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.
Indulge me for just another minute before you start writing a reply, hitting me with examples of Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, MacDonald, Bunyan, Tolstoy, Chesterton, etc.
First, God Almighty can and does use whatever he wants to get people’s attention. I hear God even used a talking donkey once. Second, it is a matter of fact that the books that God has used most frequently for evangelism have testified strongly to Jesus Christ and the power of the Gospel to change a life. Consider these:
More Than A Carpenter, Josh McDowell
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
Left Behind Series, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren
The Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson
In His Steps, Charles Sheldon
The above have combined worldwide sales of close to 150 million copies. Add to these the millions of Bibles, the Jesus Film and other literature used for outreach, and the power of the clear and overt Christian message is quite clear.
Next, let’s switch our focus toward the audience you would like to reach. I don’t know what kind of church you attend, but I am reminded almost every day of the 40 years that I have been a Christian, that other believers are not perfect, they are just saved. We do not live perfectly perfect lives by any stretch of the imagination. But 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.
How are they going to be reached? By any means God desires. He uses dreams and visions, a powerful storm, stars on a clear night, books, movies…and yes, even a Christ-following friend who loves them enough to pray for them and hand them a copy of a book that could change their perspective toward the God who loves them.
There are 200,000 new books published in the United States each year from traditional publishers (self-publishing would more than double that). Of those, less than 10,000 would be Christian books from Christian publishers.
Maybe we need more books with a blatant Christian message and worldview. Seems like there are enough books covering the other side.
Thanks for indulging me a bit. Now let me have it…
Well said, Dan. Very well said.
This is well said. The idea of “cross-over” writing that does not have honesty about the cross doesn’t really cross over. The problem for me is that the choir these days only wants romance, Amish, or self-help books. Nothing there for some of us to work with, even though we’re sitting in the tenor section.
I’m member of the choir, and I don’t want romance, Amish, or self-help. It seems to me–and I’d love to hear other’ take on this–that the problem isn’t that the entire Christian community wants one kind of book, it’s that Christian fiction is only reaching a small segment of the Christian readership.
I think you may be right, Robin, that Christian fiction is only reaching a small segment of the Christian readership. And by the sounds of it, this small segment doesn’t even include all women readers, either. My wife is like you. She can’t take the current fare either. I came home from a Christian writer’s conference with a hand full of novels apparently aimed at her–especially the mystery-detection genre. She told me she couldn’t read a single one of them. I never bought any more after that.
You’ve touched on a MAJOR pet peeve of mine. (Indicating that I have several other pet peeves, I know, but I also own 3 dogs and 2 cats, so I can handle numerous pets.)
I dislike people who look down on “preaching to the choir.” Why? Because the choir is NO LESS worthy of good preaching than anyone else! Have you looked at the “choir” around you? Are they perfect? Do they have everything figured out and live wrinkle-free lives? If you really think so…here’s your reality check.
The choir needs to be fed. An unfed choir will go the same way as an unfed stray dog, lapping at whatever it can find for fulfillment. We were…I want to say trapped but that’s probably harsh…in a church for several years where we didn’t get fed. Long story, but without good Christian books – non-fiction and fiction – I may have gone nuts through that time.
So please FEED THE CHOIR and know that you’re doing a service to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Well said, Pegg. As a member of the choir, I know I need feeding.
I am the choir, having had to put writing aside for awhile. I do not read romance, Amish, or self-help books and there are only a few good “Christian” books that I feel comfortable sharing with my non-Christian friends and I’d like more of them. Here are some of the titles/authors: The Screwtape Letters,Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian and the others in the series, some of the novels by Angela Hunt, Ted Dekker’s novels, and the two novels by Frederick Buechner. There are plenty of books with a “blatant Christian message and world view.” What I’d like personally are well-written books than might nudge the non-believer toward God. While not a “Christian” book, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a well-written novel with a Christian priest that can certainly be shared and discussed with non-believers. Now, if only the Christian market would regularly produce such fine work.
Absolutely! The choir needs YOU! I work in the Christian counseling field in the Baltimore-Washington area. I see how much the choir needs sustenance, inspiration, someone to come along side them and prod them to keep going in their walk with Jesus. We live in a very secular world and need constant encouragement to keep following what we know is right. I know for me, it was not a book that brought me to Christ first. It was Christians who LIVED their faith–Christians whose faith was bolstered because they may have read a good book that encouraged them to keep going. I later began to read Christian material (mostly fiction) and that’s what inspired me to continue in Bible Study so I could increase my knowledge of this great Creator of ours.
