Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can't Say In Church

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 4:01 am

Toby Morrell curses and talks about sex on his podcast. Mike McHargue talks about evolution and LGBTQ issues on his. These things would be typical on most podcasts — but McHargue and Morrell's audiences are almost entirely Christian.

A study by the Pew Research Center, released in 2015, shows that millennials have been leaving Catholic and mainline Protestant churches in droves from at least 2007 but they don't necessarily lose their belief in God. In fact, more than half say they're still religious or spiritual.

That's the type of audience that's tuning in to McHargue's podcast The Liturgists and Morrell's podcast Bad Christian.The Liturgists has about 1 million downloads a month for some episodes and according to its Website, 250,000 subscribers.

Bad Christian is sponsored by a few corporations not generally known for their religious affiliations. Among them are Lyft, Casper, Stamps.com.

These two podcasts aren't unique in their approach. Similar podcasts include The Robcast, hosted by ex-pastor Rob Bell, who left his church after saying God doesn't send people to hell, and Drunk Ex-Pastors, where the hosts take a shot of an alcoholic beverage before every show.

McHargue and Morrell say they grew up as Christians who didn't feel like the institutional church allowed them to question and explore their faith. They spoke with NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered about why they left the church, how that changed their faith, and how podcasts like theirs could be affecting Christianity.


Interview Highlights

On why he left the church

McHargue: A lot of people have a lot of anger toward their past, but I actually loved being a Baptist. But as I grew as a person, and started to face challenges in my own life — in my particular case, my parents got a divorce after 30 years of marriage — I started to look to the Bible for answers, and the way I was taught to read the Bible started to fall apart.

Morrell: My grandfather was a pastor, so I grew up in this church that was very conservative. They were so conservative, they split from other churches because they thought the other churches in the South were too liberal, and I was like "What in the world?" Christianity, in general, I would say, never represented me — I always felt like I was on the outside. The only time I felt like I was represented was actually within the Scripture. Some terrible people were heroes in the Bible. You saw some really terrible things about people's lives and personalities within the Bible, but when I was growing up in church, everybody hid that. You don't do this, this, this and that makes you a Christian.

On why he turned to podcasting

McHargue: As I explored this middle space between faith and skepticism, I found that there were a lot of people stuck in that gear too. People for whom the church was too dogmatic, but atheism was too dismissive of their need for mystery and, frankly, things spiritual.

Morrell: As I got older, I realized there were people just like me. And so [Joey Svendsen, Matt Carter and I] ended up doing this podcast just because we wanted to represent, "What is it like for three friends to get together and just be as brutally honest as we can?"

On criticism from Christians

Morrell: We get a lot of criticism and I think that is good. That's one of the biggest critiques we have of the church — is that you can't critique it. That pastors would be hidden when they have moral failures. ... The church does a really poor job of respecting people's minds. They want to just give you everything in a pretty little package, and that is what your Christianity is. I think what we're doing is opening up a door where people go, "No, I own my faith. I'm wrestling with God."

On if the future of Christianity will be church services or podcasts

McHargue: I think that the future is both. I think you'll continue to have institutional Christianity, and I think you'll continue to have sort of a church in exile. My work is about acknowledging the validity as both as ways to know and follow this historical figure Jesus, and figure out what that means. I think everywhere people gather together around a table, God can be present.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to talk about some of the ways people are engaging with faith and religion. There are 173 million American adults who identify as Christian. But what if you're one of the millions of Americans who question the doctrine, the theology or the practices by which you were raised? Maybe you're done altogether with church, but still hunger for a spiritual community. You may have already found your way to a podcast. That's right - a podcast.

The platform used by comedians and journalists is becoming a go-to format for people exploring spirituality, especially those who may have found themselves moving away from traditional ideas about church. We reached out to two hosts of popular Christian podcasts Mike McHargue who co-hosts The Liturgists podcast which has 1 million downloads a month. He was at WFSU in Tallahassee. And we also spoke with Toby Morrell, co-host of Bad Christian which has a quarter million downloads a month. We reached him at Nashville Public Radio.

And I started by asking Mike McHargue why he left the church and why he launched his podcast. And I need to mention right now that some of the subject matter might not be appropriate for all listeners.

MIKE MCHARGUE: Yeah, so I grew up in the Southern Baptist faith, and I was really happy with it. Like, a lot of people have a lot of anger towards their past, but I actually loved being a Baptist. But as I kind of grew as a person and started to face challenges in my own life - in my particular case, my parents got a divorce after 30 years of marriage. I started to look to the Bible for answers, and the way I was taught to read the Bible started to fall apart.

And that led to my entire faith journey coming to pieces to the point that I no longer identified as a Christian. It was - all I considered myself an atheist. And as I sort of started to return to faith and have some understanding of God again, it was radically different than what I once held. It was much less orthodox, much more mysterious and frankly much more based on science.

