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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discipleship, Evangelism, and the Aim of Christian Fiction

by Mike Duran

There is, without question, different views as to the aim of Christian fiction. On one side are those who believe Christian fiction should target Christians -- encourage them, inspire them, reinforce their values, and ultimately make them better believers. On the other side are those who believe Christian fiction should target seekers -- whet their spiritual appetite, disarm antagonism, simplify biblical themes, reinforce a biblical worldview, and leave them thinking about God, Christ, sin, and/or heaven and hell. Finally, there's those who believe that Christian fiction should do both.

Call it hair-splitting if you want, but how one answers these questions will determine how they approach, interpret, defend or critique the genre.

  • Should Christian fiction aim to disciple believers?
  • Should Christian fiction aim to evangelize seekers?
  • Should Christian fiction aim to do both?

For the most part, writers and publishers of Christian fiction seem to aim at the Church, not the world. Not long ago, celebrated Christian novelist Athol Dickson visited my website and left a comment on this post. He articulated what I think is the prevalent opinion amongst Christian novelists:

May God bless every Christian author who is trying to reach out to unbelievers, but while we are commanded to be "salt and light" to the world, evangelism also includes those who help prepare disciples. I do try to get the gospel in my novels somehow (sometimes only symbolically) but my mission is to write about Christian themes for Christian readers in the hope that I can help them become better children of the Lord. That’s the best reason to write “Christian fiction” in my opinion. (emphasis mine)

(My thanks to Athol Dickson for taking the time to leave a comment, which you can read in its entirety in the thread HERE.) I think it's accurate, as Athol suggests, to see evangelism and discipleship on the same continuum. By growing Christians and helping them reach their full potential, we in turn influence the world. In other words, the best evangelism may be in making strong disciples. So in this sense, there's reasonable rationale for aiming fiction specifically at Christians. (Of course, this hinges upon the notion that Christian fiction is, in the long run, actually making better disciples. But that's another post.)

But if Christian fiction is best understood as a ministry to believers and best functions as a tool for discipleship, it raises other questions, namely: the place of evangelism in Christian fiction. Should Christian publishers actively seek to balance out fiction aimed at believers with fiction aimed at seekers? Should Christian novelists really approach their stories as evangelistic tools? And if so, what compromises must they make to reach the secular "seeking" audience?

Interestingly enough, defining the place of evangelism and discipleship in Christian publishing has parallels to the place of evangelism and discipleship in the Christian Church.

Having pastored for over a decade, I learned that both evangelism and discipleship were necessary components of the church, and that the church suffered when one was emphasized over the other. Churches that focus on seekers and aim primarily to evangelize, potentially become theologically shallow and deficient at discipleship. On the other hand, churches that focus on Christians and aim primarily to disciple them, potentially become ingrown and deficient at evangelism. Evangelistic churches tend to be wider than they are deeper; discipling churches tend to be deeper than they are wider. One model sacrifices outreach for in-reach, and vice-versa. This is why the Church is often described as needing two wings -- a discipling wing and an evangelism wing. Without both, we cannot fly.

So you can see where I'm going with this. If the Christian Church suffers when it does not balance evangelism and discipleship, does the Christian fiction industry suffer when it neglects the same balance? In other words, by aiming primarily at believers, are we ultimately hurting ourselves? I think there's a good possibility. Let me explain.

Without an evangelistic outreach wing to the Christian fiction industry, we diminish our potential (and future) market. By targeting only Christian readers, we unnecessarily limit the boundaries of our own house, shrink our base, and fail to "impregnate" a second generation of "believing readers." Similarly, churches that concentrate on nurturing the community of believers (discipleship) to the exclusion of evangelism often become ingrown, stagnant, and out-of-touch with the culture and the needs of their community. Statistics continue to reveal that many mainline denominations are in serious decline because of this. The holy huddle guaranteed their own demise. For years, seminaries concentrated on producing students with theological expertise. Thankfully, now many of those institutions are including missions and real-world encounters as part of their curricula. In other words, failure to look outside of ourselves can be terminal. So can the same be true for the Christian fiction industry?

