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How Commercial Incentives Break Christian Social Media

February 1st, 2024 | 7 min read

By Blake Callens

Christian Twitter is one of the primary digital marketplaces of ideas for the conservative evangelical church in America. Most nationally known pastors and theologians have a presence, as do most Christian authors, musicians, podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers and, yes, even Christian “influencers.” The evangelical zeitgeist is shaped and molded on Twitter, where seemingly every week brings a new controversy to debate and a new person to denounce. In this way it does not function much differently than the secular subcultures of Twitter, and therein lies the problem: Christian social media is both in the world and of it (John 15:19).

It is not difficult to understand the root cause of this problem. Firstly, social media is a numbers game; the more followers a user has, the more likes and shares he will receive, driving the algorithm to present his content to even more people who will, in turn, follow him and like future content. Social media engagement “hockey sticks.” Interaction has exponential returns in the same way a successful startup reaches a critical mass of customers and sees its profits explode overnight. It is therefore no surprise that Christian Twitter, like the rest of the platform, sees its collective conversations mainly shaped by those with the largest followings, either those who brought their existing clout to the platform or those who spent years building a following organically. This is the impetus of its cultural problems, because the only people with the incentive to daily market themselves in this way are those who derive their income from Christian media.

As much as the Christian conference and book scene is presented as a genre made up of “ministries,” they are as much, if not more, members of an industry than what most would consider a normal Christian ministry. Those at the top of the game, such as G3 and Canon Press, have their own publishing houses and even their own streaming platforms. For those in the middle of the pack who have carved out a niche audience, modest incomes are wholly dependent on the patronage of a smaller and more fickle cadre of fans. Income is often drawn through the subscription model, whether through Patreon, Substack or subscriber-only Tweets. In this way, Christian media in the Internet Age functions no differently than secular alternative media, where one’s entire livelihood depends on retaining the favor of an adoring public. Still, the highest, and most lucrative, echelons of the industry are dominated by a short list of organizations, and their online platforms, that can grant or refuse access to a particular market. In order to reach the largest possible audience of mainstream, moderate, and liberal evangelicals, one must have the favor of The Gospel Coalition or Christianity Today. In order to reach the most conservative Reformed Baptists, one must go through G3. Even within much smaller theological spheres there are dominant forces that one must court. Can anyone who is attempting to make a name for themselves as a cultural and political commentator in the world of Rushdoony-esque postmillennial theonomic reconstruction avoid having to kiss the ring of Doug Wilson and Canon Press? This is further complicated by the fact that there are often no clear lines of distinction, and some notable crossover, between the camps. For instance, James White, a popular postmillennialist theonomist Baptist, long associated with both G3 and Wilson (who are in the midst of a public disagreement, though, as will be discussed, most direct disparagement comes from the more reactionary Wilson), has announced that he will appear at the 2024 Fight Laugh Feast conference, the Wilson camp’s equivalent of the annual G3 conference.

In application, this means that those with an up-and-coming Christian media platform risk being barred from the most lucrative and brand-building conference events, book deals, and podcast interviews if they use their Twitter account to discuss subjects that are unfavorable to the gatekeepers within their sub-genre. For example, it is quite difficult to find a notable Christian personality on Twitter, who has appeared at an event with Wilson or White, who will forthrightly discuss the abuse allegations within their churches, which have been extensively documented on Twitter and elsewhere by the accounts Examining Moscow and Check My Church, respectively. As it is with any industry, when someone’s personal ambitions and livelihood are based on networking, the last thing he wants to do is rock the boat. This has led many in the Christian Twitter thought-leader space to find their voice in a total inversion of the apostle Paul’s instructions:

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Are you not to judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God will judge. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

Nearly every major thought-leader in the right wing evangelical world regularly derides wokeism. Many of the best known personalities do so near-daily. A likely key motivator is that there is no political cost for them to point a finger outward; deriding the world for its sin will generally receive unanimous applause from all gatekeepers to the right of Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition. Conversely, if you are an up-and-coming podcaster who mostly interviews people in the Fight Laugh Feast world, there is an incentive to not criticize the clear sins of prominent pastors in that world, such as Joel Webbon’s public revilement of other pastors, lest your guest queue quickly dry up. If you are a Reformed Baptist pastor with a national media “ministry,” who plans on having a booth at next year’s G3 conference, why would you risk losing their assistance by giving a brotherly rebuke to their president, Josh Buice, for posting pictures of him and his wife walking around Saint Peter’s Basilica antagonistically wearing matching Martin Luther t-shirts? Why even politely criticize others who reside in the particular halls of the catholic church in which you walk, at the risk of damaging your brand and income?

