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Why Your Church Should Start a Parish Podcast

October 25th, 2023 | 6 min. read

By Patrick Miller


In a bygone era, pastors traveled their parishes on foot, dropping in on parishioners at their homes and their workplaces (they were usually one and the same) to do soul care. They counseled, taught, encouraged, and admonished in the ordinary trenches of life. The parishioners, for their part, gathered in church multiple evenings a week to socialize, hear scriptures read publicly, and sit under sermons.

I don’t mean to sentimentalize this era. There were squabbles. Pastors complaining about their parsonages and wood allowances. Notable families dictating what ministers taught (and withholding funds if they refused). Congregants whining about long and boring sermons. Gossip. Slander. Nepotism.

But this era had one undeniable strength: the church was the center of social reality, which meant that even the most nominal Christians were immersed—on a daily basis—in the imaginative world of the Old and New Testament. This explains why 18th-century figures who denied the truth of Christianity could nonetheless quote and allude to the Bible with an ease that puts modern seminarians to shame. If you put an 18-year-old from the 18th century in a room with a lifelong churchgoing 48-year-old from the 21st century, I can almost guarantee that the former was more Biblically literate than the latter.

Cars changed everything. 

Cars made suburbs and commuters possible. They allowed Christians to commodify church (read: church shopping and capitalistic competition between churches) and retire the parish pastor. In the era of strip malls and office buildings, the centripetal magnetism of town squares and city centers dissipates. The suburban home is a centrifuge, spinning its human constituents to diffuse dots on a map. The church is the center of nothing geographically—because there is no center anymore. 

The public reading of scripture in daily worship gave way to individual quiet time at home. The radio—and, later, podcasts—replaced the parish pastor. After all, it’s the only voice that speaks to us daily, traveling with us from here to there, and immersing us in its electric imaginative reality. 

Thus, churches and church leaders face an unpleasant question: If you can’t convince everyone in your church to move within a walkable radius, will you co-opt the very technology usurping the imaginative space Christian teachers once held?

Podcasting and Sunday Schools

Before the era of smartphones and podcasting, radio and television broadcasts were the only way to break into the quotidian rhythms of suburbanites. Most churches couldn’t afford to rent airtime, much less purchase the necessary equipment, and thus trusted Sunday school, Wednesday night classes, and small groups to carry the educational freight thorough discipleship requires.

But the suburbs struck back. The rise of youth sports culture, in particular, boxed out Christian education. As recent research on dechurching shows, most people exit their churches casually—it’s a slow process of not caring, combined with imaginative immersion in global entertainment and social media. 

Now, most churches define a “regular attender” as someone who attends Sunday morning worship at least once every three weeks. The simple reality is that one to three hours of worship a month cannot form a thickly Christian imagination.

So what do we do?

I will surprise no one when I say this: I’m pessimistic about the possibility of winding back the suburban clock, but I’m optimistic about retooling technology like podcasts—which, if we’re being honest, is simply an entertainment technology—to play the role of parish pastor and daily gathering.

No, it’s not the same. A podcast is a one-way conversation consumed by an individual. But it’s not totally different. And unlike radio and TV, podcasting is cheap and accessible.

Several years ago, we launched a daily ten-minute Bible devotional podcast. It wasn’t long before people found me on Sunday morning to share that they loved listening while they exercised or went on a commute. 

One comment stuck with me in particular: “I hope this doesn’t sound weird, but it’s like you’re a part of daily life. It’s like you’re jogging alongside me. I know there are lots of other podcasts out there I could listen to, but I like having my pastor, in my place, who knows my story speaking to me more than Matt Chandler.”

The key word here is “like.” A podcast is a simulacrum of a parish, a congregation, an evening mass. But rather than bemoaning the simile, I want to celebrate it. Digital technology was creating a meaningful touchpoint between me and someone in my church. Christian education was happening on the trail and in the car. 

His key insight was that the podcast was by our church and for our church. The voices and stories didn’t come from the granite peaks of Colorado, the concrete webs of New York City, or the grasslands of Texas. They came from Missouri’s bluffs (and oppressive humidity). They came from our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, our small college town.

Yes, the internet is a global technology, but a local church podcast for that local church made it something different. We’d inadvertently created a parish podcast.

600 Parish Podcasts a Year

As the idea of a parish podcast percolated, I became increasingly convinced that devotional podcasts were only the tip of the iceberg. Our people needed deeper immersion in more narrow fields of Christian practice and orthodoxy. After all, we have many fantastic lay teachers, counselors, and pastors who could easily expand their teaching beyond in-person classrooms and into the daily lives of our people. Thus began a slow proliferation of podcasts built around various dimensions of discipleship: evangelism, prayer, soul care, cultural apologetics, and theology. 

