This book was co-authored with Benjamin Vrbicek and may be purchased at www.amazon.com.
Why Am I Blogging, and Who Am I Trying to Reach?
We were off, each of us writing facsimiles of The Hobbit. Only, he had the imaginative horsepower to create something that could stand on its own two feet. He wove into his story students in our class, our teacher, and our principal. When he took the storytelling stool, he sat up straight, his eyes sparkled, and the class leaned forward in anticipation. got the itch to write when I was a fourth grader in Ms. Reeves’s class. We had free writing time and once a week we read our creations to the class. I was reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time and had a serious case of Middle-earth-itis. Another boy in my class had caught the Middle-earth bug as well.
Listening to this fourth-grade master at work, I dreamt of captivating the class (nay, the school!) the way he did. But try as I might, my writing was just a ten-year-old blurry copy of Tolkien’s world. As I climbed the stool and read my unimaginative re-telling of The Hobbit, I watched my classmates’ shoulders drop and caught glimpses of yawns over the top of my cursive-filled pages.
My competing fourth-grade author had figured out something I hadn’t yet: how to write for an audience. His secret sauce was writing with the listener in mind. I wrote for the anticipated accolades.
Write for the Audience You Already Have
Why are you considering blogging? Who do you hope will read what you write? You need crystal clear answers to those two questions.
I often listen to Jeff Brown’s podcast Read to Lead. It’s an interview-style podcast where Brown hosts authors and speakers. At the end of the podcast he asks the same set of questions to each interviewee, including “What tips do you have to give an impactful speech?” One of the most common responses to that question is an encouragement for the speaker to get to know his or her audience. Multiple authors have said the same thing: “get to the conference early,” “sit down over coffee with other attendees,” and “be present.” It’s great advice and no less true for an author than a speaker.
The most successful authors know their audiences. Readers who feel known become invested and loyal. Readers who feel like a number become disinterested and flighty.
So, who is your audience?
When I ask that question, I want you to think of real people you know, friends and family. Don’t leap to an imaginary audience before you deal with the readers you actually know. Who are the first two dozen people who will subscribe to your blog? What do they have in common? What interests, beliefs, and hobbies do they share? In Seth Godin’s book Tribes he defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” The three legs of Godin’s stool are very helpful for discerning your readership: define the group, understand yourself as a leader, and define the idea to which you will continue circling back. Learn these characteristics of your audience, and craft posts for them.
My first audience is my congregation. I serve as a co-lead pastor at New Life Bible Fellowship in Tucson, Arizona. I write as a ministry for the local church God has called me to serve.
The first church I pastored was in New Jersey in the same town as the seminary I attended. Two professors who instructed me in seminary now sat under my preaching. They were godly men whose understanding of Scripture far exceeded my own. My stomach twisted in knots as I thought about standing in front of these men whose approval I desired. So I envisioned them as the audience of my first sermons and worked hard to make them proud. That was a mistake. They were far from representative of the congregation God had called me to shepherd. Bloggers can make an equivalent mistake. Don’t write your blog for your favorite authors or public figures; write it for those who will be your first cadre of readers.
Once you have your who established, you can begin to shape your why. The two are connected. You can have a powerful why, but if that why doesn’t connect with your who, your blog will fall flat.
There is an internationally known author who has challenged and helped me develop my theology in many ways. However, he often seems to misunderstand his audience. This extremely sharp author appeals to an educated Christian audience, yet one of his hobby horses is bashing a type of paper-thin Christianity that believes faith is merely punching one’s ticket to heaven. His critique rings true enough, but I doubt many in his audience are guilty of this theological crime.
I recently heard this author on a podcast lambast this type of Christianity. It was clear that he was trying to convince his audience that this wasn’t what Christianity was about, that Christianity was living the life of Christ in the context of one’s community. He went on and on about all of these Christians who thought Christianity was just about getting to heaven, about how these Christians were neglecting the heart of the Christian calling, and how the New Testament shows us a very different type of Christianity. I scratched my head, “Who is he talking to?” I don’t rub shoulders with the type of Christian he is talking about, and I certainly doubt that type of Christian is listening to this podcast.