Yet, just as “punching left” towards the secular world carries no political cost for the conservative Christian personality, there is also no cost for displaying antagonism towards pastors and theologians your audience considers too liberal. Consequently, many well-known personalities in the most reactionary ends of the Christian media industry have no issue publicly deriding anyone who is not in their camp. The most vitriolic personalities will go as far as to compare a female Christian author to Pennywise the Clown and play to an audience of anonymous users who are often explicitly racist and antisemitic.

This trickles down leftward, where conservative Christian personalities, often the target of reactionaries, will themselves go beyond Scriptural rebuke and delve into the open derision of professing Christians to their left. The most common targets of this derision are “queer-affirming” pastors, but it is in no way limited to that degree of liberalism. These personal attacks often take on the same essence as those from the reactionary camp, but for everything being shifted leftward. For example, G3’s Scott Aniol publicly questioned the masculinity of a young pastoral intern who wrote an ill-conceived article for The Gospel Coalition that tried to parallel Taylor Swift to the gospel, and Grace to You’s Phil Johnson crudely joked about who was the dominant partner in the marriage of Saddleback Church’s co-pastors.

What results from this bias is an online environment driven by cognitive dissonance, where the most reactionary write of building “Christendom 2.0,” while completely disregarding their responsibility to emulate Christ, and where those slightly to their left will begin the day quoting Scripture or a reformer on the subject of not conforming to the world, and then go on to disregard their own advice.

On the occasion that someone in the conservative camp fully punches right, namely when they gain the courage of their convictions and unreservedly rebuke someone in the reactionary camp for clearly unchristian behavior, they are mostly left hung out to dry by their compatriots. Such was the case when pastor and podcast host Nathaniel Jolly called Webbon a “danger to the body of Christ” and criticized White’s endorsement of him, and when Grace Bible Theological Seminary Provost Owen Strachan described the political theory of Stephen Wolfe as supporting a “kinist” worldview at last year’s G3 conference. Both brought evidence to back up their claims; these were not ad hominem attacks.

In response, Wilson, whose Canon Press published Wolfe’s book, wrote a blog post ridiculously straw-manning Strachan’s argument and later took a dig at Strachan’s G3 allies in last year’s No Quarter November promotional video. Webbon went as far as to turn Jolly’s name into a promo-code. But while the allies of Webbon and Wolfe promoted these counter-attacks, and vigorously came to their defense through their own public derision of Jolly and Strachan, there was barely any public defense of these two men from their allies in Christian media. After all, why rock your sub-genre’s boat that still has first- and second-degree connections to Webbon and Wilson, when you can retreat into the excuse of “avoiding divisiveness”?

This may all seem to be ridiculous Twitter drama, because it is, but such is the state of public conservative evangelical discourse in the Internet Age. Young people, in their most formative years, spend an exorbitant amount of time online, and Christians are no exception. When one cannot point to a fully-orthodox, conservative Christian national “ministry” that has the collective courage to openly rebuke individuals to their right who push destructive legalist excess, can it be any wonder why many young Christian men are increasingly drawn to the hyper-performative masculinity and faux-Christian, aggressive behavior of those individuals? When one cannot point to a conservative evangelical national “ministry” whose members all disagree with antinomians and secularists in kindness, can it be any wonder why young Christian women are increasingly drawn to progressive Christianity and its universalist tendencies?

Why are there so few adults with both Christian principles and Christian conviction in the room?

Blake Callens

Blake Callens is a software engineer and author. He writes from South Carolina. He is the author of "The Case Against Christian Nationalism."