Let me share a few examples beyond daily devotionals (that I hope you’ll steal).

    1. Prayer & The Daily Office. I adapted prayers from the Psalms, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours into a twice-daily prayer and scripture podcast. They include scripture readings and creedal recitations. To give the prayers a local voice, we not only had our church members read them, but our musicians performed live improvisational jazz as they read. The prayers and words are ancient, but the voices and instrumentation spring up from our church’s diverse soil. Within a single month, thousands of people were entering into a prayer rhythm together through the podcast.

    2. Evangelism. Years ago, two campus ministers working Cru at our local college began to reimagine their suburban neighborhood. Rather than seeing it as a place to land and live, they began to see it as a mission field. Over the next few years, they built strong relationships with neighbors, began Bible studies, and led many to Christ. After writing a book about their work, we worked together to turn their vision into a podcast with the hope that people in our church will catch a vision for neighboring.

    3. Soul Care. Our church houses several licensed professional counselors who’ve helped countless people in our church navigate the most traumatic, distressing, and difficult times of their lives. They all take an integrative approach: uniting the Bible, theology, and therapeutic techniques. These counselors began to ask whether a podcast exploring emotional health, communication styles, and family history could help people become emotionally and spiritually healthy. We launched the podcast and found the answer: yes. They’ve used their experience counseling thousands of local people to help thousands more.

    4. Cultural Apologetics: In 2020, the pandemic combined with a contentious election and nationwide protests to make church life extraordinarily difficult. Like many churches, we realized that many of our people were confused about how to engage culture—especially when media only showed them wrathful culture warriors on both sides of the aisle. This led us to start a podcast designed to train people how to think about culture and live in our city as faithful witnesses to King Jesus.

All said and done, we’ve launched seven parish podcasts, which means we’re publishing about 600 episodes per year. If someone in our church wants to immerse their imagination in the world of scripture with local voices attuned to local needs sharing local stories, they can. In fact, they can do it almost twice a day.

We may not be able to turn back the clock on digital technology, suburbs and cars, but we can retool audio technology to fill in some of what’s lost. I’m not encouraging every church to start seven podcasts, but I would challenge you to start the same way we did: small. Connect with your church digitally at least once per week. Become a frequent voice on their jogs and commutes. Immerse their imagination in scripture. See if God wants to use your parish podcast to renew the minds of people in your church.

Is This a Bait-and-Switch?

I can imagine someone reading this and arguing that I’ve done a verbal bait-and-switch. By using the word “parish,” I am hiding the fact that digital content is undeniably global and mental (not local and relational). It’s a classic switcheroo. So I will end by responding to a few lines of criticism I’d expect people to pose in good faith,

  1. Parish ministry requires conversation, and a podcast is a monologue. This is true; podcasts are not a conversation between speaker and listener. They’re a way to download information. But it’s also false, because if your podcast is being consumed by people in your church whom you know, you do have the opportunity to converse. What starts as a monologue on Tuesday becomes a dialogue on Sunday.

  2. There are so many podcasts. Why do we need more? Well, we don’t need more. But we may need different. You can calibrate the content of a parish podcast to local needs in ways a national podcast cannot. Our global media environment tends to flatten concerns and make us worried about things well outside our sphere of influence. A parish podcast can refocus people on their own geographical backyard, speaking to the specific needs, desires, and idols of locality.

  3. Podcasts might replace Christian education but do nothing to replace parish ministry. Again, this is true, but (as I already mentioned in points one and two) they can facilitate aspects of parish ministry that are impossible in a suburban context.

  4. Podcasts take away from in-person ministry and church attendance. Perhaps, but not in my experience. If church members primarily consume national podcasts, this may very well be the case. But I’ve found that hearing the voice of your pastor or favorite lay-teacher throughout the week actually makes you feel more connected to your church and more likely to attend. Our podcasts have actually been the avenue by which many local dechurched people became rechurched people.

In the same way that the printing press radically changed how we think about ministry (you can’t have a quiet time without widespread literacy and printed Bibles) and discipleship (you can’t invite someone to read a theological treatise unless they’re cheaply and easily available), digital media will open up new threats and opportunities for the church. Using analog ministry norms as analogs for digital ministry norms is a way of honoring ancient traditions, not hollowing them out. The ancient forms both critique and inspire modern ministry formats.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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