Furthermore, without an outreach wing of Christian fiction, we potentially insulate ourselves against the audience who needs us the most. Really, are we here just for us? Of course, the problem in reaching a non-believing or marginally-believing audience -- as it is with seeker-sensitive churches -- is how much we soften and/or simplify our message to connect with them. It's a legitimate question. In fact, this is the charge against so much "Christian worldview fiction" -- it's just not explicit enough. Yet I'd suggest these kinds of questions are inevitable, and essential. After all, when the first century church began spreading the Gospel, numerous "cultural collisions" occurred. Debates about eating pork, circumcision, slavery, meat sacrificed to idols, the role of women, cultural attachment, and interaction with heathens, were fairly common. Likewise, crafting fiction for seekers will provoke numerous theological questions. As it should.

All this to say, I believe there is a fundamental confusion among Christian authors as to the exact aim of Christian fiction. Is it evangelism, discipleship, or both? Either way, at this stage, I think we're flying on one wing.


  1. Thank you, Mike, for addressing this subject in an honest manner.

    Judging by much of what I see on the shelves, it seems that Christian fiction has become the "safe" alternative for those who like to read. Only on the fringes do I find those who are outwardly evangelistic or strongly discipling.

    I believe all have their place. I also believe we have let a whole generation go largely ignored while trying to please the calls for "safety" from the rows of pews.

    That said, I think there are some amazing authors in this market, Athol Dickson among them. May God use each of us with our different callings and gifts, and may we be faithful to those callings--even if that means sacrificing prestige, prosperity, or position.

    I've always felt called to reach those on the fringes of faith. Unfortunately, the CBA market is not geared toward that. I'm now pitching a new book in the mainstream, since that may be where I belonged all along. I'd be safer writing more "Fireproof" books, but I feel there are many other voices speaking to that audience.

    CT Studd captured my feelings best:
    "Some want to live
    within the sound
    of church or chapel bell;
    I want to run
    a rescue shop
    within a yard of hell."

  2. I don't know, Mike. I'm a Christian and I write fiction. I don't set out to accomplish anything other than to tell a story, tell it well and maybe make some sense out of our human condition. As the story progresses, it takes on what form is right for it. Sometimes that might be evangelical in words, sometimes in symbollism, sometimes I just want to tell a story.

    My faith is strong so of course that's going to come through and point to God's truths. Because, we as writers, should, above all, be truth tellers. (Yes, I see the irony in saying fiction writers should be truth tellers, but I think everyone understands this concept here.)

    I'm not sure we have to have any set definition of what the aim is any more than ABA fiction does. We're not calling for them to clearly define themselves. (Are they writing to entertain, to enlighten, to inspire, to prove a point? My guess is if we were to ask them, they'd answer, yes, maybe, sometimes, I guess, to that.)

    I'm grateful to have a place that I don't have to water down my faith within the novel.

    Mike, what do you mean that we're flying on one wing? That there should be books that both evangelize and disciple and there are not?

    Eric, "...may we be faithful to those callings--even if that means sacrificing prestige, prosperity, or position." So glad to hear that!

  3. Eric said, "I've always felt called to reach those on the fringes of faith. Unfortunately, the CBA market is not geared toward that." I agree with you, Eric. Reaching people "on the fringes of the faith" poses difficulties, as it did for the early church. Stories aimed at these "fringes" must be more nuanced, toned down rhetorically, and aim to build bridges rather than evoke altar calls. Just as the first Christians struggled with bringing the Gospel into a secular arena, so the Christian publishing industry is struggling with how to reach those fringes... or if we want you.

