I watched a cyclone of furor erupt online last week in response to Tish Harrison Warren’s CT Women piece entitled Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere? in which she called for greater accountability between Christian bloggers and their local churches and/or denominations. Though she was writing to a female audience, the message of her post certainly applies to male bloggers as well. Some bloggers infuriated by her piece took offense that she’d used Jen Hatmaker as an example, others observed that asking for accountability from male-run institutions that have a long history of silencing women’s voices was the very definition of insanity.
As public teachers—even those operating in cyberspace—we forfeit the luxury of holding merely “private” beliefs. When Christian writers or speakers make theological statements, we have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate, and in so doing, help others think and worship better. And although many Christian writers and speakers might have some level of private, informal accountability in their home churches, they still need overt institutional superintendence (to match a huge national stage) and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power. Otherwise, they can teach any doctrine on earth under the banner of Christian faith and orthodoxy.
As both a survivor of spiritual abuse and a person not a fan of layers of church/denominational hierarchy – you would think I’d chafe at her words. But I am not. As I noted via Twitter last week, the church and the Christian blogosphere are not two separate, barely-overlapping circles on a Venn diagram. While I celebrate the priesthood of all believers, I also believe we believers are a part of one catholic (small “c”, meaning universal) church no matter which orthodox (small “o”, meaning adhering to the realities expressed in the creeds) stream to which we belong.
Over the last four decades, my husband and I have logged time mostly in non-denominational churches, which means the congregation is self-governing; there is no hierarchy beyond what exists within the literal or metaphorical “four walls” of the local body. We’ve spent time in congregations like the Vineyard who form relational networks of local churches, but eschew the trappings of formal denominationalism. We’ve also been members in an Anglican congregation, which relies on a highly organized hierarchy to run the denomination.
In other words, I’ve been around. I’ve been blogging since 2005, more than a quarter of that time. When I started, I viewed my blog as a little more than an online diary. My total readership was comprised of like maybe eight friends. However, I’d been writing for a long time before that – curriculum, articles, plays, devotionals, and more. I note here no church leader of a congregation of which I’d been a part had ever showed the teensiest interest in the writing I’ve done for the big “C” Church, though a few were happy to have me do various bits of writing for their own congregation. I’ve been conditioned by the complete lack of interest in my vocation not to expect anything whatsoever from a pastor.
As I read Tish’s words, I reflected on the congregations of which I’ve been a part since 2005* through four relocations within the Chicago area, and that complete lack of interest has continued:
- 2005-2006: Attended a small (<150) congregation affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. The pastor was a fairly-well known author and blogger. He knew I was a writer as I’d sent him one of my books and chatted with him about writing. No interest at all in my work. Zero.
- 2006-2007: Attended a small (<100) congregation with roots in the Christian (Reconstructionist) tradition. The pastor knew I was a writer, as I was volunteering my communication skills at that time as a ministry with which he was associated. No interest at all in what I did as a writer.
- 2007-2010: Attended a small (<200) Anglican congregation. The rector handled communications for a season for the sub-denominational stream. He knew I was a writer. No interest on his part whatsoever.
- 2010-2012: Attended a mid-sized (<300) non-denominational congregation affiliated with The Gospel Coalition. The pastor knew I was a writer. I’ll put it this way: he wasn’t a big fan of women writers or teachers unless they were writing for other women or teaching children. He treated me with general kindness but also with palpable suspicion regarding my writing, because by then, I was a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog, the predecessor to CT Women.
- 2013-2015: Attended Willow Creek (<25,000) on Saturday nights with our grandsons. Did try to reach out as I had a book releasing that I thought might be of interest to some of their ministry leaders. Never got a response, but that was fine with me as the church was not a fit at all for us grandparents. My diagnosis of an immune system deficiency put an end to our attendance there.
- 2016 to present: Attend Messianic congregation Adat HaTikvah (<150). The congregation’s leader knows I’m a writer – he actually came to my book release party for If Only: Letting Go Of Regret and mentioned from the pulpit my newest book upon its release. I sent him a link to Tish’s article with a note that her words might be worth consideration since he has at least two bloggers attending his congregation.
Our tumbleweed existence has called for mastery of the skill of being the New People. Perhaps because of that, the nearly-complete lack of interest in my work from my own church leaders matched the fact that I expected nothing from them. Occasionally, it would strike me as weirdly ironic that a good number of other church leaders read my work but my own pastors seemed sort of agnostic toward my writing despite evidence to the contrary. I’m not a big name blogger or speaker, but I recognize that I now have more than eight people reading what I write.
Tish’s words have challenged me to stop being OK with this. So what does accountability look like in a low-church or non-denominational setting?
- I need to ask my church leaders to be willing to read some of what I write, because I the work I do falls into this category: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (James 3:1-2)
- I must be willing to invite them to pray for me, and respectfully dialogue with me about my work. I need to pursue a little more “one anothering” in regards to my writing.
- I need to voice my need for some level of spiritual collaboration because I am rooted (at least for the present moment, because Tumbleweed) in real-life community, and I’ve not yet had a leader who is a mind-reader. I am not asking my church leaders to copy edit my work or control my message. I am not looking for authoritarian-style control, nor do I see my role as a writer and speaker as being the unofficial mouthpiece for a particular congregation.
For my leaders:
- They should read some of what I write.
- They should pray for me.
- They should recognize that what I do is a part of their reach into the world and service to the community though it doesn’t fit on their church org chart. (Here’s a thought: Maybe it belongs on the church org chart.)
I’d love to get your feedback on this, readers. Am I asking too much? Too little? In your context, what does the relationship look like between a blogger (or writer or speaker) and his or her local church?
* Dates approximate