The host of the podcast then directed the conversation toward the difficult topic of how Christians should respond to the issue of homosexuality. It’s a topic that I’m certain this author’s audience has a wide range of views on and a topic on which this author is particularly well-suited to provide wisdom and direction. In fact, the author said he had devoted countless hours of study to the topic and “has a whole bookshelf of books on the subject.” But he dodged the question, refusing to provide any wisdom on a timely subject that mattered deeply to his audience, though he was uniquely equipped to answer. As soon as the host asked the question, I’m sure listeners everywhere turned up their iPhones and stopped multitasking only to be disappointed.
This author, as brilliant as he is, misunderstood his audience. For an hour he spoke past his audience to an imaginary one and then refused to engage an issue that would have actually mattered to his listeners.
Don’t ignore your true audience for the audience you want, however noble your desire is to engage that imaginary audience “out there.” Your blog isn’t the field of dreams. “If you build it, they will come” is unlikely to work with your blog. Build your blog for those who are already there. Serve them.
What’s Your White-Hot Why?
If you’re reading this book, you have a passion to make a difference with your words. What difference do you want to make? That is your why.
Do you want to encourage moms of young children? Offer tools for Christians to grow in stewardship? Help Christians make wise choices with media? Inspire other Christian artists to create art that glorifies God? All worthy goals.
Connect that why to your who and you have a powerful tool for real change.
Why do I blog? Under the authority of the Great Shepherd, I blog as an extension of my call to faithfully shepherd God’s people at New Life Bible Fellowship. I blog as a way to extend my discipleship of God’s people through exhortation and encouragement. What’s my why? Shepherding. And my who is the people of New Life Bible Fellowship.
What is your why? How does that connect to your who?
One reason this exercise is so important is that it can help protect you from selfish motives in blogging. If we are to blog in a way that honors God, we must demonstrate the character of Christ in doing so. A quick scan of the “how-to” literature on blogging reveals two primary motives for blogging:
1) to build one’s platform, and
2) to make money.
While it is possible that blogging can serve to build your platform or perhaps earn you money, if either one of those is your chief why, then what you are doing is not likely to glorify God. If your blog is to honor God, it must serve others first, not yourself. I love Kevin DeYoung’s honesty when he reflects on his ministry. He looks at his own heart and says, “Do I want money and recognition? Do I feel the need for validation? Do I like it when I look successful? Or do I want people to learn more about Christ and honor him with their lives? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I pray that my heart is mostly concerned with the last yes, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.” My heart is a swirl of affections and desires. What does it look like for me to fan the flame of the most God-glorifying desires of my heart?
I was late to blogging. I toyed with the idea of blogging years before I began. If you would have asked me a decade ago why I was considering blogging, I believe I would have answered along these lines: “To extend my shepherding ministry to a broader audience.” By “broader audience,” I mostly meant building my platform.
Fortunately, I felt sufficiently uneasy about my motives and held off. I’m glad I did. What eventually compelled me to begin my blog wasn’t a desire to increase my platform but to deepen my shepherding influence on the people of New Life beyond Sunday morning. I felt that one of the best ways I could serve New Life was through my writing.
Before I began my blog I thought long and hard about whom I wanted to reach. I knew God had given me the gift of writing, and so I felt that at this stage of my life I needed to steward that gift better. But most of the bloggers I followed wrote for large, national audiences. While the thought of writing for a large audience was attractive, I realized the audience “out there” was disconnected from my primary pastoral call to my local congregation.
