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Religion & Liberty: Volume 33, Number 3

An Evangelical Journey with Mike Cosper

    Mike Cosper is the director of CT Media and the producer of Christianity Today’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. He’s the author of several books, including Recapturing the Wonder and Faith Among the Faithless.

    Tell us a little about your spiritual journey and how it led to your podcasting career at Christianity Today.

    I grew up in a Christian home and have one of those faith stories that is murky even to me. I walked an aisle in the second or third grade and was baptized shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t until I was 16 that I had a real encounter with the power of the Gospel and the presence of God—a kind of Damascus Road experience. So for me there’s no precise beginning for my faith, but there are important milestones that made it more concrete for me. 

    We were Southern Baptists until we moved into a town with no thriving Baptist churches. We attended a nondenominational church throughout my teen years, but I came back to the Baptists when I stumbled into church planting at the age of 19, when I was in college. I remain at that Baptist church plant to this day. I ended up joining the staff as an associate pastor and worship director shortly after we launched and served there for 15 years. In 2016, a combination of unhealth at the church and a growing sense of calling outside it led me to transition out of ministry there. I’d been writing and publishing for several years by then, and I had an idea in my head about a nonprofit media company that could serve Christians who were ill-served by most of the media options at the time. (Most of my friends who were in the marketplace consumed no Christian media at all.)

    Unfortunately, it turned out that starting a conservative nonprofit in 2016 while also being a Trump skeptic was a lethal combination, and plans got derailed. So I pivoted and launched a for-profit production company that served churches and nonprofits, doing work that wasn’t far removed from my original plans. Along the way I produced some original material, too.

    I met Tim Dalrymple shortly before he became the new president at CT, and when he shared where he wanted to take things and invited me to join the team he was assembling, I leapt at the opportunity.

    Have you seen changes in evangelicalism over the past 10, 15 years? If so, do you think it has been a question of its trying to influence the culture more aggressively, or rather the culture infiltrating too many evangelical churches?

    Yes and both. I think faithfulness in the church is always contested in two directions—syncretism and sectarianism. In our current moment, the syncretistic impulse looks just like the one I faced when starting out in ministry. Today they call it “exvangelicalism.” Back then it was “the Emergent Church.” I suspect that, like the Emergent Church, exvangelicals will largely be assimilated into the mainline.

    On the other side, though, the sectarian pressures feel very different than they did 20 years ago. I started ministry in the post–Cold War era, and the evangelical leadership archetypes were a Bible thumper, a happy guy in a Hawaiian shirt, and a CEO. The culture wars still existed, but for young leaders they were very unattractive. 9/11 shifted the tone a bit, but I think larger shifts emerged around 2008. It started with the emergence of Sarah Palin, who was initially embraced by conservatives for all the ways she seemed to embody the values of faith and family. The condescension of the media and of progressive politicians, plus a treatment of her that (rightly or wrongly) was perceived as unfair, left conservative evangelicals feeling attacked and condescended to. Throughout the Obama years, religious liberty felt under threat—lawsuits against bakers and nuns, the inevitable march toward the embrace of gay marriage, and right after that the rise of the transgender movement.

    Point being, there was a cumulative effect during those years that not only paved the way for a reactionary movement (and Donald Trump) but also gave oxygen to the idea that Christians were under siege.

    So now it seems like the old sectarian impulses of fundamentalism are back, along with a populist impulse and an even uglier authoritarian impulse expressed as “Christian nationalism.” These strike me as just as great a set of errors and dangers as the syncretistic impulse. In fact, I’d argue that the more authoritarian versions of them are just syncretism by other means.

    You’re perhaps most famous for your series of podcasts on the collapse of Mars Hill. Have you seen any change in “celebrity preacher” culture, perhaps a decline in megachurch growth or more skepticism among believers in the “pews”? Or is it just a question of, “Well that was that guy or that church—my bestselling preacher is great”?

    There’s no evidence megachurches are in decline. While they make up a minority of churches in the US, 70% of evangelicals attend a megachurch. There are all kinds of entrenched cultural reasons why that’s the case—many of them overlapping with why we like big brands, malls, and box stores.

    That said, I do think there’s a growing ambiguity among evangelicals about what to make of megachurches. I certainly hear more about it, but that may be a matter of where I stand these days. I’ve said all along that I don’t think megachurches are inherently incapable of faithfulness, and I think there are some that do a pretty good job of resisting the celebrity-pastor impulse. My hope is that the parade of scandal over the past decade might make people think twice about why they want to publish books or put their face on the home page of a church’s website. 

    It seems like once a month at least we’re treated to new stats about a decline in church attendance and the rise of the “nones.” Many assume that sex/money scandals or a too-conservative take on women’s ordination/LGBTQ+ issues is what’s driving people out, but the biggest declines have been in liberal mainline churches. Is this just a normal cycle of rise and decline, with a resurrection on the horizon? What should evangelical churches in particular be doing to convey the importance of being a member of a local church?

    I think there are problems enough inside evangelicalism that those stats are cold comfort. If the church is embracing nationalism in a syncretistic way, if popular Christian books are advocating an authoritarian vision of Christianity, if the culture war dominates ecclesial life, then the church is in decline even if the numbers are constant.

    A worthwhile data point here is the rapid rise of the number of pastors who say they’d quit ministry if they could. That signals something toxic inside the church, even if attendance isn’t in decline.

    A while back, I was talking with a pastor who leads a church with more than 15,000 people in attendance. He asked, “If we’re not supposed to measure health by attendance and giving, then what should we measure?” I suggested that they start counting the number of visits pastors and members made to hospitals and funeral homes. Where is the church showing up to share one another’s burdens? Are they there at the most critical and trauma-filled moments of one another’s lives? I’m certain an emphasis like this would (oddly enough) be a remarkably successful growth strategy. It would also be a powerful discipleship strategy. I’m just not sure anyone is willing to try it.

    Didactically or explicitly “Christian” art—especially movies and fiction—used to be pretty kitschy and aimed at the already converted. Have you seen any improvement on that score?


    What’s your favorite B&W film and why?

    Billy Wilder’s 1961 film, One Two Three. I’ve probably watched this movie 100 times. Wilder somehow manages to pack a dense political satire into an absurd Cold War comedy: nonstop jokes about bad Soviet knockoffs of American products, Germans who insist they were never Nazis but can’t stop standing to attention and clicking their heels, and the skewering of communist propaganda, which no one (including the communists) actually believed.

    This appears as the “Conversations Starters With…” column in the Summer 2023 issue of Religion & Liberty.

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    A University Honors Scholar of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Anthony has 30 years’ worth of publishing experience, having held numerous editorial titles for a wide variety of consumer magazines, websites, and journals, including Biography, Discover, Men’s Fitness, the Wall Street Journal, the, First Things, Commentary, and Modern Age. And for a brief period he also had Rambo for a boss, literally. He and his wife, Denise, a Realtor, live in Wilmington, Del. His writing can be found at