When I Wanted More Online Traffic, I Went Evangelical

It’s easy to manipulate divisions within Christianity to benefit a career. It’s harder — and far better — to foster thoughtful conversations.

A few months ago, I tweeted this: “Reason #437 I love being an Episcopalian: No one knows who Mark Driscoll is, much less why he’s apologizing.”

Driscoll is a popular Seattle-based evangelical pastor, known in part for his complementarian opinions on sex and marriage (i.e., the view that God calls men and women to complementary but distinct roles in marriage, family, and public life). Driscoll likes his men macho, his women submissive, and his books on the best-seller list. His apology came after revelations that the marketing firm hired to promote Driscoll’s book Real Marriage employed unethical tactics to maneuver the book to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Who Mark Driscoll is and what he’s done is less relevant to this post than that he is a provocative figure in evangelicalism, and as such, a near-guaranteed driver of online traffic. Writing about Driscoll, or any of the perennial controversies for American evangelicals (abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, contraception, sex, political affiliation) will almost certainly drive online traffic your way. The traffic might not always be welcome, as controversial posts are bound to attract unpleasant Internet trolls along with thinking folk. But as a freelance writer, I understand that my name recognition and paychecks (spare as they are) depend less on the quality of page views than on the quantity.

Given this dynamic and the cultural sway held by evangelicalism (we mainline Christians are continually frustrated when the news media equate the “Christian” perspective with the evangelical perspective), writers have a strong incentive to claim evangelical identity, even if such an identity is not quite accurate.

Writing about . . . the perennial controversies for American evangelicals (abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, contraception, sex, political affiliation) will almost certainly drive online traffic your way.

I spent my college years in an evangelical fellowship, and the following nine years in an ecumenical Washington, D.C. church that attracted people disaffected by both evangelical and mainline Christianity. Although I’ve now returned to the Episcopal Church where I grew up, and my views have always been firmly mainline (theologically traditional, socially moderate, politically liberal), I know enough about the evangelical world to follow evangelical writers and occasionally write for an evangelical audience. I understand that writing in support of “egalitarian” marriage (the counterpoint to “complementarian” marriage) for a mainline website would just engender a few head scratches (“Egalitarian marriage? Is there any other kind?”). Write about the same topic for evangelical bastions such as Christianity Today or The Gospel Coalition, however, and the post will be linked to by friend and foe alike.

I’m not alone in using this dynamic to my advantage. Some of the most popular and provocative Christian writers would feel right at home in a mainline environment — and might even worship at a mainline church — but publicly identify as evangelical. In fact, when I first started writing about religion, I was surprised to discover how many editors for evangelical publications are Episcopalians.

When we position ourselves as upstarts within a tradition whose practices and assumptions we question, we court controversy and rack up page views. We might, very occasionally, change someone’s mind. And we feed the divisiveness that drives online traffic even as it erodes our ability to speak generously to and about one another.

Recognizing this dynamic, I am more reticent than I used to be to publicly weigh in on the controversy du jour. At the same time, I resist the continual pressure from readers to be “nice,” which is frequently presented as the primary Christian value (it’s not) and a reason to avoid writing criticisms of Christian institutions, practices, or sociopolitical positions. Incensed readers hold up critique (miscast as un-Biblical judgment of fellow believers) as an affront to Christian unity.

[W]hen we direct our brave manifestoes primarily at readers who already agree with us, we’re building an echo chamber of mutual affirmation that doesn’t change anything.

Our deep cultural divisions, and an online milieu in which harsh name-calling and withering dismissal are the norm, do indeed challenge the unity to which Jesus called his followers. But unity achieved via tacit acceptance of other Christians’ opinions and practices, because to question them wouldn’t be “nice,” is not a valuable unity. Such superficial unity doesn’t require anything more than silence and good manners. True unity costs something; it happens in the midst of, not in the absence of, passionate disagreement and debate.

I didn’t really understand the value of Christian unity taking root alongside a diversity of opinion until I faced a career crisis several years ago.

For a year and a half, I was a regular paid contributor to a well-known evangelical magazine’s blog. I understood that the magazine and its readers were more conservative than I am on sociopolitical issues, particularly around sexuality and reproduction — topics in which I have some expertise. I was careful to write about reproductive ethics in a way that respected the editors’ and readership’s pro-life ethic. I never wrote a post even tangentially arguing for my own pro-choice perspective. However, when the magazine’s editors discovered that I wrote about my left-leaning politics on my personal blog (in posts accessible to anyone doing a Google search of my name), they told me I could no longer work for them as a bylined opinion writer.

Losing that job was deeply painful for many reasons, including that writing for an audience whose assumptions I did not share made me a better writer. It made me a better Christian. I could not dismiss other believers’ positions with clever snark; I had to take my audience and their opinions seriously, or they would not take me seriously.

I had reason to think that reading my posts also made some of my more conservative audience better readers and better-informed Christians. I gently engaged assumptions about women, marriage, children, families, and sex that frequently accompany a pro-life ethic. Many readers responded with insight, wisdom, and excellent questions (not all, of course — this is the Internet we’re talking about).