As I began to reflect more on my pastoral ministry, I realized that my audience wasn’t some mythical group of people “out there.” Rather, it was the congregation I served week-in, week-out. The gift of writing for this group is that I know them. I know their passions, and I know their struggles. I also believed that in a world where we get roughly thirty-five minutes a week (for the super-faithful, weekly attenders) to speak God’s truth into their lives, having another venue to pastor them would be invaluable.
This became my white-hot why—deepening the discipleship of God’s people at New Life. If my blog reaches others beyond New Life that is great, but my first audience will always be the people God called me to in Tucson.
Why Paul Offered Himself to Corinth for Jesus’s Sake
Of all the churches Paul ministered to, the church at Corinth might have been the most difficult. They were bull-headed and rebellious. Despite how difficult they were to love, Paul explains his aim in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” Everything Paul writes in 2 Corinthians is for the sake of helping the church at Corinth to stand firm in their faith.
No matter what type of blog you’re writing, your blog is a very personal endeavor. You can’t write without being personal. So, as you begin to consider what type of blog God is calling you to write, also consider who you are and what God is doing in your life.
As with any endeavor, if your blog isn’t authentic to you, over time your audience will sniff it out. And if it’s not authentic, you have little chance of doing the hard work of grinding out material and developing and maintaining a consistent, trustworthy voice.
Paul shares in 2 Corinthians that his desire isn’t to shine the light on himself. He wants the light of Christ to shine into the hearts of the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians 4:5, he says, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
You might be surprised, then, that Paul shares as much about himself as he does in 2 Corinthians. If Paul’s purpose isn’t to proclaim himself, but Jesus Christ, one might assume that Paul wouldn’t share about himself. But that isn’t the case at all; in fact, 2 Corinthians is Paul’s most autobiographical letter. He shares much of his own story not because he is narcissistic but because he knows the church is struggling to trust him and he needs to build rapport.
Where can you offer yourself to your audience for the sake of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord? How can your life become a bridge for the gospel to travel? What work has God done (or is doing) in you that will encourage others?
Shaping Your Call
One of the most disconcerting trends of many books on blogging is the encouragement for authors to go after trendy and bankable topics (most of these types of books include the words “for profit” in the title). Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t feel compelled to chase whatever is hot. Be true to who God has made you to be. Paul flips our impulse on its head, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:14). Don’t use your audience. Be spent for them.
Here are some questions that might help you discern the voice God has given you to minister to the audience he has given you.
- If no one ever reads your writing, what do you hope to achieve? How do you want the habit of blogging to form you? How do you want your commitment to blogging to shape your character?
- How has God worked in your life? How is he working on your life today?
- How much are you willing to disclose in your writing? How much is appropriate to disclose? Are there those near you whom you will need to ask for permission to share parts of your story?
- What is your passion for the church? How are you serving the church today?
- What has God taught you that you want every person you meet to know about him?
- Imagine two years from now: you query your faithful readers to describe your blog in one sentence. What do you hope they would say? What do you want your primary benefit to your audience to be?
When I began my blog I didn’t know how many people would read it. But I felt compelled that failing to steward the gift of writing God had given me to disciple his people would be disobedient. Even if I was writing just for a handful of people, faithfulness to God meant writing faithfully to his people.
Chasing Your Call, Not the News Cycle
Understanding your why and your who also helps you know what not to write about. When I know why I’m writing and whom I’m writing for, all sorts of topics fall off the table. I’m a huge sports fan and a particularly nerdy baseball fan. I’ve written drafts of posts introducing casual fans to concepts like Wins Above Replacement, WHIP, and ERA+. I’ve actually written drafts where I have projected the expected regression of teams based on their run differential. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, congratulations, you are much cooler than me.) I’ve written posts dissecting the changing political landscape. I’ve written posts on theological minutiae. And no part of any of these posts has seen the light of day. I’m sure my audience remains grateful for that, both because I’m not an expert in any of those fields and because my audience (in general) doesn’t really care about those areas or about my opinion on those matters.
