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Substack and the Future of Online Christian Writing
4 thoughts on where it is and where it's going
It’s been over a year since I moved to Substack from my Wordpress domain, and thus, over a year since I wrote this introductory post offering some thoughts about the fate of Christian blogging. Nothing I wrote about in that piece has changed much. I still believe—and have seen more reason to believe—that social media has changed forever how written content is delivered online, and that email newsletters represent a small but emerging discontent with that change and an attempt to “shrink” the Web. And that’s part of what I try to do at Insights: think outside the jungle of the untamed algorithms of the Internet, hopefully finding wisdom and clarity more plausible than otherwise.
In the year-plus since writing that piece, I continue to get questions pretty regularly about my experience with Substack in particular and my feeling about Christian blogging/writing in general. I commend Substack to anyone who wants the freedom that writing for an engaged, interested readership brings. It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I’m grateful for it. That being said, many of the questions I get are not really about whether I personally enjoy using Substack, but about the relationship between newsletters and the broader landscape of Christian writing. So, I thought I would offer some brief reflections on this, based primarily on my experience over the last several years and where I think the whole Christian blogosphere is headed.
1-Christian online writing was decentralized in the 2000s, became somewhat centralized in the 2010s, and is now becoming decentralized again.
By “decentralized” I mean that the Christian blogosphere was more of a broad collection of individual sites and authors who interacted with one another through their respective platforms. In the 2010s this dynamic was actually mitigated through a soft institutionalization of Christian writing. TGC greatly expanded its list of hosted blogs. Christianity Today cultivated a vibrant community of writers through various initiatives such as her.meneutics. And Christian organizations like the ERLC consciously devoted time and resources to their freelance sections. In the 2010s the endgame of a young Christian writer was to somehow get published by one of these institutions.
Today, the decentralized nature of the early blogosphere is emerging again. There’s simply not as much interest in joining up with an existing ministry, a lack of interest that honestly cuts both ways. Instead, individual sites, newsletters, and personal platforms are considered just as viable and respectable pathways in writing as writing for an institution. Whether this is an example of cultural anti-institutionalism is difficult to say, because there were always economic factors that made the 2010s centralization unlikely to endure. But the landscape of Christian writing is decidedly more individualistic and more dependent on personal networking than at any point since the Obama administration.
2-The “generalist” model of writing has declined in value, and a “specialist” model has displaced it.
In the generalist model of Christian writing, articles about anything and everything were expected from the same writer or group of writers. The theological justification for such an approach was that since the gospel applied to all of life, the task of a Christian communicator was to filter anything that floated to the surface of public consciousness through a Christian interpretive grid, offering “the Christian perspective” on everything from movies to politics, books to Broadway shows. The generalist model was dominant in Christian online writing for a long time. If some theologian or Christian writer you knew back around 2009 announce they were starting a blog, the odds were extremely good this is the kind of blog they were starting.
So what happened? A couple things. First, an overabundance of generalism made the approach less valuable, and readers got bored with the seemingly endless proliferation of Christian generalists. Second, the epistemological burden of generalism resulted in a lot of theologically-thin commentary that simply had no idea what it was talking about. Third, the generalist model depended on the kind of broad evangelical unity around basic doctrinal and philosophical commitments that was visible within evangelical institutions in the early part of the 2010s. When that unity frayed under the weight of racial protests, Trump, and much later COVID, generalist writers—who had approached these topics from wide angles that tended to age poorly—became obvious targets of criticism.
Over the last few years I’ve seen instead a surge in specialist writing. Theologians will write specifically about theology and theological gleanings from culture (rather than, say, politics or economics). Christian writers are increasingly sorting themselves into beats, whether that be historical theology, apologetics, gender issues, or politics proper. My sense is that the wildness and hugeness of the Internet has made “the Christian perspective on X” a deflated currency among Christian writers, with only a handful of exceptions (The Briefing podcast).
3-Christian writers must now choose between maximal traffic potential and meaningful reader engagement
The decline of the Christian blogosphere as a marketable entity means that the days of becoming a viral sensation with your witty, niche posts about theology are totally gone. Instead, the algorithms that govern online reading present most Christian writers a choice: Either you can utilize techniques that get your links in front of as many eyes as possible, or you can write for an audience that will actually read, reflect, comment, and share your work. Those two phenomenon are not intrinsically exclusive, but they might as well be.
This is where, I think, email newsletters exceed traditional blogs. Email newsletters exist in a medium that, while far from ideal, still tends to slow down the onslaught of the Web and appeal to our desire for reflection and careful reading. The flip side is that email newsletters have a much lower traffic ceiling than traditional blog posts, or certainly Tweet threads. The choice to captivate reader attention is the choice to forgo maximal reader exposure. To do the one requires, more often than not, that which excludes the other (Note that this is not necessarily as true in analog writing, like books and other print material).
Living in this reality means adjusting your definition of “success” as an online writer. Traffic Is an alluring metric because it seems objective, but it’s really not. As the Internet becomes ambient, there is a massive surplus of junk traffic: clicks and hits that go nowhere, do nothing, merely exist on a page. A far better measure of success is reader engagement, which can be cultivated through quality and expressed by things like opens, shares, and paid subscriptions.
4-The future of online Christian writing is small.
By “small” I don’t necessarily mean brief. Rather, I mean that the task of writing is going to involve closer knit communities rather than big tent publications. Again, the sheer size of the Internet is driving people into smaller enclaves that are more present and less volatile than the vox populi of social media. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of institutions, by the way. It just means that these institutions and organizations will probably be smaller, less moneyed, less influential, but more attentive and responsive.
In fact, that’s probably what Christian online writing needs most right now: An emergence of networks and close-knit communities that take individual writers out of themselves a bit and stitch something together for the common good, but not for the benefit of big donors. I’d like to see this happen and be a part of it. I hope I will.
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