Gordon Atkinson is the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church, a liturgical Baptist community in San Antonio, Texas. He is also the no-longer-anonymous writer of Real Live Preacher, the "Mr. Rogers of the blogging neighborhood," he says. His honesty and fresh perspective attracted thousands of readers. Real Live Preacher has received more than 800,000 visits in the two years of its existence, and is almost always among the top ten most-popular blogs hosted by Salon.com. A real, live preacher with an M. Div., Atkinson is also a web designer, and author of RealLivePreacher.com, published by Eerdmans. Being nearly as internet savvy as Atkinson, we "spoke" with him over instant messenging software about blogging, corresponding with readers, and lessons learned in the "virtual" world.
How did you get started blogging?
In the fall of 2002, I discovered weblogs and was very excited about the idea that I could write without worrying about how people would receive my words. I think considering the full impact of everything you write and say is very tiring for pastors. I launched Real Live Preacher with only a month or two of experience in reading blogs. I started Real Live Preacher not as a ministry or an attempt to do anything other than write, and write as honestly as I could.
Does blogging have any spiritual aspects for you?
Everything is spiritual for me. I wasn't expecting to find that I could have such love for people who stand outside the church. If I had to guess what Real Live Preacher means to the people who read my writing, I would say that many of them long for a spiritual connection, perhaps with the church, but are so outside the Christian subculture that they cannot get connected. For them, I am such a connection. For me, the spiritual connection came with the joy of reaching outside of my intimate Christian community and finding soft and seeking hearts all over the world.
What's it like being a well-known name in the blogging community?
I was very frightened and disoriented when Real Live Preacher started getting significant hits and a lot of attention. I probably get an average of ten e-mails a day. I don't know how it happened. I wrote only for my own gratification and all of these people started coming to read. And then a couple of publishers contacted me. I was disoriented and unsure of how to react.
How did you react?
My first reaction was to get a little obsessive with my writing. I began on December 6, 2002. Eerdmans contacted me at the end of the month. From that time forward, I was aware that an editor was reading everything I wrote. Real Live Preacher became as important as pastoring for a time. I also reacted with the full range of emotions that often comes with big life changes. Suddenly I had all this e-mail and all these wonderful compliments. I reacted by taking everything very seriously. Too seriously. I felt I had to answer every challenge. I gushed inside at every compliment. I wrote my guts out. I loved it.
I've settled down a bit now. Criticism doesn't bother me, and I don't mind not engaging people if I don't want to. Compliments about my writing are nice, but I don't take them as seriously. I absolutely do take the people who write a compliment seriously though. I feel strongly for them, but don't have as much feeling for the compliment.
What kind of response have you received from surfers outside Christian circles? How has that helped you spiritually?
I get a lot of e-mail from pagans and agnostics who feel that I am a safe person to talk to. For example, an atheist father wrote me. His wife became a Christian and was taking their daughter to church, where she was being taught that he was going to hell. He was grieving the loss of Sunday fun and noticing her growing distance from him. I guess I was the only Christian he felt he could talk to.
I had an e-mail from a woman whose boyfriend was a Christian and had died suddenly. She wanted me to suggest some scripture to read at his funeral because she knew it would have been important to him. I was able to suggest Eugene Peterson's The Message and show her some scripture. She wrote back weeks later, liking that Bible.
I had an e-mail from a woman who used to be a man. She has become interested in God since the operation, but wondered if there was a church where she would be accepted. On and on and on and on. I saved all of these e-mails and my responses. I wonder if there might be a book there someday. The lesson I have learnedand I feel it in my heartis that many people stand outside the church, and we don't communicate very well with them. Maybe fault lies on both sides, but I feel grief at our inability to talk with people of this world.
How has that need to communicate outside the Christian world affected your pastoring to Christians?
I have become very disinterested in many "churchy" things. I have become disconnected from my denominational participation. I used to serve in some key leadership roles for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship here in Texas and nationally. I wish them well, but I don't have the time.
I've become very disinterested in some of the things that seem to be of great interest to "churchy Christians." I don't really care what kind of music we play at church. I don't care how many people are there. I don't care what kind of clothes people have. I really don't care about the finer points of theological discourse. If a person is willing to follow Christ, that's all I need to know. Numbers and attendance don't mean anything to me.
I feel driven to write by a deep force within me. I want to write about the goodness God brings to this world, and I want to write in ways that can be heard by people outside the church. All of this tends to put me out of step with a lot of American Christianity. Thank God the people in my church love me and are affirming my strange journey.
I've thought for some time, I need more non-Christian friends. Do you think blogging is a way to do that?
Absolutely, but be very careful. If you try to become a blogger so that you can minister to the world and develop non-Christian friends, you will fail. Bloggers tend to be very intelligent and they will smell the stink of marketing on you. Become a blogger if you wish to be a part of blogging, if you want to write and to share who you are. I started Real Live Preacher because I wanted to write and share my voice and view of the world in a forum where everyone is doing that. If you become heavy-handed in your evangelism, people will ignore you. I've watched a few Christian blogs sputter and die in the Salon community in the last year or so, just because you could sense the arrogance and the purpose behind their writing.
It sounds like a principle to use outside the "virtual" life.
I really think so. I started Real Live Preacher not wanting to do anything for anyone other than myself. I think people feel safe to engage me because of that. I think, in our modern world where everything is marketed to death, many people smell something false in us. Have you ever had someone be friendly to you, then discover that they want you to go to their church? It feels like someone asking you out on a date only to get the phone number of your roommate. I still refuse to write anything that is intended to achieve any clear goal. I write what I want to write and let the chips fall where they may.
Your book is a collection of weblog entries with some additional essays. Is there any other difference between it and your blog?
I wrote nine essays just for the book. I worked on those essays at a level that exceeds anything that is possible with regular blogging. I'm quite happy with the new essays. You know, blogging is like speed chess. Rules are the same, but you are posting stuff a couple of times a week. At some point you just have to stop working on it. I enjoyed writing the nine essays because I didn't stop until they were done; not until every word was where I wanted it.
Blogging at Salon is kind of a hip, cool thing. Do you feel hip? Do you have a blog persona?
Real Live Preacher is a character. I'm pretty hip in the internet world. It's geek hip. In real life, I am not so hip. At least my daughters say I'm not.
I think that I wanted to say some things and wasn't brave enough to say them myself. So I invented a character and set him down in a place where anyone can say anything. Then I turned him loose. In some ways, Real Live Preacher is the truest I've been to myself. In other ways, he is the person I wish I were brave enough to be in real life. In other ways, he is what I hope to be when I grow up.
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Hear Real Live Preacher talk about the blogosphere on Christopher Lydon's blog at Harvard Law School blogs.
Selected quotes from Real Live Preacher are available from the Quotationspage.com.
RealLivePreacher.com is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.