Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Christian Publications in a Post-Christian Context

March 1st, 2022 | 12 min read

By Jake Meador

We know there are two models that work for financing media jobs right now. The first model is to work for a print legacy institution that was well-positioned to weather the transition to digital and is now flush with subscription money. Unfortunately, only three of those exist: The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. And at this point any time a writer comes along who shows some promise, the eventual “promotion” to one of these three organizations is inevitable.

The other model, of course, is to go independent with Substack. I have questions about the long-term viability of it because it seems like the main people who can make Substack work full time are those who already have large enough audiences that they may not need Substack—10% of subscription revenue is a big cut and there are other options out there for such writers. On the other hand, the smaller Substack newsletters, which is an overwhelming majority of them I expect, will struggle to provide writers with a FT wage.

Here is what worries me: One thing I’ve learned from being in Lincoln is that when you don’t build institutions, things that don’t need to be difficult can actually be quite challenging. There has been a large homeschool scene in Lincoln for around 40 years. But if you’re the parent of young children today, there is only so much benefit you can draw from the fact that people 20 years older than you homeschooled their kids.

Why? When you homeschool, you don’t really formalize much of your work at all, often because it is so tailored to your life situation, and so the work terminates on your own family. This makes it very hard for others to benefit from it. And so if you are a young Protestant family in Lincoln right now, you have mostly the same weird school options that my parents did when I was growing up:

  • Homeschool
  • Fundy Christian school
  • Catholic schools
  • Lutheran schools
  • Public schools

Amongst people my age (I’m 34 and have two school-age kids with two more that aren’t yet in school), this has resulted in a lot of families saying “none of the above” and starting something new. So we have a ton of startup schools in Lincoln right now, one of which our family is part of. Some of these startups are going to make it and some of them will not. That’s life when you’re in the start-up phase. Omaha is in a similar state, though they have a classical Christian coop-model school that is well ahead of anything we have in Lincoln.

But ten years from now it is probable that we’ll have some kind of Charlotte Mason school in Lincoln, some kind of classical Christian school in Lincoln, and probably some kind of Montessori-inflected Christian school in Lincoln, and maybe one or two other schools with their own unique model. So in another decade, I expect the school situation for Christian families in Lincoln will look quite a bit healthier simply because we finally started building institutions instead of just opting out of institutions altogether by homeschooling.

So it is with media. If you’re paying a Substack subscription, you’re basically paying a writer’s wage. In a few cases, you’re also helping build an institution—looking at you The Dispatch, The Bulwark, Common Sense, and The Pillar—but mostly you’re paying Freddie de Boer’s salary or Matt Yglesias’s salary or Anne Helen Petersen’s salary. And that’s great! I’m glad those writers have a tool like Substack that allows them to make a good wage while having a high degree of editorial control and independence.

But when you’re simply paying a writer’s wage, the thing you’re paying for terminates on the individual writer. Just as with the private home schooling family, the benefit doesn’t really build over time or aid in the building of some new institutional vehicle for transmitting an idea or achieving some kind of goal.

On the other hand, if the only institutions that are viable are the Big Three, then how do you actually grow and mature as a writer? These three publications have a finite number of jobs, especially entry level jobs. And if you’re competing for those jobs with kids who have grown up in elite circles, have an Ivy League degree, and so on, what chance do you have? How do you get your foot in the door to the industry? How do you find a job that gives you the time to make mistakes, learn, and improve in your craft?

The answer right now seems to be “Substack,” plus freelancing. But then you’re still going to need other work to pay the bills. What we need, I think, is a renewal of small magazines that are all successful enough to pay their writers well enough that more writers can make a living via freelancing, likely from a mixture of Substack revenue plus publishing a few pieces a month at magazines that pay well. If we could have a half dozen thriving magazines in four or five different political blocs, I think the writing ecosystem would start to look quite a bit healthier.

So that’s the media-side problem. For me, though, I’m a Christian magazine editor, and so there is also a religious ecosystem problem that I am concerned with. In the much discussed David Brooks’ editorial on evangelicalism, Tim Keller listed out the project for renewing conservative Protestantism in the US:

  • The Christian Mind Project. Expand by a factor of 10 the number of evangelicals in graduate schools and the professoriate in order to make the community more intellectually robust.
  • A renewed church planting effort. Old churches merely attract pre-existing Christians. New churches attract new believers. Keller says Christians need to plant 6,000 new churches a year. He has already had a ton of success on this front.
  • New campus ministries. Decades ago, many young people found faith via dynamic evangelical organizations for students, such as InterVarsity and Young Life. That field has been allowed to stagnate.
  • Protestant social teaching. Catholics have a public theology that dates back at least to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Protestant versions might share 75 percent of its ideas, while being perhaps less hierarchical and more individualistic.
  • Faith and work. Faith is not just for Sundays. Keller suggests there should be more education programs on how Christians should show up at work and in the world.
  • Racial justice. Keller argues that this is one of the most explosive divides between the Trumpian and the non-Trumpian wings of the movement.
  • A strategy for post-Christian world — how you evangelize among people who have never had any contact with faith and don’t share the same mental concepts.
  • Spiritual formation. As Keller puts it: “We need to really redo Christian education. Completely.”