I’ve read plenty of posts on topics that I do know a fair bit about (the Bible, the church, etc.) from those who don’t have in-depth knowledge of what they’re talking about. Such posts only hurt the author’s credibility. Don’t go out of your depth in areas where you’re not a strong swimmer. Do you need to be an expert to talk about something? No. But do you need to know more than the average person and do some decent fact-checking? Absolutely.
Perhaps the biggest lure to any blogger is the power of the 24-hour news cycle. Many blogs are held captive to the latest comings-and-goings of the world of headlines. It feels fresh to engage the topics of the day. People are more likely to click on your headline to read your take. It can provide you opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Many years ago news concerning Tiger Woods’s infidelity captured the public’s eye. I posted a reflection on his demise on a friend’s site and it blew up (by my modest standards). It was exciting to see the number of readers spike for the blog and see it shared fairly widely. It was a great dopamine hit. I could keep going after that hit. I could write about a new scandal every week. But I’ve realized over time that responding to the news cycle rarely fits with my purpose and audience.
Why not? Because I primarily want to write posts that have an evergreen quality. I want to write posts that can be read a few years later and still be meaningful to the reader. Second, while engaging culture, I want to provide a voice different than the news cycle, which can so quickly pull us in its undertow. Third, I want to follow, to the best of my ability, Paul’s admonition to think upon that which is pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil 4:8). If I can put that in business terms, I want my brand to be about building up, not tearing down. The reality is that the vast majority of articles bound to the news cycle lend themselves to tearing down. I know my own nature is to tend toward cynicism and biting sarcasm. Another early post I wrote basically tore to shreds children’s and toddler’s Bibles on the market. I wish I never published the article. Are there things that deserve criticism? Certainly. Do I want to make sure that I’m judicious about when I choose to be critical? Most certainly.
While such trend-worthy stories can provide some tinder for your fire, they are a poor substitute for the substantial logs that give off the warmth your readers need.
God may be calling you to write in a way that addresses the issues of the day. My point isn’t to criticize those who do. I think of Russell Moore and Joe Carter as examples of those who respond in a wise and grace-filled manner to the news cycle. But, my perception is that too many bloggers rely on the news cycle to generate interest. It only takes a day on Twitter to realize there are far too many who feel compelled to offer their opinion on every scrap of news that hits the internet.
Having a strong why and who doesn’t mean every post will look the same. Creative communicators realize the need for different approaches to drive their message home and to keep their audience engaged.
A Balanced Meal
In their book Content Rules, authors Ann Handley and C. C. Chapman liken this to a meal. You need to serve your audience a varied meal. Dan Carlin’s podcast on history is excellent, but every episode is roughly three-to-four hours long and every topic spans several podcasts. A very niche audience will slog through five three-hour podcasts on the Gaelic Wars. All Carlin serves is steak. Steak is great, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to create a successful blog with just steak. I know a handful of great bloggers out there who only serve steak, but I have to carve out just the right time to be able to read their meaty blog posts. You want your audience to know you are going to offer substance while also being relatable. Don’t be afraid to smile when you write.
On the flip side, you don’t want to serve up popcorn and soda for every post. Popcorn, candy, and soda are great accompaniments to a movie, but if the trio has become the staple of your diet, you’re in trouble. Feel free to include fun, even clickbait-y, posts from time to time. You don’t have to take yourself too seriously. But serve up hearty meals on a regular basis to go along with the popcorn and candy. I don’t necessarily mean intellectually heavy, but I do mean something substantive, something that moves your audience toward the heart of Christ.
God has gifted you with a unique personality, calling, and audience. How are you going to steward those for his glory? Where is the intersection of your why and who? Dig your shovel into this soil that God has given you to garden.
 Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (New York: Penguin, 2008), 1.
 Kevin DeYoung, “The Fetid Pool,” The Gospel Coalition, January 27, 2010, https://www.the gospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-fetid-pool/.
 Ann Handley and C. C. Chapman, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 245–47.