Of Preaching and Choirs

Here’s an excerpt from an article I came across a couple of days ago, by Dan Bulow of the Steve Laube Agency, titled, “Wanted: More Choir Members:”

At some point in their writing career, many Christian authors express a desire to write a book that would reach the un-churched. That desire is a completely honorable and wonderful goal, just as any believer should desire to represent Christ in their lives in such a way that unbelievers would ask them questions about the hope that is in them.

However, the inference by such statements as “preaching to the choir” is that writing to churchgoers is somehow less desirable.  I know the intent of those authors is to have their books used for pre-evangelism, but unfortunately, when most Christian authors use the term “cross-over” to describe their book, it is code for “leave out anything Christian”.  I am not sure this is a wise use of your time unless you are very gifted and unique writer.

As Mr. Bulow demonstrates, the rhetoric cuts both ways. Christian writers working in the secular market imply those writing for the Christian market are somehow less spiritual or less committed to evangelism for doing so, and are in turn criticized by their peers in the Christian market for watering down or compromising the Gospel message. Both sides are accused of writing stories that aren’t truly Christian.

So, what to do?preachingtochoir

Mr. Bulow proceeds to make a case for “preaching to the choir,” that is, writing Christian stories for Christians. The focus is largely on Christian Fiction, although 4 of the 5 entries in his list of books with the most evangelistic impact, in terms of sales, are non-fiction—self-help, testimonial, devotional, or apologetics. This raises a few questions that frame my reaction to the article.

1. What is Christian Fiction?

Truth: We don’t know, exactly. Any attempt at defining it quickly mires in subjectivity and exceptions-to-the-rule. Christian Fiction may be fiction about Christianity, fiction about Christians, fiction by Christians, fiction for Christians, fiction popular with Christians, fiction with an embedded evangelistic Christian message, or fiction containing some critical mass of Christian ideas, language, metaphors, and themes. It might be a combination of all or some of the above. If it inspires the question, “Might this be Christian Fiction?” it’s probably in the ballpark.

Common Practice: Christian Fiction is whatever my friends and I say it is. My friends may be a circle of readers, writers, reviewers, critics, publishers, agents, or just me.

timeclockOne of the hazards inherent in writing Christian Fiction is the risk that a story may be declared “not Christian,” or “not Christian enough” by one or more circles of self-appointed arbiters—and word gets around. Crossovers are inherently suspect. Mr. Bulow suggests that, at best, they’re a waste of time.

A second hazard unique to Christian Fiction is the transfer of judgments about the story to the writer. If the story isn’t Christian enough, someone’s bound to suggest the writer probably isn’t either—and word, again, gets around.

2. Is writing Christian Fiction a ministry?

The question brings to mind a local youth leader who tacked the word “ministry” onto just about everything (e.g., “I need some of that corn dog ministry right now,” or, “Let’s have a little sweeping ministry over here!”). Though he did it for laughs, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Everything we do has an element of ministering to the needs of people around us, though I find ministry is most effective when we’re not adorning it with a name tag, banner, and neon sign. Ministry is as ministry does, not as we label it. Mr. Bulow proposes that Christian Fiction can provide an important service to a Christian readership that needs inspiring Christian books, and I agree, though his connection of sales potential to impact bothers me.

Christ-followers have surrendered control of their lives to the One who made them and are desiring to live daily within his perspective and purpose. If there is anyone who could use a good Christian book, it is this group of about 75-100 million in the United States alone.  (A couple billion worldwide) 

On the other hand, the unbelieving crowd that we are trying to reach with a cross-over book are living lives under their own power, being blown about by the wind, seeking after elusive things like significance, pleasure, money, possessions and personal control over their lives.

That “unbelieving crowd” is also finding those pursuits vain and empty and desires a truth that fulfills and satisfies. Any effort to initiate a dialogue with them, no matter how low-key, cannot be a waste of time.