So here’s a helpful exercise to do: Let’s link up these tasks with the four ecclesial offices we mentioned in a previous post as a way to identify who can help address these issues.

To review, the four ecclesial offices are deacons (responsible for mercy ministry and physical care needs within the congregation and broader community), elders (responsible for spiritual care of the congregation), pastors (responsible for preaching), and doctors (responsible for theological education within the church and broader community).

Now let’s list out the eight items.

  1. Christian mind project: This will be a task for doctors and elders to support, I expect, as the doctors will help provide theological education for congregants pursuing academic life while elders should provide care and direction for people working in the academy. Doctors may also pursue work in a Christian study center as a way of having a presence on campus to better support Christian students and faculty and to model Christian habits of mind for a university audience.
  2. Church planting effort: This will mostly be about pastors. Obviously as the church plants become established churches, they should have people representing each office within their church. But the work of planting churches will mostly fall on pastors.
  3. New campus ministries: This will be similar to church planting efforts. Campus ministries need pastors to launch and lead them. The pastors, of course, will need to be trained, so you won’t get campus pastors or church planters without doctors teaching in seminaries, but the work of actually launching these campus outreach works will mostly fall on pastors.
  4. Protestant social teaching: This is mostly going to be the domain of doctors, I think. This is a slight expansion of what Calvin had in view for the office, to be sure, but also Calvin was working under Christendom. We are not. So I think it is a legitimate expansion of the role to say that doctors of the church now need to be able to teach on the church’s relationship to society and the social problem.
  5. Faith and work: This is going to be a mixture of diaconal and pastoral work, I expect. Bucer expects that deacons will know their local community well enough that when they are working with a poor person, they will know if the person mostly just needs money or mostly needs to find work and that they will be able to get that person what they need. So the assumption here is that deacons will know a bit about the lines of work available in a place and how to help people find work. But pastors will also need to teach well on vocation as they are preaching through the Bible.
  6. Racial justice: This is probably an all-hands-on-deck issue within the US context, at least. I can’t speak to other western contexts, let alone majority world situations. In the course of their normal work, deacons are likely going to be involved in addressing some of the tangible consequences of racial injustice, though that is mostly going to look like helping individual people and families. Elders will need to provide spiritual care for people as they seek to grow in love of neighbor and pursue reconciliation with their neighbors as well as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Pastors need to preach on reconciliation and the unity of Christ’s body as well as God’s love for the world and the importance of the image of God and the demands of justice. Doctors will need to engage wisely with the broader debates surrounding racial justice so as to provide sound counsel to others in the church.
  7. Evangelization: This will be a task for pastors and doctors. The pastors will be the ones preaching on Sundays, responsible to clearly present God’s word to a mixed audience of people and to model good habits of speech and engagement for their parishioners. Doctors, meanwhile, can support pastors by helping them identify useful resources as they preach and providing educational options for churches both on Sunday morning and during the week so as to equip the congregation for faithful Christian presence in their town or city and to be engaging evangelists amongst their neighbors.
  8. Spiritual formation: This is where the overwhelming majority of the elders time should be spent. While we must obviously be mindful of the limits on an individual elder’s time and capacity, we must also recognize that Scripture and church history seem to assume that elders will be fairly involved in the lives of their parishioners. This will likely mean regularly checking in on church members simply to see how they are doing and to make themselves available to church members for counsel and aid. In an ideal scenario, elders would have a designated region in the city or set of congregational small groups that they oversee. Those people would know who “their” elders are so that they know who to call when they need assistance. But elders would also, ideally, have a regular cadence of scheduled calls to the people under their care simply to check in with congregants and remind them of their availability to them.

Now another question: What institutions can help us do these things? Obviously local churches are the foundation—that is where people hear the Word of God preached, receive the Eucharist to nourish and sustain them on their spiritual journey, and where they receive the counsel and aid needed to live the Christian life on a day-to-day basis.