Writing for and within religious communities where we don’t quite fit can be a mercenary tactic to stimulate controversy and online traffic. But as I found with this particular job, it can also foster online discourse enriched by mutual curiosity and respect. Conversely, when we direct our brave manifestoes primarily at readers who already agree with us, we’re building an echo chamber of mutual affirmation that doesn’t change anything, either about the topics we’re discussing or our ingrained culture wars.

Sometimes, the price of maintaining my integrity as a writer and fostering fruitful dialogue is to stay silent — even when I’m desperate to use the snarky one-liner I came up with in the shower this morning, even when I know that a nice juicy controversy could push my blog stats over the minimum page views required for me to get paid this month. And sometimes being a writer of integrity means writing the best post I can on a topic I care about — even when it will attract commenters eager to tell me not merely that I’m wrong but that I’m a disappointment to God, even when it means disagreeing publicly with a colleague whom I consider a friend.

It’s not that hard to manipulate the rampant divisions within American Christianity to benefit a writing career. It’s much harder to foster the thoughtful conversations that must happen for our faith to remain relevant and vibrant, because doing so costs something — a sharp retort held back because its target is someone I know, an opposing idea treated with respect instead of ridicule, my opinion offered to a diverse community of readers, knowing that some will reject me with the harshest language possible, in the hope that at least a few will engage with insight and kindness.

About a year ago, I started writing one blog post a week for my local Episcopal church’s website. By necessity (I am a New Englander as well as an Episcopalian, one of the extra frozen chosen), these posts are short, straightforward, and ignorant about the latest scandal in the evangelical blogosphere. They address basic concerns, such as why we pray or how joining the choir convinced my kids to stop hating church. I usually re-post a version of these short essays on my more widely read blog on Patheos. One of the sweetest surprises of my writing career is how these posts, free of controversy and full of mundane questions about faith, family, church, and community have, over weeks and months, become some of my most-read, quoted, and shared posts.

Controversy may drive traffic, but more perennial and necessary topics drive conversation. It is conversation, not squabble-generated quips, that inspires thought and sustains faith, even on an average day free of news hooks and provocative tweets.

Image courtesy of Mor.

  • Brian P.

    In the German Peasants’ War of 1524 and 1525, greater than 100,000 died. In the battle of Kappel of 1531, another 500 died. In the Schmalkaldic of 1546 and 1547, I don’t know how many died in this war of religion. I also don’t know how many died in the Eighty Years’ War between 1568 and 1648. The French Wars of Religion transpired between 1562 and 1598. Alas, then there was the Thirty Years’ War. Which understanding of the Christian God could local Germanic princes take up? Which could their subjects? Between 1618 and 1648, around 8,000,000 died in this war ignited by religious division. And there were some more in the English Isles.

    Across Europe, ideas warred.

    And not just ideas.

    Open dialog about what it means to follow Christ, at least as it relates to the implications of power and economic benefits associated with who follows and aligns with whom, begs the question–what is our legacy? Which story has dominated the other? The melee of the battlefield or the humble procession up the nave through the crossing toward the altar of ultimate surrender?

    Ellen, as much as you lament, be thankful.

    Things have never been so good in Christendom.

  • tanyam

    “I was surprised to discover how many editors for evangelical publications are Episcopalians.”
    But these are not mutually exclusive categories, and never have been. Some Episcopalians are evangelicals. While some are in congregations which have joined the Anglican Church of North America, some evangelical leaning churches, not to mention individuals, are still members of the mainline Episcopal Church. Every mainline Protestant denomination includes members and member churches who would identify themselves as evangelical.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m well aware that some Episcopalians (and some entire Episcopal congregations) identify as evangelical. What’s interesting to me is that the online world rewards a sort of tribalism that is not necessarily reflective of the way people actually practice and live out their faith. So that, for example, an evangelical magazine editor who worships at an Episcopal church (and not one that is overwhelmingly evangelical, but more reflective of the “big tent” nature of many Episcopal churches) might happily worship and serve on committees alongside fellow church members with whom s/he disagrees on some sociopolitical issues, but that same editor might then come into work one Monday morning and decide that a more liberal voice like mine has no place on their magazine’s blog. Divisive online discourse is both damaging and not necessarily a reflection of how people–even people who engage in the divisiveness, which most of us do at one point or another–really see other Christians and live out their faith. I can write a scathing blog post about those who disagree with my position on the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision and then go hang out online with writing colleagues who hold that position, giving thanks that I have such fulfilling, challenging, honest, caring relationships with Christians different than me. Its’ two different worlds, with two sets of rules. I guess I’m hoping that the dynamics I experience in the real world can begin to infiltrate my online writing as well.

      • tanyam

        Is this any different than the fact that people write scathing comments on political blogs while staying married to people who disagree with them, or host people of opposing parties at barbecues in the backyard? I’d say the internet is just. . . . what it is.

        • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

          It is indeed what it is. I guess one point of my piece was to ask if we might influence what the Internet is, or at least the corners of it that we inhabit, by reflecting on how we engage with our audience as writers, and recognizing when we are using online tribalism to rack up stats rather than writing from a more generous place, reflecting the generosity we are more likely to accord to, yes, friends and neighbors in real life. Maybe it’s too much to ask but I’m committed to trying anyway! I’m glad you pressed this point because I think clarification was needed.