    Gina said,"I'm not sure we have to have any set definition of what the aim is any more than ABA fiction does. We're not calling for them to clearly define themselves." But the ABA isn't the one starting a sub-genre with the label of a religion (in our case, "Christian"). By distinguishing ourselves and our stories as "Christian" we, perhaps by default, assume a different aim than other non-Christian / secular authors. In other words, what makes Christian fiction any different from mainstream fiction if not for a "Christian" element? Being a Christian and writing to simply "entertain" carries a whole different set of expectations for the Christian market.

    And by "flying on one wing" I mean that Christian fiction writers aim way more towards Christians (discipleship) than they do seekers (evangelism). My point is that just as the Church needs to do both (grow Christians and make more of them), so Christian fiction needs those two aims in order to remain healthy and perpetuate itself.

    Thanks for your comments, Eric and Gina!

  4. Mike, you know I read a ton of CBA fiction. In the thriller, mystery, and suspense genres CBA fiction offers predominately seeker literature with authors such as Robert Liparulo, Steven James, Mike Dellosso, Travis Thrasher, and Tim Downs, all multiple book authors with low-key spiritual elements.

    In the literary group of more seeker oriented novels I'd place Chris Fabry dead center with his admirable prose. It might be possible to include the two Tosca Lee novels in this group as well.

    Some CBA fiction such as Redeeming Love transcends all/both qualifications and genre definitions and is still a bestseller. Although controversial, The Shack managed to catch all kinds of attention from the lost to the found.

    You really have to examine the particular publisher to identify if they lean toward one group or another. And even if some publishers seem more rigid, there are definitely those who aren't.

    And I'm sure you'd agree each author should write the stories God has for him to tell as Eric suggested: regardless of the outcome. Those who write to honor the Lord will be given a directive from Him, and that directive should surpass the one man might suggest or demand.

  5. Nicole, I loved your comment. We're not perfect in the CBA but we're accomplishing what many of us have been hoping for. There are books that are changing lives both inside Christian circles, and outside.

    Redeeming Love has become one of my best tools to open doors. Man, I want to write that kind of book!

    I think now, the call isn't so much as we need to put out great fiction that accomplishes all we long to, but to be good stewards of what we have.

    Are we telling our friends, family, coworkers, etc, about the books that are fantastic? We should be helping those books succeed however we can.

    Tosca Lee ought to be on the NYT best seller list. We should be raving about Charles Martin, Lisa Samson, Athol Dickson, Claudia Mair Burney, etc...

    The powerful books are out there. We just need to let others know about them.

  6. Nicole, while I agree that "each author should write the stories God has for him to tell... regardless of the outcome," in the CBA most of those stories still appear to be aimed at existing Christians. I have no problem with that. My point in this post is to highlight the "other wing" -- the aspect of Christian ministry and calling that aims at seekers and the un-churched, to ask how that aim is realized in Christian publishing, and to suggest that without it we are jeopardizing our future. Despite great writers like the ones you mentioned, Christian fiction still seems disproportionally tilted toward discipleship, not evangelism.

  7. Mike,

    Not so long ago we were bemoaning that every novel had to have a conversion scene to be considered Christian. Now, we're complaining that they're not evangelistic enough?

    The problem with most deliberately evangelistic fiction is that it comes across as agenda driven and hokey.

    I would disagree that we need to try to be more evangelistic in our fiction. In our personal lives? Absolutely.

    Our faith will shine organically and that's the only way it's received well I think. I don't think it's very effective to set out to evangelize and actually turns people off. I think some have had success doing that and it surely was God's doing.

    I think most of us dream of writing a book that will lead people to faith in Christ and disciple those already in the church, but to plan to do that?

    If a book can point to God. Can show His love. His grace. His mercy. That's powerful stuff that will open doors and hearts to then hear the gospel or to consider it more fully.

    I would however agree that there are some books that I've read that I think, why exactly was that Christian fiction? I didn't see even a subtle faith element in it.

