As podcasting emerges and develops as a media form, the church is figuring out how to use it to foster spiritual growth. This guide is for those who are new to podcasting in general or who have not yet tapped into its potential as a tool for spiritual formation. We’ll start with the basics of what a podcast is, and how you can use them. Then we’ll look at the landscape of some of the spiritual resources available through podcasts, and I’ll offer a shortlist of top podcasts to get you started. Finally, I offer a curated list of other podcasts you might want to try out.
What Are Podcasts?
A podcast is an audio show that is released serially—one episode on the time—over the internet. Typically, the episodes are collected by what we call a “feed”, so that users can subscribe and get notified or automatically download each new episode as it’s published. This means that they are not released “live” (although some may be recorded that way), but podcasts are an example of “time-shifted” or “on-demand” media—the episodes are available so that users can listen to them whenever they want.
Podcasting has a few distinct advantages as a form of media:
- It has a really low bar of entry (a computer and mic is all people really need to get started), so there are a lot of innovative shows and interesting people getting involved who wouldn’t get published or broadcasts in other forms of media. Of course, you have to sort through and find them, but I think that’s getting easier.
- Its on-demand nature means people can listen to them whenever they want. No more need to catch a show on a certain time.
- Because of the low bar of entry and the ability to broadcast worldwide, there are a lot of really niche shows—if you’re interested in it, I bet there’s a podcast devoted to it.
How to Listen to Podcasts
Although episodes can be located and listened to in a web browser, most consumers use apps to listen to podcasts. These apps allow the user to subscribe to various shows, often by providing access to a directory, and the app takes care of automatically downloading new episodes. The most popular app by far is the podcast app that comes preloaded on iPhones, or iTunes on desktops. However, other apps have emerged as well, either to serve other audiences (like android users) or to provide various additional features. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Overcast.fm app that’s available for iOS (I love the layout and smart speed features). Stitcher is another app with a large following on iOS and Android, and Google has recently added podcasts to the Google Play app as well.
Basically, to really take advantage of the podcasting scene, you just need to download one of these apps and begin subscribing to a few shows. It can be a little daunting to find the ones you’re looking for, so let me give an overview of what I see out there, and provide a few shows that make for good starting points. If you know of a show I should add, please feel free to leave it in the comments!
The Landscape of Spiritual Podcasts
In the last few years, podcasting has exploded, and the numbers of both podcast shows and subscribers is growing consistently. You might be surprised to know that on the iTunes directory, which is easily the most used, the “Christianity” category is one of the most highly populated, with more than 20,000 active shows (via Josh Morgan). Those shows come in a handful of different formats:
- Interview Shows—A large number of shows exist that employ a format where a host interviews somebody, usually somebody who has recently published a new book. One of the good things about this format is that it helps expose you to a wide range of ideas, while providing the consistency of the host’s perspective. On the other side, if you subscribe to a lot of these types of shows, you’ll end up hearing the same authors as they make the circuit promoting their shows. There are some really excellent shows out there in this format, and the material is somewhat unique to the podcasting world.
- The Buddy Format—these shows have a couple of pals kicking around an idea or two. When these shows work, it’s because you just feel like part of their conversation.
- Essayists Shows—These shows usually are monologues of a person sharing their own thinking in a certain area, whether that’s theological, spiritual, or something else. I like this sort of material because it can be a little dense, in the sense of holding a lot of meaning.
- How-to Shows—These shows provide some sort of guidance on working through particular issues, whether they be leadership or spirituality based.
- Sermon Podcasts— I’m sure that one reason the number of shows is so high in the Christianity category is because churches often release their sermon recordings as podcasts. I’m not into listening to these as much, partly because the content is repurposed, and it doesn’t feel as fresh as the actual experience of listening to a sermon live. However, it’s certainly a good way to connect with preachers from afar, or to keep up with sermons you may have missed from your home church.
In terms of theological perspective, there are shows of nearly every stripe available, both in terms of denominational origins and theological emphases—although, interestingly, it may be easier to identify shows by the latter rather than the former! It seems to me that there are a lot of very popular podcasts coming out of the Neo-Calvinist camp, and the prosperity gospel folks are represented by Olsteen’s mega-popular show. There are a lot of people doing interesting work from what I can only call the “deconstructionist” corners of the church, which I mean as people who have left institutionalized (and often fundamentalist) forms of Christianity and reentered faith, generally with a more postmodern perspective. The faith stream that resonates most with me, the missional perspective, is also well-represented. There’s no shortage of catholic offerings as well, some of which are very interesting devotionally.
A Starter-Pack of Podcasts for Spiritual Seekers
Given the incredible breadth of the podcast catalog, I feel like it’s important to give beginners a handful of shows to sink their teeth into. Here’s my basic starter pack.
Note: these weren’t picked because they are the best necessarily, but I think they’re simply easy for most beginners to get into. The extended list of podcasts at the bottom of the page has some excellent choices, too.
