in the site, and the potential for the greatest growth, was not in the objective, encyclopedic library section (although the library is excellent and draws steady traffic from searches from individuals all around the world), but in the robustly confessional portal content.  Against expectation (given the plenitude of other Christian media sites), the Evangelical Channel at Patheos thrived and led the way in recruiting bloggers and columnists and building mutually beneficial partnerships with other media groups.  It quickly became one of the most popular sections of the site.  At first, the whole of Patheos would receive tens of thousands of pageviews over the course of a month.  Now, the Evangelical Channel alone receives 1.2 million pageviews per month.

It is far more difficult to grow from 0 to 1 million pageviews than it is to grow from 1 million to 3 million pageviews.  The Evangelical Channel at Patheos is broadly appealing, dynamically growing, unburdened by denominational constraints or the weight of tradition.  It is poised to become, Lord willing, the most significant source of evangelical commentary online.

When my role changed from managing editor of the Evangelical Channel to Director of Content, with responsibilities over other sections of the site in addition to the Evangelical Channel, my energy was directed elsewhere.  It’s time again to refocus on the Evangelical Channel and to think strategically about how it can represent the very best of evangelical public intellectual engagement with current issues in church and culture.

Rebranding

It’s difficult to build a sense of excitement, identity and loyalty around “the Evangelical Channel.”  There is a movement afoot, just gaining momentum, to build a more persuasive and more culturally profound evangelical presence in the public square, but “the Evangelical Channel” is too diffuse, too ill-defined and too uninspiring to serve as the engine for that movement.  We have sought the right opportunity to rebrand.

We are considering new titles presently.  Suggestions are welcome.

There is more to a brand, of course, than the name alone.  There is the excellence and integrity of the content.  Evangelicals of all people ought to pursue the truth openly and fearlessly, ought to represent opposing viewpoints with fairness and painstaking honesty, and ought never to permit rhetoric to outstrip the strength of the evidence or to betray our primary obligation to witness the love of Christ even as we profess his truth.  Our intention is for the Evangelical Channel to become known as a model for the highest level of thoughtful and charitable conversation on the great objects of the day.  Even those who vehemently disagree with our standpoints should recognize that here they find the finest representation of evangelical commentary, and indeed some of the finest commentary, period.  So we wish to fashion a better representation of evangelical engagement in public discourse, a conversation in which Christians earnestly listen and humbly engage, rigorously scrutinize their own proposals, prejudices and presuppositions, hold themselves to the highest standards of argumentation and declare their convictions with courage and clarity.

Repositioning

The center of gravity of the Evangelical Channel presently rests just left of center.  While the Evangelical Channel will continue to support its current roster of writers fully, it will seek to fortify its offering in Reformed and Baptist writers, and in culturally-savvy center-right social commentators.

There is not now a single venue that attracts compelling commentary from young, conservative evangelical public intellectuals.  While maintaining our strengths in center and center-left writers, then, we’re eager to extend our strength rightward on the spectrum.  This is partly to represent American evangelicalism better, partly to give a new generation of conservative evangelicals a voice, and partly to form a more thoughtful approach to social and cultural engagement amongst conservative-leaning evangelicals.

Our content will focus in these areas:

  1. Representing the gospel well with Patheos’ multireligious marketplace of ideas.
  2. Hosting and nurturing the conversations shaping the future of the church.
  3. Projecting thoughtful evangelical commentary into the public square conversations shaping the future of our society and culture.
  4. Applying the scriptures to existential and pragmatic questions.

This is a broad field for commentary.  While we have spoken well to the first and fourth areas, our hope is to strengthen substantially our offering in the second and third.

Replenishing

Replenishing our offering of writers means adding new bloggers, columnists and periodic contributors, as well as building a network of partnering organizations and individuals who wish to further the work and the impact of the Evangelical Channel.  Our immediate intentions are these:

  1. To establish a Board of Contributors who offer periodic content.
  2. To feature a separate column each weekday.
  3. To add new bloggers who share in our vision.
  4. Finally, to form a network of partners and sponsors who will help us produce new streams of content, commissioned articles and reports, series and symposia, online lectures and courses, instructional videos, and so forth.

The nature and different levels of these partnerships and sponsorships are explained in a document available on request.

Looking Forward

We have reached 1.2 million pageviews a month without budget.  With a small budget built from partnerships and sponsorships, I believe we could reach 3 million by next September.  This would make us the largest evangelical commentary site on the internet by far, and would give us the reach we need in order to produce the kinds of positive changes we envision here.

American evangelicalism has made extraordinary strides in the last two generations in cultivating top-shelf evangelical intellectuals.  The scandal today is not that there is no evangelical mind.  The scandal today is the inadequacy of the evangelical voice.  Speaking personally, I belong to a whole generation of young evangelical intellectuals who are a product of American evangelicalism’s recommitment to scholarly formation.  Like many in that generation, I emerged from academia to find that there was no mouth for the evangelical mind, no organ to represent the voices of the new evangelical public intellectuals.  I want to be a part of creating that, and am glad to be joined by so many fine brothers and sisters of like mind.

You’ll see many changes at the Evangelical Channel (including the name) in the coming month, including a handful of new bloggers to be unveiled this week.  But the changes begin today with the addition of the fantastically gifted Joe Carter to our stable of bloggers.

There are outstandingly talented evangelical writers, artists and thinkers who can render an honorable and essential service to the church and to society with a dynamic, powerful, creative platform behind them.  We believe that we are on the verge of becoming that platform — and can become that with the help of a phalanx of like-minded writers, partners and sponsors.  We believe the presence and persistence of a distinctively evangelical voice, professing the gospel clearly, witnessing the love of God both in what is said and how it is said, reflecting on church and social matters in light of what God has made true and good and beautiful, would be enormously valuable both for the community of believers and for our culture as a whole.  

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