In 1921, Scientific American published a story titled “A New Era in Wireless,” reporting that radio was no longer just for experts and tinkerers, but had spread to the masses. In Pittsburgh, the magazine reported, Calvary Episcopal Church was broadcasting a full church service every Sunday. “Think what this means to many people: the invalid, unable to go to church can enjoy its benefits without leaving his bed or wheel chair; the farmer, too far from town to go to church has the service brought to him; and the sick in the hospital are encouraged to get well by the wonderful words of the preacher,” the reporter gushed. “One can almost imagine being in church.”
Today, Christians who want to “imagine being in church” have more options than ever. In particular, they have podcasts. Whatever your theology, your denomination, your interests, or your appetite for cursing, there’s a Christian podcast for you in 2014. There are programs for Christian leaders and Christian women, for Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics. For conservative culture warriors, there’s The Briefing, which tackles newsy topics like Tim Cook’s announcement that he’s gay. For self-consciously “edgy” believers, there’s Bad Christian, in which a pastor and two musicians razz each other and blast the fuddy-duddies who don’t get it.
It’s not surprising that Christian culture has produced such a rich variety of podcast programming. There have always been ambitious ministers eager to spread their messages beyond the four walls of their individual churches, and radio and television ministries have thrived since the beginning of those media.
Today, large churches are just as concerned with outreach—although now they use buzzwords like missional (and yes, branding). Compared with radio and television, however, podcasts are cheap to produce and disseminate. A pastor with a television ministry has to pay for airtime, and build a set that would attract channel-surfers; a pastor with a “tape ministry” had to record and mail actual cassettes. To produce a podcast, all he has to do is press a few buttons.
That helps explain why many of the most popular Christians podcasts, including those from Houston-based prosperity-gospel proponent Joel Osteen and respected New York pastor Tim Keller, are simply recordings of their Sunday morning sermons. If you’re already preparing a 45-minute speech every week, recording and uploading it online are not much extra work, especially if you have a support staff.
For churches with national reputations—or that want one—podcasts are an easy way to reach far-flung followers. The sermon podcast from the Village Church, a large Southern Baptist congregation in metro Dallas, is frequently one of the top 10 Christianity podcasts on iTunes. “Our approach is, this makes the Gospel more accessible to people,” said Scott Ballard, the church’s interactive manager. “We look at it as a way to share what we believe is a Gospel-centered message as far as it will reach.”
In October the Village Church began experimenting with a new model: The Podcast Show, a monthly program that is closer to the traditional conversational podcast model. The show was dreamed up by the church’s creative director (yes, churches have creative directors), who enjoys podcasts like the NBA’s The Starters and several from NPR. In it, lead pastors Matt Chandler and Josh Patterson banter about culture, theology, and church news. Their first episode included a casual conversation about Chandler’s ongoing sermon series, gender roles, and their church’s expansion plans. The pair also invited a female author and church employee for a segment on domestic violence. The conversation was impressive: The trio emphasized the importance of believing women’s stories, of encouraging wives to leave dangerous husbands, and of calling the police rather than just relying on pastoral counseling to “fix” an abusive marriage.
As the Village Church’s strategy suggests, podcasts qua podcasts—as opposed to sermon podcasts—can provide pastors with the breathing room to tackle newsier and narrower topics than sermons allow for. Despite stereotypes, many pastors are hesitant to use their time in the pulpit on Sunday to opine on culture-war issues, or even on topics like parenting, which may not apply to all parishioners. For them, podcasts allow them to spread out a little. And unlike old-fashioned radio and TV ministries, their low costs and shaggy-dog format allow for more nuance—not less.
Carl Trueman, a theologian and pastor in Pennsylvania, started a podcast last year with a fellow pastor and an author friend. About 30,000 people now subscribe to The Mortification of Spin on iTunes. (The name tweaks a classic Puritan book title.) “I kind of do it for fun,” Trueman said. “And I hope we cover topics that are helpful to other Christians out there.” Although Trueman and his co-hosts generally maintain a light tone—one recent episode found them dissecting 50 Shades of Grey—they have also tackled child abuse and the “sinister” Christian patriarchy movement.
For listeners, podcasts can be a way to experience a wider variety of teaching than they receive at their local church. Annika Durbin, a stay-at-home mother of five in Illinois, listens to podcasts from James MacDonald, an Illinois megachurch pastor, and Chip Ingram, who leads a church in California. Though she treasures her own church community, she said she appreciates getting different perspectives, particularly on marriage and family. And when her children were younger—at one point she had five kids under the age of 6—she found that listening while doing housework became the only form of daily devotion she could squeeze in. “It felt like a way to get this into my heart every day and keep my mind focused in a good direction while still getting things done,” she said.
Podcasts have become such a phenomenon among Christians that some are starting to worry: If listeners can just download “church” and partake on their own time, will they still feel the need to belong to an actual church? Trevin Wax, managing editor of a curriculum called the Gospel Project, wrote a popular blog post a few years ago titled “Your Podcast Is Not Your Pastor.”* “I don’t believe podcasts can or should be considered a replacement for worship gatherings,” Wax said recently by email. “Thinking a podcast can substitute for a worship gathering means we’ve adopted an overly cognitive approach to church—as if the sole purpose of worship is to download the information in a pastor’s sermon into my brain.”
But Wax is happy to acknowledge the many benefits of podcasts, too: Christians can learn from pastors all over the world, and enrich their workouts or commutes. And they can feel connected to their home churches when they are sick or traveling. In other words, “One can almost imagine being in church”—almost, but not quite.
Correction, Dec. 15, 2014: This article originially misidentified the Gospel Project as a website. It is a curriculum. (Return.)