The rise of the blogosphere in the early 2000s yielded the genre of the “spiritual blogger.” From the comfort of their living rooms, lay people suddenly became household names, wielding influence over tens of thousands of followers. A new kind of Christian celebrity—and authority—was born: the speaker and author who comes to us (often virtually) as a seemingly autonomous voice, disembedded from any larger institution or ecclesial structure.
Just as the invention of the printing press helped spark the Protestant Reformation and created a crisis of authority, the advent of social media has catalyzed a new crisis in the church.
One of the most prominent recent examples of this crisis involves the popular blogger Jen Hatmaker, who last year announced that her views about homosexuality have changed. She was cheered by some and denounced by others. LifeWay stopped selling her books. Aside from the debate about sexuality, broader questions emerged: Where do bloggers and speakers like Hatmaker derive their authority to speak and teach? And who holds them accountable for their teaching? What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of? Who decides what is true Christian orthodoxy? And how do we as listeners decide whom to trust as a Christian leader and teacher?
How did we get here?
In this new cyber age, authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity. Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument. Christian bloggers and conference speakers have become a sort of cyber-age equivalent to megachurch pastors, garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.
This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium. “Women’s ministry has transformed in the 21st century,” writes Kate Shellnutt. “Christian women increasingly look to nationally known figures for spiritual formation and inspiration—especially when they don’t see leaders who look like them stepping up in their own churches.”