“They’re Using Us as Props for the Show”

Former employees at Relevant, a hip evangelical culture magazine, have sparked a sprawling conversation about race and Christian office politics.

Photo collage of Relevant covers with diverse cover subjects.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Billy Huynh on Unsplash and Relevant.

A few weeks ago, Andre Henry’s friend sent him a tweet from the evangelical culture magazine Relevant, announcing it was working on a podcast episode about racism in the Christian community. Henry, who is black, had been the magazine’s managing editor for nine months, until last fall. Based on his experience there, the podcast idea didn’t sit right with him, and after some deliberation, he decided to sit down and write about his time at the Orlando-based magazine. “This company presents an image that they’re about social justice, but the office culture is in direct contradiction to that image,” Henry told me. “I wrote about what happened as an act of closure.”

“Closure” is hard to measure, but the ongoing ramifications of Henry’s post— “Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group”—have exceeded his expectations. It has already led to a “sabbatical” for Relevant Media Group’s founder and CEO, an outpouring of solidarity from other ex-employees, and a sprawling online conversation about race, gender, and office politics in Christian organizations.

Founded in the early 2000s, Relevant calls itself “the leading platform reaching Christian twenty- and thirtysomethings.” It produces podcasts, a frequently updated website, and a bimonthly print magazine focused on culture, spirituality, and social issues. Within evangelical Christian culture, Relevant is a well-known brand. The magazine’s current issue boasts a cover profile of Malcolm Gladwell and a nuanced feature story about Christians and marijuana use. Previous cover subjects have included John Legend, Reese Witherspoon, the Roots, and Russell Brand. “They’re what the young pastor in Iowa thinks is cool,” said Rebecca Flores, another former managing editor. “And they monopolize that market because there’s no alternative.”

In Henry’s Medium post, he wrote that working at Relevant made him feel like a “token” at an institution afraid to alienate its largely white constituency. “No D.C. stuff,” he was told, a warning to avoid polarizing political content. Three months into the job, Henry wrote, CEO and founder Cameron Strang shot down his plans to publish daily Black History Month content in February, mentioning a concern for “people who aren’t interested in that.” Soon afterward, Henry wrote, he was stripped of editorial decision-making power, though he remained a writer and podcast voice. “I’ve come to accept that many young-ish, white, evangelical leaders with large platforms … are simply not committed to being antiracist, but only in appearing non-racist,” he wrote, “and they’re using us as props for the show.”

Buoyed by Henry’s essay, Flores decided to write her own post about her experience at Relevant in 2016, when she accepted the job as managing editor for a $45,000 salary. Her post depicted Strang as imperious, moody, and often cruel; his staff worked hard to placate him or to “keep dad happy,” as one employee suggested to Flores when she started.

As Flores published her piece, other former employees started sharing their stories on social media, writing of “workplace PTSD” and “trauma” from working under Strang. One former employee told Religion News Service that Strang had speculated that the issue with the Roots on the cover had performed poorly on newsstands because its audience didn’t want to see “scary black men.” Others noted that Relevant’s reviews on Glassdoor were scathing. “I have seen [Strang] make people cry multiple times,” one ex-employee wrote. “It is crazy to see so many people living in fear of their boss.” Another called Relevant’s work culture “the most toxic I’ve ever worked in.” As stories proliferated online, some readers said they were canceling their subscriptions in solidarity.

The bad publicity seemed to get quick results. Jesse Carey, Relevant’s content director, said he and several staffers met with Strang on Monday morning to press him to take the accusations seriously. Monday afternoon, Strang issued a statement acknowledging his “insensitivity” and “patterns of toxic communication,” and announced he would temporarily step away from his position “to engage a process of healing, growth and learning.” Carey told me on Thursday that he will step into the role of publisher in Strang’s absence.

Strang, Carey said, will seek counseling and training during an undefined period of paid leave. Meanwhile, the company will explore changes, including hiring an HR professional and installing a board of directors, though it has not committed to specific moves. Emails sent to Strang’s Relevant address receive an automatic reply announcing that he is “on sabbatical.” He did not reply to a request for comment.