Dan, Excellent point. Although there are a few writers who can write for the general market with an obvious Christian worldview (John Grisham comes to mind–some of his books have very clear Christian messages), there’s still lots of room for Christian books of all gradations, from those with explicit conversion principles to those that glorify God in other ways. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Dan! I applaud you for pushing back on the vitriol that seems to be spewing forth, stating that if you write a clean novel, you are somehow less Christian or less evangelistic.
Steve knows I”m a peacemaker. And I’ve never more than right now wanted to scream “GEt off each others’ backs!”
we should be encouraging and championing each other. If we’re on the same team, then we all have different “positions” to play. Eric Wilson and I once had a dialogue about the different roles. We likened it to a battlefield scene. He feels he’s a front-lines warrior. I believe God made me a medic, so I’m back in the infirmary tent tending the wounded.
Seriously, we need to get off each others’ backs and stop doing the devil’s job for him. We should encourage and champion each other, all toward one end: furthering the cause of the Kingdom.
Well said, Ronie. God’s plan for you is not the same as his plan for me. If we all had the same plan, most of us would be unnecessary. We need to trust each other, encourage each other, and accept each other, whether we like each other’s books or not.
Patti Jo Moore
Bravo, Dan! In my humble opinion, this is excellent. 🙂
~…as a recovering Christian and lazy atheist (agnostic), I would offer that your examples are fair (C.S. Lewis is certainly head & shoulders above the others – certainly the frighteningly self-righteous Mr. Warren should have an asterisk) but I would offer an addition/replacement for your list – Anne Lamott & her brilliant diary of spiritual awakening, “Traveling Mercies”. I was once told by someone (ahem) that her book was to be found in every drawer of the so-called “christian” publishing world. Naughty language, behaviours, and all.
Good piece, though.
Yep…one thing for sure…it is a unique talent to write like Anne. Often, she will be used to illustrate precisely what you did…she is highly regarded by many people who disagree with her politics, but love her words. Not many like her.
Well said, Dan! I agree. There is no shame in writing fiction intended for the Christian audience. With the spiritual “dimension” awake, Christians need good “food” to nurture their spirits. Yes, it comes through the Bible, fellowship with other believers, etc, but it also comes through good stories with a Christian worldview. For an author to want to glorify God through his/her writing and to remain authentic to who he/she is, that is a worthy undertaking. Even if the story may end up reaching a smaller audience.
Thank you for this. It can be a fine line between boldly proclaiming and being ham-handed and overbearing. Yet watered down words just don’t suit me, and I cannot, and will not, do that when I know I mustn’t.
I’d rather write books that no one reads, than write stuff that everyone reads, but I have still said nothing.
My first 2 books were fairly secular, my third one Christian, but I have resolved I will only write Christian material going forward. We must give an account to God, and I think He would rather us go fully-rotten than to do some watered-down, cheapening gospel message that lets people down or even takes them down a deceptive path. Not all roads lead to God, but wide is the path of destruction, and many find it.
We are the salt of the earth.
So be salty.
There is nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. Not at all. What bothers me is that the choir has it’s own little section in the bookstores. Why is that? Book with Jewish characters don’t go in a separate section. Books with atheist characters don’t go in a separate section.
Maybe the problem is not that our intended audience is the choir. Part of the problem might be that we’re perceived to be preaching in our novels. I think all novels should have strong themes and I think all authors should write wanting to convey a message. I don’t think we should write solely to entertain, with no desire to enrich the reader’s soul. But I think we need to learn put the preaching in more skillfully.
I guess that’s a different issue than the one you raise here. But I think they are tangled together. But, yes, more preaching to the choir. I love to read and so do most of the Christians I know. We need great books.
And if I might get up on my related soapbox: What about the children’s choir? They need books, too!
If most of the people buying books are women, why is it that the Christian publishers can’t figure out how to sell children’s books and men’s books to the women who do all the buying? These women all have children and grandchildren and husbands. Why can’t we bundle books together? Buy two women’s books, get a middle grade novel for free. Buy a prairie romance and a men’s fiction title and a YA dystopian and get all three for the price of two. Is it really impossible for us to figure out how to sell children’s books to women?
Well said, everyone. My question is what do we, as Christian authors, do with books we’ve been told are well written, complete with strong themes, but aren’t Christian enough because there is no blatant mention of Jesus?
Well said, and I agree entirely. I believe a well-written book doesn’t need preaching, just like our lives don’t necessarily need preaching. If we live God’s principals, those will preach for us. If our characters wrestle with and ultimately choose God’s path, those choices do the preaching. Good writing trumps preaching every day of the week.