  8. Gina, I think "conversion scenes" in Christian novels do more to serve Christian readers and reinforce their faith than they do show a seeker how it's done. In other words, conversion scenes were the watermark that, at one time, validated the genre. The danger here, as I see it, is in seeing evangelism strictly in terms of "conversion scenes." As such, the most "evangelistic" book is the one that culminates in someone's salvation (and the worse off they are, the better). However, if we see conversion as a process, a continuum, rather than simply an event, then evangelism takes on a whole new meaning in our writing. Which leads me to wonder if it's our view of evangelism that's actually at issue here.

    Hey Gina, by the way, congrats on the upcoming book! Grace and peace to you!

  9. Thanks for this post, Mike. Lots to think about here. Here's my play on it. I write my books with the Christian in mind. Just your average Christian, struggling with faith and fear and all there is in life to struggle with. I want to inspire that Christian, encourage him, give her hope. Then, ah, here comes the good part, the ball is in that Christian reader's court to take that book and put in in the hands of a non-believing friend or family member or co-worker and hope and pray like mad that the story will open doors to share the Truth.

    I'd like to think my books contain a lot of spiritual take-away value for the Christian, enough that it can be shared with others and hopefully get some interesting conversations started. And from there, well, anything can happen . . .

  10. Fascinating questions. I find myself wondering how "fiction" would evangelize. An evangelizing theme would surely mean the only readers would be Christian. But a thought-provoking theme might make the Christian publishers decide it wasn't Christian enough.

  11. One other thought on this: can a book really evangelize? And by evangelize I mean bring someone to the point where they are ready to take that leap of faith and accept Christ as Savior. I suppose in some extreme cases it can but by and large evangelism is a personal thing, one person to another person. A book itself can only go so far down that road of evangelism, it takes a person to make the real connection. But that book in the hands of the right person, with the right message, at the right time . . . well, here we go again, anything can happen.

  12. Mike and Sheila, your questions about whether or not fiction can really evangelize is a good one. Mike, as you point out, evangelism is primarily relational. However, in that context there are many valuable tools and methods that can help us give witness of Christ and His Gospel. I think stories can be one of them.

    As I mentioned in my comment to Gina, I think if we see evangelism as existing on a continuum -- cultivating, planting, watering, and eventually growth and fruit-bearing -- it is reasonable that our fiction can speak to those stages. It could be as simple as framing a world of absolutes (as opposed to a world of relativism), incorporating Christian themes like service, repentance, forgiveness or grace, portraying realistic Christian characters (as opposed to perpetuating stereotypes), and even reinforcing the concept of sin and illustrating its wages. All that to say, articulating the Gospel and calling one to repentance are just one part of evangelism. Seeing our fiction just play a part in that process -- whether in planting or watering seeds -- is, I think, a noble goal.

  13. Amen, Mike. Well said. Fiction, or story-telling, can be a very effective tool for evangelism anywhere along that continuum (isn't Jesus the ultimate example of this?). I see my job as an author is to give the reader something to use as a tool.

  14. If you're a believer why not trust that God will use our writing for His purposes and just write the story you're inspired to write? Let God worry about whether it is an evangelism tool or a discipleship tool. All truth is God's truth. He can use anything He chooses to change lives, even ABA books that make no mention of Him in an overt manner. It seems like we place too much importance on what WE have to do regarding our writing, instead of trusting that God will use us as He sees fit. I doubt Victor Hugo sat down and pondered over whether he had the right evangelical tool or discipleship tool. He just wrote what he was inspired to write and somehow God's grace and redemption made its way onto the page.

  15. This is an outstanding and insightful editorial dealing with a vital concept. Can I give it six stars? I totally concur with the two wings to fly concept. Of course real life is multi-faceted. One thing not mentioned here is that there is Christian fiction being published which seeks neither. Old fashioned entertaining stories which contain no objectionable material pass for Christian fiction as long as one of the characters invokes the name of God somewhere along the plot line. I've heard it mentioned that message fiction doesn't sell. People want to be entertained. I believe the ultimate goal is to skillfully weave a message into an entertaining plot to kill two highly evolved flying reptiles with a single rock. That is what I attempt to do because Christian fiction which contains no redeeming quality advancing the kingdom of God bears a misnomer.
    Donald James Parker
    Author of Love Waits

  16. Actually, Don, I addressed the type of fiction you mention in my first line, talkikng about the "safe" alternative that is neither evangelistic or discipling.

