Millennials Can Leave Evangelicalism. But Not Its Pop Culture.
Last fall, Baltimore Ravens player Benjamin Watson had a surreal moment. The 36-year-old tight end walked into Focus on the Family’s recording studio to lend his voice to an Adventures in Odyssey (AiO) character.
“It’s kinda like, if you’ve been, I don’t know, watching Mickey Mouse for your whole life and then all of a sudden they say you can be one of the characters,” Watson shared in a video recapping his experience.
Watson’s five children are big fans of the 30-minute kids’ audio drama—an affinity they picked up from their father.
Across the country, those who came of age during a golden area of evangelical pop culture are now introducing their kids to their favorite childhood mementos and experiences. “The older people who were once part of the Adventures in Odyssey universe are returning to it,” said Bob DeMoss, Focus’s vice president of content development. DeMoss reports that the AiO has seen a surge in letters and emails from longtime fans now sharing the show with their children.
Sometimes there’s even a celebrity shout out. Owl City’s Adam Young posted an Instagram picture of the AiO’s protagonist, Mr. Whitaker, with the caption “Raised Me.” The post garnered more than 1,200 likes.
Evangelical nostalgia has also impacted other Focus brands. After its tween girls’ publication Brio Magazine announced a return last summer after an eight-year hiatus, the news was picked up by The New York Times, NPR, and Jezebel. Since its return, the magazine has attracted more than 60,000 subscribers. Who gets the credit for these numbers?
“The Brio girls of yesteryear are now moms,” said DeMoss.
The nostalgia for Christian pop culture is part of a larger millennial phenomenon, says culture writer Ruth Graham, pointing to reboots of Full House and Will and Grace and Buzzfeed pieces with headlines like “39 Signs You Grew Up in the ’90s.”
“Pop culture nostalgia is often for things that, on the one hand, are easy to make fun of, that seem corny now or simplistic or aesthetically out of date. You get a little bit of a buzz of feeling superior to what you thought was cool a few decades ago,” said Graham, who wrote about Brio’s comeback for Slate. “But it also has to be stuff that we have genuinely good memories of.”
It also helps to have contemporary media that celebrates this heritage.
“There’s an entire cottage industry related to Christian pop culture nostalgia,” said Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity. He points to outlets like Relevant Magazine and the evangelical-satire website The Babylon Bee.
The cultural nods from these and other publications often reference content created from the 1970s on. Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) began in the 1960s, though it took until the 1980s for it to find its footing. Established in the late 1970s, Focus launched Adventures in 1987. TBN’s cartoon series McGee and Me! first aired in 1989.
“Christianity is one of the only religions where we’ve built our own media … there’s not a Mormon or Scientology rock station,” said Kevin Porter, who co-hosts Good Christian Fun, a podcast that looks back fondly at evangelical musicians and movies. “This specificity means the nostalgia is much more powerful and cuts deeper.”
When he dropped references to DC Talk and AiO on his previous hit podcast Gilmore Guys, Porter sensed there might be an audience for his current show. “When you find someone else that can share the same reference points, it’s like ‘Whoa, you watched McGee and Me too?’” he said. “The intensity of that camaraderie is much stronger than it is with people who just watched or listened to whatever was in the mainstream.”
Even at a time when some Christians have walked away from the evangelical label, their nostalgia has persisted. Those who’ve left their childhood faith entirely don’t necessarily walk away dismissing everything they grew up with. Porter, for instance, counts current and former Christians among the show’s fans. He paraphrases writer Mallory Ortberg, who once said that evangelical pop culture is like checking in with an ex: “We weren’t right for each other, but it doesn’t mean I hate them.”
For evangelical pop culture creators, there are two possible interpretations. They can see the non-evangelical embrace as a win, because it offers this demographic a path back to faith, or they can see it as a loss, since it suggests that the seeds of its message failed to take hold in the first place.
As someone who listened to contemporary Christian music as a young person, McCracken suggests that improved artistic merit and quality would have made it less easy to write off.
“Perhaps one lesson to be learned is that when we put the emphasis on proselytizing, it becomes easier to dismiss later in life,” said McCracken, who has observed the decline of CCM. “We’ve swung the pendulum to the other extreme. There is no sacred/secular divide. There is no Christian music industry. It’s a free-for-all.”
Motives, too, concern him. “We made a lot of money off of this generation back in their youth, but so many of them have abandoned faith. What did we do wrong?” he said. “Was it just about commerce? Was it just about getting money and getting Christian versions of thing that we could sell to youth groups and kids?”
Although McCracken takes a more negative view of the output and impact of evangelical pop culture, DeMoss isn’t disappointed. He has letters from people who returned to their Christian roots after they started listening to AiO again as an adult. “It’s Jesus’ parable of the sowers. We are planting the seeds of God’s truth,” he said. “Some of the seeds will fall on dry ground and some on rich ground. Thankfully, we aren’t responsible for the outcome.”
While Focus cut a number of brands nearly a decade ago (including Brio), today it’s positioning itself to lead other ministries in the world of radio theater products. “We could become the PureFlix of Radio Theater,” DeMoss said.
Focus is also leaning in to merchandise.
“Right now, I’m staring at our first full-color Adventures in Odyssey beach towel,” said DeMoss.
The company is also creating an AiO birthday party kit, which it will sell alongside its themed fidget spinners, slap bracelets, and dog tags.
“It seems like a miss when you have people who so love a brand but then don’t have anything to support it,” he said.
However, there’s one piece of nostalgia that Focus on the Family isn’t interested in reviving, confirmed DeMoss. “I can tell you that there are no plans to rerelease Adventures in Odyssey on cassette.”