          • Stephen Lewis

            Ellen, This is exactly what I took your article to be doing, asking us to consider why we’re writing and posting what we do. Thank you for raising the question and putting a spotlight on a common practice.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Posts about Mr. Driscoll or patriarchy or the purity culture do drive up traffic, but I refrain sometimes from writing on them because I don’t want my blog to be known as a place of sensationalistic controversy. Other times I do write on those types of issues, but it’s a tough choice to make when I am deciding whether to hit “publish” or not.

    Like you, Ellen, I’d rather engage on the other issues: family, Scripture study, enjoying pizza as a blessing from God’s bounty, and more. Those might not be as widely read or receive as many comments as the controversial posts, but they are more satisfying in the discussions that go on in the comment sections.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  • Victor Muthoka

    I REALLY loved this piece. I’m about to start a blog & I have this deep, deep fear that it may not “catch on” as some others that have high traffic due to being hip & all. I’m just a guy who really loves writing on the mundane, everyday thoughtful topics. This comforted me. Thank you

  • Miles Mullin

    A great post, Ellen. Poignant reminders about the value of listening and writing so that people can listen, written in a way that embodies the virtue you promote.

    Yours,

    Miles

  • pastordt

    I love this, Ellen. If you and I sat across from one another, we might or we might not agree about every point of doctrine and/or political position. But you know what? I don’t give a rip. I love the way you think and the way you write and your voice is an important one out here in the noise. I think mine is, too, in a much smaller arena. We need irenic voices, real voices, and a gentle willingness to take small risks. Thanks for doing all of that.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I love your voice as well, and one positive fruit of all this online interaction is that I’m now friends with (and genuine fans of) writers whose work I probably would avoid if we were sticking to purely “tribal” lines, only reading those whose work reflects our own positions. I want to maximize that dynamic and minimize the tactical use of our divisions to stir up controversy and good stats.

  • MorganGuyton

    I’m probably guilty of self-identifying as “evangelical” in order to stay “relevant.” But there’s also an ethos of urgency that I was raised with in that culture that I don’t want to give up. I’ve noticed that the best way to get ignored by the evangelical herd is to write straightforward exegetical commentaries about Biblical passages instead of trendy culture war topics. Nothing is more boring than writing about the Bible when you’re not using the Bible as a weapon.

  • http://www.thetippingpointblog.co.uk Matt Wakeling

    This is probably the best thing I’ve read about what church unity looks like online in the 21st century. Love it.

  • thovmas

    If we have sold off the heart of the Christian faith, that which the Scriptures plainly teach, and deny either in theory or practice the revelation of the living God, then we have turned away from the the God-Man, who alone is able to save, Who Himself bore the punishment for sin, and Who upholds all things by the word of His power. We may deny these truths which Paul, the old Paul, declares to be beyond contention not merely by derision and blasphemy, or even by reluctance, but also in the way we live our lives. Long before men and women gloried in their shame to the point that they were proud to announce themselves to be atheists, the term was used in regard to professing Christians who would never repudiate God’s truth openly but did so in the secret place of the heart, and this inward apostasy finds vent in the life-even a life dedicated to Christian love, unity, and morality. The litmus test for the presence of contention is not difference but motive. We also may find ourselves in mainline denominations, mainline evangelical groups, or stalwart denominations which refuse to buckle to the deceitful and damaging lusts of the sinful society of man, and the deceitfulness of the heart. Our motivations matter. We may assent to all that God has revealed concerning Himself and ourselves, yet out of selfish ambition or desire for a paycheck think that all are ruled by the same motivations that we are. But Bunyan’s saying is still true, and there is a difference between contending for the faith once delivered and contention against it, “some love the meat, some love to pick the bone …”

  • thovmas

    If we have sold off the heart of the Christian faith, that which the Scriptures plainly teach, and deny either in theory or practice the revelation of the living God, then we have turned away from the the God-Man, Who alone is able to save, Who Himself bore the punishment for sin, and Who upholds all things by the word of His power. We may deny these truths which Paul, the old Paul, declares to be beyond contention not merely by derision and blasphemy, or even by reluctance, but also in the way we live our lives. Long before men and women gloried in their shame to the point that they were proud to announce themselves to be atheists, the term was used in regard to professing Christians who would never repudiate God’s truth openly but did so in the secret place of the heart, and this inward apostasy finds vent in the life-even a life dedicated to Christian love, unity, and morality. The litmus test for the presence of contention is not difference but motive. We also may find ourselves in mainline denominations, mainline evangelical groups, or stalwart denominations which refuse to buckle to the deceitful and damaging lusts of the sinful society of man, and the deceitfulness of the heart. Our motivations matter. We may assent to all that God has revealed concerning Himself and ourselves, yet out of selfish ambition or desire for a paycheck think that all are ruled by the same motivations that we are. But Bunyan’s saying is still true, and there is a difference between contending for the faith once delivered and contention against it, “some love the meat, some love to pick the bone …”

  • mona

    Fantastic.