    I dislike the term "Christian" fiction, altogether. We have hidden ourselves from the world, and created a "safe" suburb of life that doesn't require us to interact with those who believe differently. This has always led to unhealthy extremes in church history, and I think we are most effective both personally and professionally when we let our real lives engage with real faith in any setting.

    I love to see so many writers doing this, from the James Lee Burkes and Cormac McCarthys to the Claudia Mair Burneys and Mike Dellossos.

    We serve a God who is the Ultimate Creator, and He was willing to enter our messy world in human form. I think fiction, from a Christian perspective, is all about doing the same.

  17. Great discussion here. I just have a comment -
    Mike said - "Reaching people "on the fringes of the faith" poses difficulties, as it did for the early church. Stories aimed at these "fringes" must be more nuanced, toned down rhetorically, and aim to build bridges rather than evoke altar calls."

    Altho' I generally would agree, I do have an example that is contrary. I gave a copy of my novel, One Smooth Stone to a friend who gave it to her daughter. This young woman was on "the fringe" - raised in a church but now outside of it because of some tragic circumstances in her life (including rape). After reading the novel she called her mother, in tears, to tell her she finally believes God loves her in spite of everything. My novel has been accused of being "preachy" at times. Yet, this woman, on the fringe, related most strongly to those portions of the book.
    Go figure. God will use what He will. We just have to be obedient and write what He gives us.

  18. Amen, Marcia and Suzan. Too often it's all about us. Too often it's all about what WE need to do when really it's all about what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. We can't save a single soul. It's all about Him.

  19. Evangelism is a part of a discipleship, not a separate wing. The Great Commission doesn't compel us to "evangelize" and then make disciples. Jesus said to "make disciples." Perhaps a nuance, but an important one.

    I too read a LOT of CBA fiction and it is becoming as diverse as the body of Christ. I think our writing probably reflects our own personal journey in life. Some of us have been on the fringes and therefore speak best in our stories to those who are still there. Some of us have struggled with our faith after years of following Christ and our stories reflect that.

    The real issue, I believe, is what kind of world view do we reflect in our stories. Is it a world view where God is all but absent and people muddle through life making up their own answers? Or, is it a world view where there is no doubt we are not alone and there is a God with Whom we must consider and answer to? Both Athol and Mike Dellosso ask those very questions in different yet powerful ways.

    Like Gina, I must agree there are some CBA novels out there that have a very generic world view. They are clean and that's wonderful. But, they have nothing that leads to the questions both the unbelievers and believers should be asking.

  20. Good discussion. I agree with the two-wing approach, and I agree that the weakness or strength of message in our fiction sort of reflects where the church is going these days. I'll avoid rehashing what others have said but just raise a question.

    If Dan Brown can write suspense novels with an obvious religious agenda and sell them like hotcakes, why can't we? Perhaps he's so successful because his thrillers are so well crafted and gripping that people either accept his agenda or look past it for the sake of the story. We know that God's Word won't return void but will accomplish what God wants. Maybe if our novels are powerful enough (on par with Dan's books), people will want to read them anyhow, even if they perceive a religious agenda. At the same time, God can use His Word to subtly work in hearts.

    So my thinking is this: say what God wants you to say (after all, He's put a microphone in all of our hands, and we need to say something). But make the novel so powerful that folks in all walks of life will want to read it, even if, like Dan Brown, we have an agenda. Dan Brown doesn't try to hide his agenda, so why should we? Just some random thoughts.

  21. I really appreciated this post. I go with the two wing approach, as well. Why just try to reach one group of readers when they can have a broader ministry. Some books may end up appealing more to some than others. I don't think the lines are that clear though.


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