Fifteen years ago I was reading a small book by Hugh Hewitt, In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition and the Desire to Influence the World, when I stumbled across a sentence that would change the course of my life: “Start and maintain your own Web log (blog).” That night I took Hewitt’s advice and started my own blog, Evangelical Outpost.
Since then blogging has taught me how to write, think, read, and communicate more effectively, and opened a career path to jobs I could have only dreamed about. Almost every aspect of my life—from my education to spiritual development—has changed for the better because of blogging.
But of all the benefits it provided, what I’m most grateful for is the community. For those who have come of age during the era of social media, it’s difficult to understand how lonely and intellectually frustrating the world could be before the internet. Blogging helped to change that by providing new groups of friends who were interested in discussing books, theology, and the Christian’s place in the world. No matter where you lived or what you did for a living, if you could get online you could join the conversation.
Of the hundreds of bloggers who began in 2003 and that have influenced my life, three stand out: Tim Challies, Justin Taylor, and Jared Wilson. Five years ago, I interviewed them about their experience as bloggers (you can read those interviews here, here, and here). A lot has changed, so I wanted to follow-up and find out what they have learned since then.*
Tim Challies is a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, co-founder of Cruciform Press, and the author of five books. Over the past 15 years he’s also reviewed more books for his website than many people will read in a lifetime. He’s also produced hundreds of essays on theological and cultural topics. I’ve read them all, and I can’t think of a single time in all these years when Tim has written anything that was not faithful to God’s Word. Consistency, quality, work ethic, and faithfulness are the four traits that have made Tim one of the best bloggers in evangelicalism.
Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway, and the author and editor of more than a dozen books. While some bloggers put their personalities front and center, Justin has remained mostly in the background while he promotes the work of others. The result is that he has become one of the most wildly successful bloggers in the history “Godblogging.” The profound effect he has had on the community of believers shows how much we can change lives when we put God’s work ahead of our own egos.
Over the past decade and a half these faithful men became my friends and mentors, providing a model not only for how to be a better blogger but also how to be a better believer. I’m excited to share their latest thoughts on blogging.
Over the past five years, how has social media and other trends changed blogging and online engagement?
Challies: When the blogosphere first began, it was social media. At that point, Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms did not yet exist. That meant that blogs were the way people communicated and interacted. Networks of blogs were the way people with similar interests engaged with one another and explored ideas together. The introduction of social media gave people a new, easier, and less formal means of interaction, not to mention one with a much lower barrier to entry. In some cases this displaced blogs, and in other cases it replaces them altogether. Not only that, but it gave a neutral location for people to discuss what was said on blogs, which in many ways rendered comment sections obsolete.
Over the past few years, we have seen social media continue to take the place of blogs. I think there are at least two ways it is done this. First, it is given people another outlet to communicate. Second, it is so distracted people that many of them don’t have anything to communicate anyway. It is made fewer people into creators of information and more people into mere consumers of information.
Taylor: With Google abandoning the free RSS feed reader it made available, Twitter and Facebook have become the only portals for most people to know about new things online. I can publish a blog post now, and if it’s not linked on social media, most people won’t know it’s there. (If a blog post falls in a forest and no one is around to link it, does it make a sound?) But now that Facebook is making it more challenging for all followers to see a post, the relationship between social media and longer content will undoubtedly change again. (2) I think social media has decreased our attention spans even further. I am a big fan of longform, but I recognize about myself that I am being constantly conditioned to be enamored by the soundbite rather than the long argument. We’ve gotten to the point where even 1,000 words gets met with auto-replies of tl;dr [too long; didn’t read—we can’t even bother to type out four words!]. (3) Social media disincentivize patience, reflection, and argumentation (which is not the same as being argumentative)! All of this, I think, has made blogging more difficult—though also more important.
What is one lesson you’ve learned over the past five year about blogging about writing, communicating, and so on?
Taylor: If you write in public, you will be criticized. Good criticism is a gift that should be sought and cherished. But people who simply enjoy mocking or distorting what you write are not worth engaging with. Whoever invented the mute button on Twitter deserves a Nobel Prize.
Challies: For blogging, I suppose I’ve learned that I don’t think it is going anywhere anytime soon. Some people have moved on, and perhaps fewer people are beginning blogs than in the past, but I still think there is a very good future for the medium. The blogosphere represents the democratization of opinions and influence, and at this point I do not see us going back.
For writing, I’ve learned that it functions in my life as almost a kind of spiritual discipline. I’ve often said I don’t really know what I believe about anything until I’ve written about it, and in that way it really is my form of meditation. The sheer volume of writing I’ve done over the past few years has caused a fair bit of nerve damage, which has prevented me from writing very much over the past few months. It took me quite a while to understand that I was grieving the loss of what really is a kind of discipline in my life. I am currently learning to communicate by voice dictation (as in this interview), but it is a difficult transition to make.
What do you miss about the “good old days” of blogging and the blogosphere?
Challies: When we talk about the “good old days” of blogging and the blogosphere, I think we are talking about the days before social media, since Twitter and Facebook changed everything. What I miss about those days was the sense of camaraderie that came as we all explored ideas together. There were networks then of like-minded individuals who were waking up to exciting ideas, life-changing theology, and the birth of an amazing new medium. At that time the blogosphere was wide open, and anyone who had good ideas, ambition, and the motivation to just keep on writing, could gain a voice and be part of the conversation. Also, I miss the days when everybody was beginning their own blog, rather than attempting to write for the blogs of major ministries or organizations. No offense.
Taylor: To be honest, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the question. I think we tend to have to look back with rose-colored glasses. Back in the olden days, I felt more indispensable—part of that was the reality that there were fewer people doing it; part of that was undoubtedly an inflated sense of self (otherwise known as pride). So those days were more frenetic and concentrated, but I don’t know if they were necessarily better. I think we tend to have a tendency to look back with rose-colored glasses.
What advice would you give to young communicators who want to use their talents online for the glory of God? How can they can develop their skills and stand out from the noise and incivility that tends to dominate?
Taylor: Since seven is the biblical number, here are seven things that come to mind: (1) Less is more; quality matters more than quantity. You don’t need to comment on everything. Yet, you will probably never increase in quality without regularly writing. You have to write your way into becoming a better writer. (2) Identify good models and learn from them. (3) See worship not just as a foundation and not just as a result but also as a means. Divorcing your work from communion with the triune God is the source of a thousand problems. (4) Your writing will probably be only as good as your reading. (5) Be an active member of a local church. (6) You don’t need to comment on everything. (7) Meditate on what Scripture says we should do in all areas of our life at all times: love God (Matt. 22:37); love neighbor (Matt. 22:39); pray (1 Thess. 5:17); give thanks (1 Thess. 5:18); and rejoice (Phil. 4:4).
Challies: To be successful in the blogosphere requires hard work and thick skin. You have got to be able to persevere when you cannot clearly see any obvious results from your work, and you’ve got to be able to persevere when the main result seems to be scorn and criticism. If your blog grows large enough, you will one day realize there is absolutely nothing you can say anymore without being criticized. A temptation that comes with that is to respond to every criticism and to essentially make your blog a back-and-forth with critics. It is generally better, I think, to keep plugging away and to make the main focus of your writing what is positive and uplifting to others.
Other than that, just keep writing. There is no substitute for simply gathering ideas, writing ideas, sharing them with the world, receiving feedback, and then sharpening those ideas all the more. I believe the happiest writers are the ones who would write even if no one else was reading. The greatest benefit of a blog is not to those who read it but to those who write it.
*The interview with Jared Wilson will be posted in a later article.
Other interviews in this series: