Last week I addressed the issue of trying to be too specific or too general in identifying a reader-market and the need to continually address new generations.
Today, let’s discuss the culture in the United States and the Christian writer. Here are some unavoidable things to keep in mind as you write:
- Ours is an “entertainment culture” where all forms of diversion are more important than just about anything.
- Ours is a “drinking culture” where alcohol in all forms could be characterized as socially and economically important to more people than ever before.
- Ours is a “sexualized culture” where certain behavior is assumed and even encouraged.
- Homosexuality is a widely accepted lifestyle.
- Most people generally hold a mix of political views, making them difficult to label.
- Divorce is prevalent and long-term co-habitation is common.
- Fewer and fewer children have a mother and father who live with them.
- People do not work at the same company their entire lives, then retire. Pensions are something for public employees only and probably not forever. Retirement will come later and later.
With the above I am addressing the culture as a whole, churchgoers and non-churchgoers. In addition, Christians have this going for them:
- Most have a mix of theological views, many which have little or nothing to do with Scripture. They struggle to reconcile the list above with the Bible.
- Church attendance is either shrinking or growing depending on who you talk to, but it is more commonly described as sporadic and unpredictable.
As Christian writers go about the process of developing their work, they write to a less-than-ideal world where things are not at all like some Christian Norman Rockwell image might suggest.
Events which occurred in the Garden of Eden took care of this issue for everyone.
Years ago, I heard the worst church sermon ever. Instead of illuminating a passage of Scripture, the speaker seemed to assert:
- All Christians vote Republican
- All Christians were disgusted at “liberal” social gospel teachers.
- All Christians were repulsed by television preachers.
- All Christians should distrust the media.
- All teenagers were irresponsible.
- Every male should be a great financial provider for their family of multiple children and their stay-at-home wife and mother.
- Public schools are all evil, liberal strongholds of negative influence and should be fought or avoided.
Agree or disagree with the statements, placing every believer under the same umbrella felt wildly simplistic.
Certainly, it is easier to treat people as homogeneous “markets” where everyone looks, acts and thinks alike, but unfortunately, it is much more complex than that. The market for Christian books is made up of people struggling with all sorts of things and often seeking comfort in everything but their faith.
That’s the world to which you write, one which is not what you think, or would like to think.
Metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as preaching to the choir.
People are complicated, almost immune from categorization and require authors rely heavily on immutable Biblical principles, which they know still apply, despite changes in culture.
You are not writing a book for married women. You are writing a book for a woman who is struggling every day to find stability amidst shifting sands, seeking to love God above all else and love their neighbor in spite of her circumstances. And by the way, her husband won’t go to church and her son is making terrible life choices.
When you write, don’t think about writing to people living lives you think they should live. Write to real people. They are all seeking to grow in their faith amidst all the list of influences I mentioned above.
The ground is shifting and if the foundation is not strong, the building will crumble.
In conclusion, if writing comes easy for you, you probably aren’t thinking about an audience of readers as you should. You think you know them, but they are unreal caricatures.
This is why it is important for writers of non-fiction to have a speaking ministry as part of their life work. It connects them to actual people as they interact.
You should sit in humble silence before you dare put anything on paper.
When you truly know your audience, writing from your faith should be hard, as you ponder how imperfect the world is and how deep is the love of God.
I thought we should write to turn the people to righteousness and pointing the truth…6
I’ used to think that all the smart people thought exactly like I do. Life taught me that isn’t true. And I’ve learned a lot from people who think differently.
I hope that my words make others think, “I never thought about it that way.” I want to be an intriguing nudge, not a pounding gavel.
Love that last sentence. Me, too.
Right on, Dan. Imperfect people face real life problems and don’t need simplistic answers. The Bible is always true, but understanding it and living it require struggle.
Wow, I absolutely love this truth! My church growing up held on to a lot of the stereotypes mentioned and I felt very marginalized because of them. I could hardly relate to any of the “christian” rules. Thank you for getting reality out in the open!
I write to the individual who’s lost and a bit frightened; not because I’m assured and brave, but because being terrified and clueless is OK, and it’s a lot easier to do that together.
Mark Alan Leslie
Sounds like you have a lot in common with King David and about 99.9 percent of the rest of us, if we would only admit it.
mark Alan Leslie
Oops, that comment was meant for Andrew.
Many thanks, Mark!
On considering this, I think I’ve found my Writer’s Credo:
“Cripples helping cripples.”
Bobbe Brooks Fischle
This is a vital post and corroborates what Les Stobbe and Cecil “Cec” Murphey have taught us in recent years. Thank you immensely!
“This is why it is important for writers of non-fiction to have a speaking ministry as part of their life work. It connects them to actual people as they interact.”