You can probably just search for them within your app of choice, but I’ve included the links for iTunes (should work in the iOS podcast app) and Overcast. (Seriously, give overcast a try.)
- Fable (iTunes, Overcast): Charlie Porter does an outstanding job in this podcasts, which both offers perspectives (memoir style) of his own spiritual journey and reflections on characters from other narrative streams like literature or popular media.
- Spiritual Steps (iTunes, Overcast): This is my own podcast, and I’m shamelessly putting it on this list. It’s a short podcast, 15 minutes or so, with each episode offering a step people can take to progress in the spiritual life.
- The Bible Project (iTunes, Overcast): I love these episodes. They’re providing some very rich theological content, in a great conversational format.
- The Robcast (iTunes, Overcast) Honestly, I have been really surprised by how much I love Rob Bell’s podcast. I really didn’t think this was my jam, but I think he’s a fantastic interviewer and he’s great at shifting towards the most interesting parts of the conversation. Give it a shot.
Tips and Tricks
- Resist the urge to feel like you need to catch up on all your shows…sometimes you’re going to get behind and you really should give yourself permission to just delete the old episodes you missed. Just listen to the next one that really interests you.
- Listen to a variety of shows…pick some from various faith traditions as well as your own, and try out different formats: monologues, interviews, etc. Finally, it’s a good idea to subscribe to shows with different lengths. Sometimes you may have time for a longer show, while the shorter ones make for good commute listening (or vice versa, depending on your commute!).
- Share what you find. Podcasting is a lot more fun if you have some friends with whom you can exchange shows you love. Exposes somebody else to the world of podcasting!
- Branch out. There’s a whole world of excellent secular podcasts out there as well. No matter your interests, there are podcast that will resonate with them, and broaden your horizons!
- Join the conversation! Trust me, podcasters love to connect and get feedback, whether that be on facebook, twitter, or somewhere else. (Their most favorite candy of all is positive reviews on iTunes.)
An Extended List of Podcasts for Spiritual Growth
This is a growing list, so if you have a podcast you want me to include, please feel free to mention it in the comments, or let me know on twitter at @stevenhovater!
- The Liturgists (Michael Gungor, Science Mike) | iTunes, Overcast this is actually my all-time favorite podcast. I didn’t put it into the starter pack list above just because the deconstructed perspective isn’t going to be for everybody, but I absolutely love this show. The Lost and Found episodes and “Black and White”, an episode on american race-relations, are pretty much the best things on the internet.
- Newsworthy with Norsworthy (Luke Norsworthy) | (iTunes, Overcast) This is one of the best interview format shows out there…every guest is great, and Luke’s crafted a fascinating show persona. Great Show.
- Nomad | (iTunes, Overcast) There is an emerging consensus that this is the best Christian theology podcast in an interview format out of Nottingham, England. Rich interviews.
- Q Podcast | (iTunes, Overcast)
- Communion Sanctorum (iTunes, Overcast) This is a church history podcast.
- Relevant Podcast iTunes, Overcast This is like a party podcast format. They do news, current events from a (Millennial) Christian perspective.
- This Good Word (Steve Wiens) (iTunes, Overcast)
- Seminary Dropout (iTunes, Overcast)
- Kingdom Roots (Scot McNight) (iTunes, Overcast)
- On Being (Krista Tippett) | (iTunes, Overcast) Off of NPR, Tippett’s interviews go beyond Christianity, but they are spiritual rich, and she’s a fantastic interviewer.
- Renovare Podcast (Nathan Foster) (iTunes, Overcast) Great podcast centered on spiritual formation.
- Theology on Mission (David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw)| (iTunes, Overcast)
- Christian Feminist Podcast (Ashley Easter, Charliee Olivia) | http://www.ashleyeaster.com/blog?category=Christian+Feminism+Weekly
- Homebrewed Christianity | Tripp Fuller (iTunes, Overcast)
- Theology in the Raw | (iTunes, Overcast)
- Spark My Muse (Lisa DeLay) (iTunes, Overcast)
- The Kindlings Muse (iTunes, Overcast)
- Daily Disconnect Podcast (iTunes, Overcast)
Podcasts on Spiritual Leadership or Ministry
I didn’t include these above, but I also listen to a lot of podcasts on spiritual leadership. Here’s my list of some of the best ministry podcasts out there. Again, a growing list.
- The Craft of Ministry Podcast. (iTunes, Overcast) Yup. Including my own podcast, and putting it first. Shannon Cooper typically joins me.
- Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast (iTunes, Overcast)
- The Productive Pastor Podcast (iTunes, Overcast)
- Lead Stories Podcast (Jo Saxton, Steph Williams) | (iTunes, Overcast) I appreciate these women adding their voices to the world of christian ministry and leadership podcasts! Great show!
- Catalyst Podcast Nancy Duarte, James Clair | (iTunes, Overcast)