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‘The Code’ in the Christian Blogosphere

I’ve got something a little bit different today. This is a kind of discussion or interview I had with my friend Julian, who was asking me about some of the questions and some of the complications related to having a popular blog. I thought it would be worth sharing since it addresses some of the criticisms people have lodged against me recently. And I hope it gives a little bit of perspective to the Christian blogosphere.

Here is Julian’s introduction follow by his questions and my answers.

In NHL hockey politics (which is big news here in Canada) there has been lots of talk over the last couple years about “the code.” Rumor has it that there is some moral code that guides how players hit each other or when they fight. Supposedly everyone knows it and it is universally seen as “dirty pool” when someone breaks this code. However, whether the code actually exists is a matter of debate.

It’s clear that for the average blogger with a readership of 20, anything is fair game. You can say whatever you want about whomever you want in whatever way you want whenever you want because only he and his mom will read it. But I think a lot of people suspect that there is a “code” in the evangelical blogging world. There are certain places you cannot go, certain things you cannot say, certain people or ministries that you cannot criticize.

I wanted to actually explore this a little bit, so I took the following questions to the biggest blogger I know, Tim Challies. I wanted to find out, “Is there a ‘code’ amongst big-name bloggers?”

To give some context to “big-name blogger,” how many people read your blog?

I do not track statistics as much as I probably should (at least according to all the blogging experts) but I think if I were to add up people who visit the blog and who read it through other media (RSS, Facebook, etc.) it would be somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million reads per month. With all the different ways people can digest the content today, it’s increasingly hard to get an accurate measure.

And how long have you been blogging?

I’ve been blogging since late 2002 or so, and I’ve been blogging every day since late 2003. I’ve probably posted around 5,000 articles in that time.

What’s the purpose of your blog?

I think the purpose has evolved over the years, but as it has gained an audience, I think it’s become a place to discuss what is of particular interest to Christians, and especially those Young and/or Restless and/or Reformed Christians. I consider what I do thinking out loud about important issues and then allowing other people to help me think better. That is why I write about relevant topics, why I review books and why I try to draw attention to good resources.

I do not consider it my job to critique everyone or everything. Yes, there are times when I use the blog to critique, but largely I want the blog to be positive in tone. I have no interest in being one of those watch-bloggers who has a ministry of criticism.

Would you say there is a “code” in the Christian blogosphere?

I don’t think there is a formal “code” per se. At least, if there is one, I haven’t ever been shown a copy of it. Having said that, it is not unheard of for something I write to generate emails from people in “high places” who want me to retract it or amend it. I have received emails asking me to edit blog posts or to remove them altogether. This is unusual, but it has happened. At some times the requests have been justified; at other times, not so much.

Do the big-name bloggers all know one another? Do you talk together about each other or about what to write next or about something so-and-so wrote?

I think the big-name bloggers tend to know one another, but only because of events like Band of Bloggers where we’ve all had opportunity to connect or because we’ve bumped into one another at conferences.

I spend very little time interacting with other Christian bloggers. There is not a behind-the-scenes network that decides who will respond to what, who will critique whom, and so on. At least, not one that extends to me. I guess there have been a few times when I’ve received an email blast from someone that has gone out to a lot of other bloggers (such as the first notice of the trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins).

I think an organization like Gospel Coalition that coordinates several blogs would have a bit more of a formal process behind it so they don’t have 6 guys all critiquing the same book (which is simply good management). But that does not extend to the blogosphere as a whole. The Christian blogosphere really is a group of individuals, not a formal network.

Do big independent bloggers like yourself ever view guys who take their blog to the TGC site (or other similar sites) as “sell-outs”?

I can only speak for myself here, but I do not see such people as sell-outs. Moving your blog to a location like TGC makes a lot of sense, as it tends to increase readership while lowering operating costs (blogging can get expensive once readership has increased to a certain point).

However, I do think these people have necessarily now accepted a position which may curtail their ability to address certain topics or speak about certain people or issues. When you align yourself with a ministry or any other organization you cannot openly criticize that organization or people associated with it (any more than I would openly criticize my fellow elders at Grace Fellowship Church). Typically this is not a problem because you only align yourself with organizations you deem trustworthy. Thabiti Anyabwile, as a Gospel Coalition blogger, could probably not write a thorough critique of the Gospel Coalition. But why would he want to?

Do you ever write each other and disagree with each other privately rather than expressing things publicly?

Yes, but I receive private correspondence all the time. When I get an email from another blogger, I do not put it in a separate category as if it is more or less significant.

Is there any competition amongst you?

I don’t think so. Anyone who feels competition hasn’t really grasped the blogosphere; linking to other blogs gains you a voice and gains you credibility. Purely pragmatically, linking to the people you may regard as competition will actually benefit you.

The only time there may be competition is in being the one to break a story. That does not happen often, but there have been a few occasions in which that has come into play. The person to break a major story will receive a lot more traffic than the next 5 or 10 to write about it—even if those 5 or 10 have better or more substantial things to say about it. Ultimately readership is the primary currency of the blogosphere since it controls money and influence—the two most common reasons people blog. More readers means more influence and more readers means more advertising dollars.

Have you ever had the opportunity to move your blog to another organization or location?

Yes, quite often. But I think my niche really depends on me being an independent blogger. I have considered moving the blog, but have always realized that I value my independence too highly to align myself with another organization. This gives me the ability to write about pretty much any topic I feel like I ought to write about.

What are the big no-no’s? Are there people or topics that are off limits?