And as I explored this middle space between faith and skepticism, I found that there were a lot of people stuck in that gear, too, people for whom the church was too dogmatic. But atheism was too dismissive of their need for mystery and frankly things spiritual.

MARTIN: Toby, what about you? How did you come to this? And I have to say that it seems like you had a similar journey to Mike's in the sense that you grew up in a strict religious environment, you know, no movies, you know, no jewelry.

TOBY MORRELL: Right.

MARTIN: And you say that at one point you got burned out on it. And then what happened? And how did that lead to podcasting?

MORRELL: Yeah. My grandfather was a pastor, so I grew up in this church that was very conservative. They were so conservative, they split from other churches because they thought other churches in the South were too liberal. And I was like what in the world? Christianity, in general, I would say, never represented me. Like, I always felt like I was on the outside.

The only time I felt like I was represented was actually within the scripture. Some terrible people were heroes in the Bible. You saw some really terrible things about people's lives and personalities within the Bible. But when I was growing up in church, everybody hid that. You don't do this, this, this and that makes you a Christian.

As I got older, I realized there were people just like me. And so we ended up doing this podcast just because we wanted to represent what is it like for three friends to get together and just be as brutally honest as we can?

MARTIN: Well, you know, Toby, you and your other posts of Bad Christian have made a splash for cussing, for one thing...

MORRELL: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...And for being very open about - which you can do in a podcast, let me just say.

MORRELL: Right. I'll say it - I'll hold it for - I won't do it here though.

MARTIN: Exactly. But being very open about some things that still aren't necessarily openly talked about in the traditional church context. I'm going to play a clip, and you're talking very candidly here about sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BAD CHRISTIAN")

MORRELL: Does she know how much fulfillment and joy like greater than the mountains and the skies and the beauty of everything (unintelligible) - like tomorrow morning while I'm getting my coffee, if she looked me in the eye and said tonight...

MARTIN: OK. Well, maybe this part is a little too candid for radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BAD CHRISTIAN")

MORRELL: ...So if the kids are in bed, do you know how good my day would be?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, yeah.

MORRELL: Even if she didn't mean it, even if she was just saying it, like I'm that dumb. I would just be putty, right?

MARTIN: OK. It's an instruction manual, too, I see.

MORRELL: So now I've got myself in trouble with my wife on NPR radio.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Tell me how, first of all, why is this important and how does this go over? I understand that sometimes you do get criticism for this, but tell me what your thoughts are about it.

MORRELL: Yeah. We get a lot of criticism, and I think that is good. That's one of the biggest critiques we have of the church is that you can't critique it, that pastors would be hidden when they have moral failures. We just don't want to do that. That clip you played, I might be wrong. Obviously, I was making a joke there.

But the bigger point is maybe it's OK to say that and look a little silly, look a little foolish and not take yourself so seriously, that if we take - if we start taking ourselves so seriously, then we inevitably control people. And I just really dislike that. I want to push so hard against that especially in the Christian world.

The church does a really poor job of respecting people's minds. They want to kind of just give you everything in a pretty, little package. And that is what your Christianity is, and I think that what we're doing is opening up a door people go, no, I own my faith. I'm wrestling with God.

MARTIN: Mike, what do you think your podcast does? Because one of the arguments is it's great that people have this experience on the air, but then it doesn't give them any place to do it because faith needs to be lived and walked and not just kind of heard about.

MCHARGUE: Yeah. I think that's a really key point. We work really hard at building other resources for people to connect together. And we even organize local groups on a city-by-city basis so that listeners of our podcast can find each other and start to practice faith and spiritual community, trade notes and, yeah, maybe even find a church that can love them as they are.

Our goal with our work is not to tear the church down, but to make enough noise that institutional Christianity realizes there's a lot of people who are hungry, but are being left behind.

MARTIN: Do you think that these online communities are, perhaps, the future of organized religion? Mike, I'll start with you, then I'll give Toby the last word.

MCHARGUE: I think that the future is both. I think you'll continue to have institutional Christianity, and I think you'll continue to have sort of a church in exile. And my work is about acknowledging the validity as both as ways to know and follow this historical figure Jesus and figure out what that means. I think everywhere people gather together around the table God can be present.

MARTIN: Toby, what about you?

MORRELL: Yeah. I think that what we're learning is that especially with podcasting I think the future is more niche markets and that people can come together in small groups, and you can really have influence within smaller groups and kind of like what the church originally started, you know. You had a local church in your town, and it served those people. And I think that's kind of what podcasts are doing.

And also I would say that what we're trying to do is just once again just be real - all the faults, all the good, all the bad, right there so that people can see it so that we aren't put on a pedestal, that we are thought of as just like you. And that's a big win for us.

MORRELL: That was Mike McHargue and Toby Morrell. They are the hosts respectively of The Liturgists podcast and Bad Christian. Mike, Toby, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MORRELL: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

MCHARGUE: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.