But there are some things here that local churches are not equipped or set up to do, I think. So we also need schools, colleges, and seminaries as well as homeless shelters and outreach centers, and, finally, publications to further help us do these things. This post is mostly concerned with media, so in what remains I’m going to focus on the items involving doctors in the church not because I view the work of the other offices as unimportant, but simply as a way to focus what remains and keep this from getting even longer.

Items 1, 4, 6, and 7 from Tim’s list are the ones that will require the greatest support from educational institutions and publishing institutions to address, which is where most doctors of the church should be working, either professionally or bivocationally. And here these two institutions should be working together, supporting each other, rather than competing with each other for scarce resources or attention.

The difference between these two types of institutions is mostly one of scale. Schools can only sustain so many students. In the first place, their teachers can only teach so many individuals and in the second place once a school becomes too large, it starts sliding toward bureaucracy and the kind of institutionalization that is the death of real education. In the second place, because of the importance of face-to-fact interaction and personal knowledge, schools should also be geographically limited rather than being predominantly online, in my opinion.

So both of these factors constrain how broad a school’s reach can be. That said, what schools lack in breadth they can and should make up in depth. The opportunities for a teacher to shape and form students across several years of relationship with them is immense and won’t be replicated by churches or publishing institutions.

On the other hand, publications will not be able to match schools for depth, but we can far exceed them in breadth. I do not have access to any graphic software at the moment or the desire to learn a shareware version, but you can perhaps picture what I’m describing as t-shaped chart. The horizontal axis refers to the number of people an institution is able to reach. The vertical axis refers to the depth with which an institution is able to reach individual people. Publications do the horizontal axis. Educational institutions do the vertical.

To put it in practical terms, Mere Orthodoxy has been reaching roughly half a million people annually for the last several years. During that time, our annual budget has never been larger than $30,000 and most years it was far less than that. This is scale that no educational institution can match. And while our costs are higher these days due to our expansion into print, we still scale far better than any educational institution could ever hope to without compromising its product.

This strength of scale will continue to apply as we grow for the simple reason that my work load and costs do not grow at the same rate as a teacher’s would as their class size grows. If a teacher has to grade work for 30 students instead of 15, their work has doubled, or close to doubled. At minimum, their grading work has doubled.

But if our print subscriber base grew from 450, which it is now, to 4500, my work would not grow tenfold. Our costs would go up because we’d need to pay our fulfillment vendor more to manage our subscription list and we’d have to spend more on printing to print that many copies. But for my part, I’m still sending a check to two vendors every month and coordinating issue launches with them, and that is true whether our subscriber base is small or large. Otherwise, I’ll still be editing, writing, and reading a pretty comparable amount to what I am now even if our subscriber base grows dramatically. I will just be doing it from a position of more financial security than I have currently and with a couple other people full-time to help make the magazine better. Even so, we’d be reaching people at a cost to scale ratio that no other institution we’ve discussed in this post can match.

To borrow a metaphor from an admittedly fraught source, there is something to that idea of the ground war and the air war. But unlike Driscoll, I’m not proposing that a single church or single man take on responsibility for all of this. Rather, I’m proposing that schools and congregations take the lead on the “ground war,” by doing their work on a local level in specific churches and schools while publications can manage the “air war,” side of things by using the internet, where distribution costs are basically zero, and print media, where distribution costs are higher but still scale better than educational institutions can ever hope to do, to reach broad audiences.

One more note about the benefits that publishers can offer: Because the internet changes media distribution so radically, it makes it easier to encounter new or foreign ideas. There are plenty of downsides to this, obviously and I’m fairly critical of those in a number of places. But the benefit of this for the church in a non-Christian society is that even as our public standing falls, the ease with which people can access actual Christian ideas has grown. If you are a non-Christian or a deconstructing Christian, going to church may feel risky, possibly even threatening depending on your history with Christians. But reading something on the internet costs you nothing financially or socially and is in many ways basically private.

This means there is enormous potential for publications that use the internet well to reach an audience that would otherwise never encounter Christians simply because they don’t encounter them in their day-to-day life nor do they have any associations with local Christian congregations or schools.

It is entirely possible that the way people eventually end up visiting a local church in the years to come will often begin with institutions led by deacons or doctors—either through mercy outreach and anti-poverty efforts or through online publishing. Indeed, I know of one local case of a young man who had apostatized who began his journey back to the church via listening to Jordan Peterson’s Genesis lectures. And I’m quite confident he is not the only one with such a story.

Anyway, this has gotten quite long and perhaps would work better as a podcast. But I’m wanting to continue to use the blog as a venue for this kind of writing—too chatty and informal and under-developed for an essay, but reflective of some thoughts-in-process I’m having now and that I’d enjoy being able to discuss with readers as they are able and interested.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).