This hit me today (this entire post did). I often pray God gives me multiple confirmations on major decisions. He starts with a Scripture, then a whisper. He usually follows it up with at least two confirmations. This is number four. Yikes, I didn’t see the number until just now. I used to speak to women in group settings and God is opening doors for me to do that again…two in one day. Hmmm. Two. And when I blog, well that’s changing too. I’m being drawn into the readers’ lives, connecting with them more and seeing their struggles. There are a lot of hurting and lonely people out there who need God. I hope if anyone looks to me, they find me pointing to Him.
Again, this entire post. “Fewer and fewer children have a mother and father who live with them.” We’ve talked to our daughter about this a lot. I’ll never forget the day she came home from school worried about a friend. This little boy had been crying because he had to move away. His parents were getting a divorce. I think about him a lot. He was four of five years old and his whole world was about to shift.
“You should sit in humble silence before you dare put anything on paper.”
“When you truly know your audience, writing from your faith should be hard, as you ponder how imperfect the world is and how deep is the love of God.”
Powerful. When I think of a friend who is far from God because of the painful childhood she endured, I wonder in writing how I can toss her a line, what words will cause her to reach out and grab it, while God is holding the other end gently pulling her to Him. He’s so gentle. I pray from the depths of my soul my writing showcases how gentle He truly is.
Thank you so much for this post, Dan. God bless you.
Curtis Delk Rose
i REALLY enjoyed the thoughts expressed here! And i look forward to reading more of Mr. Balow’s work. i think i will find that we are almost on the ‘same page’!
Well said. You nailed it. Makes the writing task all the more challenging and complicated. It is a delicate dance. I’m working on a book that fits smack dab in the middle of what you just described. No matter what we write we’re going to be criticized. I have to make my peace with that and try to make it sing anyway. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this message. It has been extremely helpful.
Many children live in abusive situations, being alternately “saved” by the system’s intervention with a foster home and then “reintegrated” into the abusive family that has not changed a whit.
Sometimes one child is saved and two or three others left in the abusive situation. Our children are at risk from conception forward.
When we write, we are sometimes writing to adults who have grown up in that situation. Their memories of childhood are not what we would wish. They have no foundation of love or stability. Things we take for granted are totally foreign to them. We might as well be speaking Martian.
Finding a common ground from which to begin is the secret. It isn’t easy.
Thank you, Dan, for bringing this to our attention. We sometimes are oblivious.
Dan, how does this fit in with the growing argument from fiction writers who want to write stories for and about the Christian you describe, with characters struggling with some of the edgier topics and blurred lines that real people struggle with today? It seems readers are asking for those stories (based on some of the reader blogs I follow) but publishers aren’t ready yet. Do you see this shifting in the future? If so, I think our responsibility as Christian writers will become even more difficult because we must be careful to stay on the biblical side of those blurred lines. Maybe there’s a new genre of Christian fiction ahead. Your thoughts?
Janet Ann Collins
Wow! You’ve described our society in a nutshell.
Once some friends asked my grandson if he lived with his mother or his father and, when he said, “Both,” they didn’t believe him because they didn’t know anybody else who did.
But there have been lots of times when societies were terrible in the past (Know anyone who got thrown to lions in the arena lately?) and times like that seem to ultimately help Christianity grow.
The parallels between today and and the Roman era are so strong, with the hypersexualized culture, the acceptance of violence and cruelty as entertainment, and the disregard for the infinite value of every human life. Yet many chose Jesus at the cost of their earthly lives. That’s why I’m writing during that time period when light overcame darkness, no matter how hard darkness tried to quench it.
Not too many get fed to lions, but in the Middle East and too many other places around the world today, people are dying for their faith in Jesus, just like they did under Rome. I often wonder whether my faith is strong enough that I would choose death before denial. I hope I don’t have to find out.
Janet Ann Collins
I hope the same thing.
Amen, and thank you for this post! As a librarian in a public elementary school who 100% sees God in action on a daily basis–through kids of all backgrounds looking for the Bible, through Muslim children reading my Christian novels, and telling their friends to read them, and in many more ways–I really appreciate the way you question whether or not “all” Christians can believe or do anything.
By the way, I think Karen Sargent has a great question.
Dan, you’re describing the difficulty of being a Christian in the US and Europe, where we live in a post-Christian culture that constantly tries to drag us away from faith and hope. For me, the question becomes what should I write that will encourage the faith of a Christian facing that hostile climate. But I also want to show someone who doesn’t know Jesus how the forgiveness and love that He makes possible is worth so much more than anything they’ve ever wanted.
Thank you. A wonderful, heart-stopping reminder for both fiction and non-fiction writers. Talking to people cures my certainty. Talking to and listening to the LORD reminds me that He came for all of us.
Each story I write targets a chosen subset of the conglomeration you described, Dan. We can’t reach everyone with the stories we’ve been given. Some books will reach more, and sell more copies, while others will reach less. In our increasingly pluralistic society, the math says our targeted audiences will become a smaller percentage of the population. But, in sheer numbers, they will grow. We will reach more people. That should encourage us.
