What would Jesus blog?
That and other pressing questions drew dozens of Christians to a Southern California university this weekend for what was billed as the first-ever national conference for "God bloggers," a growing community of online writers who exchange information and analyze current events from a Christian perspective.
The three-day conference at Biola University marked an important organizational benchmark for Christian bloggers, who have worked behind the scenes for several years to spread the Gospel and infuse politics with religion. It was the first time many of the 135 bloggers met face-to-face, and organizers took the opportunity to address sometimes controversial questions surrounding the future of the Christian blogosphere.
Topics included God bloggers' relationship with the traditional church, their growing influence on mainstream politics and how to manage outsiders' perceptions.
Many bloggers are now putting less emphasis on hot-button issues such as abortion, homosexuality and assisted suicide and are instead writing about religious oppression, poverty and world hunger, said Andrew Jackson, a seminary professor and pastor at the Word of Grace Church in Mesa, Ariz., who blogs daily at smartchristian.com.
"I think there is more and more a voice in the blogosphere against partisan politics and a voice toward public policy, social action issues and justice issues," said Jackson, who was a panelist at Biola, a small Christian university about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
That change is in part because bloggers are realizing the tremendous influence they can have — and how that influence can be misdirected and misunderstood, he said.
"There is a voice of caution — and that is even coming from those who would self-identify as Republicans. Partisan politics is not what informs our faith, the Bible is what informs our faith."
Bloggers are beginning to take on more unifying issues such as religious persecution, human trafficking and oppressive poverty, said Joe Carter, a panelist and author of evangelicaloutpost.com who came from Deerfield, Ill., for the conference.
"With blogging you tend to break out of those circles and you see other points of view," said Carter, 36. "There's a bigger world out there than gay marriage and abortion."
Bloggers at the conference stressed, however, that they don't want religious people to put aside their beliefs to appease non-Christians.
During one well-attended workshop entitled "When Non-Christians Read Your Blog," Biola University professor Timothy Muehlhoff instructed people on how to write about their faith without alienating nonbelievers.
He stressed that God blogging has the potential to be a "train wreck" because done wrong it can reinforce stereotypes of evangelical Christians as angry and close-minded "pit bulls of the culture wars."
"We need to write in such a way that people can see themselves presented as ... complex people who aren't monsters," said Muehlhoff, who studied conflict between homosexual students and conservative Christians at his previous post at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"As Christians today we are embroiled in the argument culture and we have forgotten this one thing: 'Blessed are the peacemakers.' Wouldn't it be nice if we could say we brought a level of civility back to the conversation?"
Other conference participants said they were concerned with the lack of interaction between the Christian online community and the traditional church and worried that someday the online church would replace physical congregations.
Still others predicted that would never happen, but said bloggers could play a role in reforming the modern church by keeping televangelists and other high-profile Christian leaders honest.
Carter compared blogging to the 95 Theses posted by Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago that launched the Protestant Reformation.
"It's like putting 95 blogs out there," said Carter, who said in an earlier interview that God bloggers offer an "uncensored and unadulterated" view of contemporary Christian thought on politics and organized religion that isn't reflected in the mainstream media.
Jackson, of smartchristian.com, said he wasn't as sure what long-term influence blogging would have on evangelical Christians — but he knew it would have an important one.
"We are just at the beginning of what is going on. We need to start thinking about how we can harness and focus the Christian blogosphere for greater impact," he said. "What we do and how that takes shape is up for discussion."