I wanted to pick up again on the recently released report from the Social Science Research Council on religious blogs. Now, as noted before, religion blogs don't dominate the top 100 blogs, though major blogs like Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish regularly engage in discussions of religion. That said, the blogosphere is able to reach well beyond either the academy or the local church.
Joe Carter, web editor at the journal First Things, makes this point that is worth attending to:
The average pastor in America has sixty people who will hear their sermon on a Sunday morning. In contrast, a blogger who writes about religion can expect from two to one thousand times as many visitors will read their thoughts over the course of a week. The result is that thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Christians are more influenced by their favorite blogger than by their local pastor. Academic bloggers, particularly those who are also pastors or teach on religious subjects, can expect to have an especially outsized influence, one than often dwarfs the impact they have on their own peers and students.
Although it's difficult to measure influence, the attendance at my church's Sunday service is near the average mentioned in this quote, but the daily visits to my blog number 4-5 times that number. Again, it's difficult to measure influence, as many who stop in may be browsers looking for something else. But, what if they stop for a moment, and take in what I've written?
Carter, who works for a conservative edged journal (I was a charter subscriber) raises a good question, however, and that deals with the question of oversight. While the focus of this blog is religious, dealing with issues that affect my congregation and its people, the church doesn't supervise it. Carter notes that this is the norm, and that few bloggers would want their dioceses, congregations, or school administrations deciding what should be posted. And yet, even if we mark clearly that our opinions are our own and not that of the institutions we serve, what we write does reflect upon these institutions. Now, my current congregation new I was a blogger going in -- and the search committee was following what I was writing before calling me. Hopefully, they new what they were getting and welcomed what I write -- even if the members don't always agree with what appears here.
But, going back to the original premise, what kind of impact or influence can we have? And further, how can we enhance that influence -- without becoming manipulative? As noted earlier, I'll be a presenter at the Theology after Google, a conference that is dealing with this very issue.
As Philip Clayton notes in his book Transforming Christian Theology (Fortress, 2010), the internet offers the possibility of democratizing theology, allowing the nonspecialist the opportunity to join in the conversation (pp. 2-3). I agree with this decision, but I think it's worth keeping in mind the dark side of this move -- the possibility of letting a theological populism emerge that is anti-intellectual (see the discussion of post modern inversions by Geoffrey Holsclaw). Thus, we who engage in this conversation, need to keep things balanced.