Really well said! My story is different from the next person’s story. But threads are similar, and foundational Biblical truths don’t change. It is such a challenge to stand firmly on those foundational truths, and connecting with others to share the similarities without looking like you’re making assumptions that alienate those whose story looks different …everyone…? That’s how it feels, and what I fear. And so I continue to write and re-write trying to figure this one out. Anyone else out there run into this frustration? I’d love to hear from you.
Wow! Your perspective is incredible and well-stated.
Caused me to think HARD about how this culture we exist in really DOES impact how we put words into print and are found to be relatable to people!
It truly IS a high calling, AND an important one!! But an enormously difficult one, too.
Thx for sharing. You’ve given me cause to pause!!!
Esther McDowell Thompson
Great food for thought. Thanks for sharing.
While such diversity of opinion and experience no doubt exists, the current Christian fiction market represents a solidly static demographic. Homogeneity may not be a hallmark of culture, but it definitly is in the contemporary Christian market.
It is very true that our world has changed.
The vital message that man needs to know is that “Christ died for our sins” (from I Corinthians 15:3) because “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
You are so right about God’s love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)
The hard part for people is Ephesians 2:8,9 – (“For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; Not of works lest any man should boast”).
Christian fiction writers have a big opportunity to share the gospel to unbelievers and encourage the faith of believers.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Beautiful! Yes, write for the real people. They are the ones who need and love a story of overcoming and God’s grace. We live and work at a small Bible camp. People are so complicated, broken, beautiful, and amazing!
Yours is the most valuable commentary on Christian writing I have come across yet. I am certain the profundity of it all will hit me again and again, right where I need it. When I embarked on the road to authorship, I asked God to tell me why younger people would want to read what I write. His answer encourages me. He said that each generation is able to put things a little differently to reach the upcoming generations, and there will always be some who want to hear it written your way. You may not reach everyone, but you will make sense to some who will grow by your words. I appreciate your words!
Thank you. When an aquisitions editor at a currently non-fiction house told me my novel couldn’t involve a manslaughter, and that I should change all my black characters to white, I shuddered. After my ex-agent (though no longer working as an agent,she was a good editor and sound Christian) suggested I change their race and and anglisize their names. I was told even a sip of port was bad. Change it. I love that you are opening up Christian writing to include Christians that still retain their effectiveness as both worshippers and missionaries in our communities. I don’t want to represent the “church lady.” I want to represent Christ. He is who I am.
Janet Ann Collins
Lots of people in our society today have a stereotyped idea of Christians. Some of us do fit it, especially those who get in the news, but we need to let people know we’re not all the same. We need to speak the truth in love, and we can do that with our writing. Now we need to find ways to get anti-Christians to read it. That’s the hard part.
Thank you for writing this–I think it is a needed word. Jesus definitely met with people where they were. Of course, he wasn’t “okay with” everything everyone did, but he gave them (and gives us) justice and mercy–lots and lots of mercy!
Kathy Sheldon Davis
I’m coming to your post a day late, but oh my goodness, it’s the best sermon I’ve heard in a long time.
And Heidi, thanks for this, too. “I don’t want to represent the ‘church lady.’ I want to represent Christ. ”
Now I know how I’m to pray today.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Thanks for those awesome thoughts, Dan. I think about our culture and liken it to an earthquake… so many of the things we think are wrong are now purported to be right. And we’re wrong, or so the wider culture claims.
This post was thoughtful and thought-provoking. The comments made by everyone, and particularly by Karen Sargent, Carol Ashby, Sonja Anderson, and Heidi Gaul really meshed with my own thoughts and observations.
Karen, I don’t know if anyone can answer your question, good as it is. I wrote one of those edgy, evangelical novels 20 years ago, and I don’t see evidence the “Christian Market” is substantially different today than it was back then. To me, the answer will come if the Christian writers you’re talking about find a way to push their work out there and find a readership, one way or another. Success will beget success. It always does. I gave up 20 years ago, but I’m pretty determined now. I’m not much in the mood to give up now.
I trust the Lord will make a way. The fact that you (and others) are asking these questions and making these comments suggests there’s a need for change, or at least expansion. By expansion, I mean Christian writers breaking out on the right and on the left. Getting our grubby little hands all up in every kind of publishing, to every kind of reader. Producing thoughtful, deeply meaningful stories that don’t pull any punches. How about that? Great work by great writers who are also great people. The BEST work out there. Why shouldn’t it be? We need to turn publishing upside down, and turn the world upside down while we’re at it. (Acts 17:6)
Best line , “Write to real people.” Yes so hard with such great cultural shifts. Thank you . Printing your article. Enjoy the conference !