I find this difficult to answer. Theoretically if I were to write a thorough rebuttal of the ministry of a big-name leader within this part of the Christian world I may find it more difficult to sign my next book contract or I may find that I do not get asked to speak at any more conferences. This is quite a tight-knit little corner of the Christian world. But I admire the leaders in this part of the Christian world so can’t imagine too many cases in which I would want or need to write that kind of rebuttal.

But let’s be honest here. I’m a 34-year old guy who has never been to seminary and whose formal training extends only to history and computers. I hope I would only ever bring critique when I was utterly convinced that it was warranted and when I had checked with men I love and trust to see if they agreed. I want to model honoring older men as fathers rather than model youthful arrogance.

I do think there is room to have some respectful disagreement. For example, I’ve written about John Piper inviting Rick Warren to speak at his conference. I have never gotten any indication that Piper or the people of Desiring God were offended by this or held it against me. Similarly, people have written critiques of me or of things I’ve written and I haven’t held it against them. It comes with the territory of public ministry.

So on at least some level you cannot freely criticize big evangelicals without consequence. Is that a good or a bad thing? Does it reflect or protect the gospel? How does it contribute to celebrity-ism?

I don’t know that it’s good or bad. It just is. I guess it depends on where you rate the criticisms (are they issues that are critical to the Christian faith or are they peripheral) and how much you want to enjoy the good graces of the people in this part of the Christian world. Again, the fact is that I can’t imagine there would be a necessity for a lot of that kind of rebuke among the leaders in this movement. If we needed that kind of criticism or rebuke, I hope I would be willing to do it no matter the cost. I hope this both protects and reflects the gospel.

You mention that you might lose out on book contracts and speaking gigs at conferences. Are you getting rich off of your blog reputation?

There are not a lot of riches to be had in blogging within the Christian world since we are removed by degrees from the kind of numbers generated by the major blogs that deal with politics or gossip or technology. That being said, the blog has gotten to the point where it is now more than breaking even (with advertising bringing in revenue and more than covering the bills). People may be surprised to learn that running a web site that gains quite a bit of traffic comes with substantial costs (easily several hundred dollars per month). I’m really grateful that the blog now earns a bit of money, but if I were to work it out in dollars per hour, it would not be worth my time in a purely financial way. I could live without the money blogging generates but I’d have a much more difficult time living without the outlet to think through important issues.

When it comes to speaking at conferences, I’ve made the decision not to ask how much I will be paid (if anything) before accepting speaking invitations. And when it comes to writing books, there are very few authors who make substantial money from a book. Many of the kinds of books I review may sell only 5,000 or 10,000 copies. If you figure that the author may not be making more than $1 per book, and that the book took him a year to write, you see that not many people are getting rich this way.

Good question. I have seen some of that criticism, largely because it has ended up in my inbox. In the past I’ve recommended C.J. Mahaney’s books and spoken positively about Sovereign Grace Ministries. I don’t see that recent developments morally bind me into having to now revoke or amend those statements. The simple fact is that I was very uncomfortable with the way the recent information about Mahaney came into the public sphere. I don’t like the Wikileaks mentality invading the church (though interestingly, I warned that this would happen just a few months ago). I saw the way Sovereign Grace was handling the situation and did not have a whole lot to say about it. I also wanted to be careful not to draw undue attention to leaked documents that most of us had no business reading. I knew in my conscience that if I were to write about it, I’d be doing so to draw attention to my site rather than to say something that would edify.

My decision not to write about this particular situation had nothing to do with a code or with toeing the line. It was a personal decision.

Are there times when you really just want to speak your mind, but feel that “the code” prohibits you? Or is there something else that holds you back?

I don’t think I ever feel like a code is holding me back. More often than not, it is conscience holding me back—hopefully a Spirit-guided conscience. Usually those times where I desperately want to speak my mind are the times I least need to or the times I would do the most damage.

If I ever feel that I need to wage into an issue that may be difficult or may offend, I will generally talk to my fellow elders and ask them if they think it is a good idea. I’ll try to get at least a couple of outside opinions before posting anything. They have sometimes saved me from saying foolish things.

But if there is an issue that people are thinking about and wondering about, I am generally glad enough to write something about it and give us all a starting point to discuss and digest it. I think this is where blogs really can be a service to the church.

What do you do if another blogger writes a book that really stinks? Is there still an expectation you’ll review it / recommend it? Do you feel free to be honest about it? Or is it better to just not mention it at all?

That depends. If it is just a bad book (poorly written, no originality, etc.) I will probably just ignore it and not write about it at all (and, in fact, I would probably only read the first few pages and give up). This is true whether it’s by a blogger or not. And trust me, I get a lot of wretched books sent to me. If a book is bad in the sense of espousing poor theology, I would have no problem writing a review that pointed out those theological issues.

Generally the only books I feel like I really ought to write reviews of are those that are big-sellers and are raising a lot of questions—90 Minutes in Heaven, The Shack, Radical, Jesus Calling, and so on.

Does there reach a point where you’re “above” commenting on other people’s blogs?

No. But there is a time where you need to be a bit more careful about what you say and where you say it since there are people out there who take bits and pieces of information, usually decontextualized, and seek to use it to expose people they disagree with. I routinely get emails telling me how and why I am going to hell (for not using the KJV, for not exposing John MacArthur as a fraud, etc, etc). And there are web sites out there that have me enrolled in their hall of heretics. It’s all part of the game, I guess.

I don’t comment on other blogs as much as I’d like simply because of limitations on my time. By the time I’ve done my daily writing, I don’t have a lot of time remaining to comment elsewhere.

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