Updated: Jun 23
On July 20th, 2018, I was lying in bed at a bed and breakfast in Evanston, IL when the idea struck me: I'm going to create a podcast about why people are leaving the church. I remember this day because it was my 15th wedding anniversary. For the next hour, much to my wife's chagrin, I took out my phone and started furiously typing ideas. The concept was loose, but I felt like it wasn't unreasonable.
I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History. I like the way he takes a variety of interviews and cuts them together to tell a story. I intended to mimic his style. Simple, right? All I needed for each episode was a compelling human interest story and some type of expert or scholar to comment on the topic we were discussing. I figured I would buy some recording equipment and have these episodes recorded and edited in a matter of months.
The Trials Begin
At first, everything seemed to be going well. I pitched the idea to a few people. They were receptive to being interviewed, but seemed a little shaky on the details of what the podcast was trying to achieve. It seemed like the more I tried to explain it to them, the less they understood. Thankfully, they were willing to tell their stories because they know me and trust my judgment. What I hadn't anticipated was how scholars and experts would view the concept of a show where I'm pointing out the fallacies of Christian doctrine.
For my first episode, I needed a religious scholar to talk about the history of Augustine of Hippo (354-480 C.E.). I reached out to old professors I knew during my time at Princeton. I reached out to professors at other seminaries. The emails I received back were polite, but everyone was taking a hard pass. They all had some excuse for why they couldn't contribute:
"Sorry Alex, but I'm on Sabbatical. Best of luck!"
"I'm afraid I don't know enough to speak well about the topic. Hope you find someone!"
"You don't want to interview me because you probably won't like what I'd say or how I sound."
By December of 2018, five months into the creation of my podcast, I was still coming up short. I was beginning to think nothing was ever going to come of this idea. It was a chicken and egg issue. Those who were willing to be interviewed wanted an example of what the podcast would sound like, but I couldn't demonstrate that to them until they did the interview.
Thankfully, a young woman I mentor, Rebekah Anderson, came to the rescue. Rebekah had just entered her first year at Princeton Theological Seminary. I sent her some recording equipment and asked her if she might be able to convince some of her professors to speak on the topic. Unfortunately, Rebekah was faring no better than I was. However, she mentioned that one of her religious studies professors from Stetson University might be willing to speak on Augustine and she happened to be travelling to Florida in January for her winter break. I said, "If he's willing to do it, I'll take it!"
By the middle of January 2019, Rebekah had completed the interview with Dr. Sapp. She uploaded it to Dropbox and I listened to it on my phone while I was working out at the gym. I was nervous. This interview was out of my control, so I had no way of knowing if it would hit the bar. Within moments my anxiety dissipated. Not only was it recorded well, but his responses were perfect. I improved my weights that day because I was so happy that I could finally construct an episode.
I must have spent 30 hours recording and editing that first episode. By February, I had completed a prototype. I listened to it over and over again. I sent it to friends, family and colleagues to get their feedback. I took all their criticisms and smoothed out the rough edges. Finally, I had something I could send to potential interviewees. No longer was I dependent on my inadequate description. They could listen and hear for themselves.
All of a sudden, the number of people who said they were willing to be interviewed sky rocketed. Having a product to show them really made a substantial difference. Now the big issue I had to overcome was who I should to interview for my final episode of Season 1. All the other episodes had well defined narrative arcs. The last episode was trying to answer a very amorphous question: Where does the church go from here?
In the back of my mind, I really wanted Reza Aslan. I had the opportunity to interview Reza in October 2018 for the annual speaker event at our church.
If you listen to this interview, you can tell what sets Reza apart from many other religious scholars is that he articulates the pulse of the present culture in ways that few people can. Reza is a super nice guy, but I wasn't sure how open he would be to a podcast. A speaking engagement is one thing, but a personal interview that is cut up into parts is a completely different animal.
I sent him an e-mail with the questions I wanted to ask him and a link to the first episode. He wrote back a few hours later and said he would be happy to participate. Like I said, super nice guy. Reza didn't disappoint. His answers were poignant, clear and convincing. Although I didn't know what the next step in the evolution of the church should be, he certainly did. Reza opened my mind to completely different ways of thinking about the future of the church. Indeed, the title of Episode 6, in which Reza is featured, comes from one of the most powerful moments in my interview with Reza where he says: Stop talking and start doing!
The Final Product
When it was all said and done, Rebekah and I had conducted 20 interviews, 17 of which made it into the final cut of Season 1. It took more than a year of effort, but the end product has exceeded what I set out to achieve. This series is designed to be listened to from front to back, so I hope you will have the opportunity to listen to all the episodes in order because, not only is it informative, but the human interest stories are compelling. I think you will agree that the openness and transparency of the people being interviewed is astonishing. I felt so honored that these old and new friends trusted me to tell their stories authentically.
As you might imagine, we left a lot on the cutting room floor. Over the next months, I will be reviving some of that material in blog posts. In some instances, I will upload the audio from the interview. In other instances, I may conduct a new interview or have them contribute a blog post of their own. In the end, both Rebekah and I hope that the Restorative Faith Podcast will not only be entertaining, but will also provide a lot of food for thought. Enjoy and let us know what you think!