I see a lot of Christian writers struggling because what they’re doing doesn’t look or feel like ministry to them. They don’t perceive any (or enough) impact on people who read their stories, and their work doesn’t seem to be “prospering” — that is, their books aren’t selling.

Ultimately, ministry is what God does with a gift we offer for His use, and we waste far too much time agonizing over the fact that God often doesn’t use the gift in the manner or to the extent we expect. Not every story must be a bestselling, life-changing, evangelical tract to have value. Sometimes it’s enough to bring a little beauty, or humor, or imagination, or adventure into someone’s weary life, like a cup of cool water in the Master’s name.

And if it takes the talking donkey of a crossover to reach that one person who needs it, I’ll gladly wear the ears and tail.

3. What do you do with a problem like Maria “the Choir,” aka, the Christian audience?

If you want to start a fight among a roomful of Christian writers, toss this one onto the table. Participants will divide into two armed camps, and there will likely be a correlation between their position and the popularity of their writing with the Choir:

The Choir Stinks: The Choir is a low-information community with extremely limited taste in literature, when they do read. They wouldn’t recognize a good story if you opened the book yourself and stuck their noses in it. In musical terms, they should be singing Bach, and Handel, and Beethoven, but they insist on Mansion Over the Hilltop, over and over again. They need a wider and more sophisticated repertoire. Nothing will change until they’re properly educated, and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon. We should go elsewhere.

We Don’t Appreciate the Choir: The Choir is the best judge of what they need, and they’re not stupid. They’re loyal and reliable. They sing with their pocketbooks, and we should listen to them. With a little creativity, we can compose thousands of nuanced variations on Mansion Over the Hilltop. The choir doesn’t need to change. We do.

I have good friends on both sides of this argument. Mr. Bulow plants his flag with the second camp in his article.

cupI find myself somewhere in the middle. I firmly advocate a strong presence of Christian writers in the secular market, whether loud or soft-spoken, and I don’t believe it’s healthy for Christians to isolate themselves within a Christian-themed-and-approved culture. I’d appreciate a more adventuresome approach to reading in the Christian community, but it’s their choice. Christians certainly need Christian stories, not in small part as respite from a world that seems to constantly batter them and ridicule what they hold most dear. Their preferences in reading material don’t make them country bumpkins, and a Christian story, written for a Christian audience, can be that same cup of cool water in the Master’s name, even if it’s going to another believer.

So, go forth and preach to the choir. Or not.

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2 thoughts on “Of Preaching and Choirs

  1. Excellent post!

    What I’ve wanted to ask colleagues involved in such debates: Why must it be either/or? Why must Christian fiction be only ministry-minded and missional? Can the author not write simply with the goal of entertaining his audience without preaching at them? Why must Christian fiction only be aimed at the choir or aimed at the world?

    How many debates occur among our secular counterparts about the meaning and purpose of their stories? Did their propaganda-driven novel win enough converts to the cause? Did their “gritty” portrayal of “real life” contain too much foul language or too much violence? Oh no, oh no, the theology’s all wrong, because characters have differing moral stances or religious beliefs.

    Sometimes I think we must look ridiculous to outsiders. On the other hand, I understand the need for this constant push-pull, this ever-present debate and dichotomy, because it keeps us thinking about what matters, and perhaps keeps us from becoming complacent in our craft.

    1. –Sometimes I think we must look ridiculous to outsiders.–

      I’ve felt that way at times myself, but then I see similar brawls on the secular side between their equivalent of conflicting orthodoxies, like the recent dust-up within the SFWA (really an extension of an older fight that was never quite resolved) which began with some protest of SFWA Bulletin cover art featuring a scantily-clad woman warrior and escalated into a flame war with free-speech advocates on one side and people calling for prohibition of offensive language and pictures from the magazine on the other.

      Then the attacks got personal, and yea, many intemperate and ill-considered thunderbolts were launched to and fro across the aether. Not so different from us.

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