Relevant’s critics say a temporary break is not enough. They were disturbed by evidence that the magazine initially responded to subscription cancellation requests by trying to discredit former employees who spoke out against Strang: One subscriber posted an email from customer service saying “what has been put out online is largely untrue.” Henry, who now works for a progressive evangelical organization and hosts a podcast on racial justice, said Strang’s statement rings hollow without specific apologies and deeper conversations with the people affected. “Some have described it as more of a paid vacation,” he said. Employees told Religion News Service that Strang has taken two previous sabbaticals for personal matters, with no apparent behavior changes afterward. (Carey said he was aware of only one, after Strang divorced in 2013, but did not dispute that there could have been others.)

Strang is the sole owner of Relevant, so he is unlikely to leave the company altogether. He founded Relevant in his early 20s—he’s now 43—and has worked there for almost his entire professional life. He is the son of Stephen Strang, the founder and CEO of Charisma Media, which publishes a magazine with a charismatic Christian perspective, including an emphasis on healing and “spiritual gifts” like speaking in tongues. Several former employees told RNS that Cameron Strang once fired an employee for being a negative spiritual presence in the office; around the same time, they say, Stephen Strang and several colleagues came to Relevant offices and appeared to “pray out the evil” from the space. (A representative for Stephen Strang told RNS he had no recollection of the event.) Stephen is also the author of God and Donald Trump, which Politico Magazine called “part spiritual hagiography, part Fox News bulletin and part prophecy.”

Relevant is willing to criticize Trump and his evangelical allies, and feature secular voices in its pages. But Cameron Strang’s apparent personal biases often made his employees feel uncomfortable. In a meeting in which Flores was the only person of color, he suggested depicting a black rapper with a noose around his neck “to symbolize his lynching by white evangelical America.” When Flores objected, Strang seemed miffed. Once, she told me, he referred jokingly to a character on the television show Insecure as a “whore.” (The character, who is black, is a corporate lawyer.) “It made me super uncomfortable as a woman, as a Christian, and as a human to hear someone use that terminology so openly in the office,” she said.

Josh Lujan Loveless, a former Relevant podcast host and senior editor of a now-folded spinoff magazine, tweeted that he had been asked to use female or “ethnic-sounding” pen names when he had written too many articles under his own name because leadership wanted Relevant to seem more diverse. Flores, who describes herself as Latinx, said that helped her understand a frustrating incident she experienced at Relevant: Although she had always written under the name “Rebecca Marie Jo,” Strang insisted she use her last name in her byline. When she protested, Flores said, he removed her byline altogether. She now believes that he wanted her to use Flores because it is a recognizably Hispanic surname. “I really feel like a character in Get Out,” she said. “It’s become increasingly obvious that Cameron wanted tokenized parts of me, but never the whole. Once I lost my value as a token, I was disregarded.” Strang eventually fired her via email.

Strang’s temporary departure has not quieted the conversation about his company. On Tuesday, a new Twitter account called @exRLVNT began retweeting Relevant critics and ex-employees. The same day, writer and podcaster Annie Downs announced she was stepping away from the Christian culture podcast she has co-hosted for Relevant since early 2018. Henry also convened a video meeting with former contributors and critics to discuss where the conversation goes from here.

Henry suggested Strang could maintain ownership but step away from management and content decisions. He compared Strang to a surgeon in training whose patients keep dying on the operating table. “You’ll probably tell that student, ‘Hey, man, you tried, but you don’t get to operate on people anymore,’ ” he said. “How many people have to suffer under [Strang’s] leadership before considering that maybe he just shouldn’t be managing people?” Some former employees are now circulating a statement for signatures to a wider group of ex-employees intended to highlight the scope of Strang’s leadership problems.

For some, the upheaval is an occasion to look beyond Relevant’s toxic office culture and examine how much it’s really willing to challenge millennial Christians. Flores questioned whether Relevant is as progressive as its graphic design and cover subjects make it appear at first glance. “They might push boundaries and make a white evangelical think about issues and consider social justice, but they’re not saying, ‘We should support Black Lives Matter,’ ” she said. “They’re not saying anything revolutionary.” Reflecting on the cancellation of his Black History Month package, Henry arrived at the same conclusion. “They’re trying to avoid optics that would upset people. But when we say people, which people are we talking about?” he said. “In trying to be everything to everyone, they end up pleasing no one.”