Heather Day Gilbert
I just commented below and said basically the same thing, Robin! Agreed!
What?! You mean I can’t add notches to my evangelistic gun belt through my fiction? Okay, I’ve struggled with this myself. And several other bloggers have made great cases. I think my favorite line was from Chip MacGregor (am I allowed to mention his name here?), who said that Christian writers simply can’t write for the secular world. We don’t speak their language. We’re out of touch. I’m still trying to decide if I agree with him or not, because I watch Seinfeld reruns just to stay on top of things. But there is some truth to that. And, by the by, what exactly is wrong with providing inspiration and encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ? Good grief, if not for our outstanding talent, they’d have to hide their Janet Evonavich novels whenever they happened across their pastor at the grocery store. One more point: not all Christians are fully on-board with their faith. Some are hovering about the edges. One of us could write the book that pulls them in for the full ride. I think that’s something worthy of our time and talents, don’t you?
Amarilys Gacio Rassler
I believe there’s room for both. The Lord can use anything to reach people. The actor of the movie, “Dinner With A Perfect Stranger,” speaks in his commentary and says, “There are movies that will pull the viewer to Christ and are designed to bring them in completely. Then there’re others that just are meant to tug at hearts and start the process.(What he said I’m paraphrasing.)I believe he’s right. I often wonder how the public will take a story I’m in process of writing where there’s a deliverance and the Name Of Jesus will be in it quite a few times. When my wonder tends to turn into worry, I remind myself that it’s my job to write what The Lord wants me to write. What He does with it is up to Him and for His good pleasure.
Heather Day Gilbert
I’ll go out on a limb and say that many CBA books contain only “milk” subjects anyway. Christian readers also need some “meat” in the topics they read about/wrestle with. It’s how we get deeper into our understanding of the Bible…why not write books that get deeper into these topics we will ALL struggle with? I think C.S. Lewis delved into deeper things, even in the Chronicles of Narnia. He made ADULTS think, while entertaining children and adults.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of books that are written with a Christian WORLDVIEW, but don’t get preachy. Books like the classics, where you see from the characters’ lives and CHOICES what can happen (and BTW, these books don’t all have happily-ever-afters–and many of those are the ones that have stuck with me). I believe some Christian authors today are writing these books. But I don’t think that’s primarily what traditional CBA pubs are looking for. This is where smaller presses and indies are making inroads fast–for readers who want books they CAN pass on to unsaved people, without making them feel targeted. Books that will make them wrestle with what they believe or have believed about certain things.
Always enjoy your posts, Dan.
“many CBA books contain only “milk” subjects anyway.” — an accusation I’ve heard about Christian books for the last 30+ years in the business.
The problem with the accusation is that it suggests that “lighter fare” is somehow bad. Not everyone can wrestle with N.T. Wright and J.I. Packer or negotiate the writings of William Lane Craig.
I recall being in a pub board meeting during my days as an editor and one of people around the table said rather loudly that the project we were considering was “way too ‘heady’ and would never sell.” I responded by saying, “Then this book wasn’t written for you. Or does everyone else agree?” That person was the only one around the table who thought it a blase idea.
The point I’m making is that a book can meet a person where they are. “Milk” or “Meat.” Neither is superior to the other.
There are many books I tried to read very early in my life that were impenetrable. Years later I read them with great joy. I’m glad for those books that were written at place where I could meet them and learn from them. Otherwise I would have given up on reading and learning.
I think there are plenty of meaty books, but I wonder if there are plenty of meaty novels. Maybe there are. I don’t read as many Christian novels as I’d like, so I’m out of touch with the market.
One frustration for me in the past was that if you wrote about a baby being baptized, you’d offend the Baptists and if you wrote about a baby being dedicated, you’d offend the Presbyterians, so it seemed to me that the publishers solved that by making all characters go to the First Community Church, and not allowing babies to be baptized or dedicated. No one ever took the Lord’s Supper. So we all could enjoy our novels and believe the people in them worshipped just like we did.
Maybe that’s changed or is changing some. (I kind of doubt it’s changed. From my visits to Facebook it appears Christians are still as fast to take offense as ever.) I hope it’s changing, because I think having the worship in our novels cater to the lowest common denominator makes the characters in Christian novels feel a little less than real. A little cardboard-y. The Christians I know fight over whether we can sing Fanny Crosby hymns or whether all hymns have to be written by men or whether we should only be singing Psalms. That’s not meaty stuff, I don’t think. It’s real-life stuff, though, in this fallen world.
Heather Day Gilbert
I agree, Steve, and I’m not saying Christian readers need exclusively “meat” subjects, by any means. I know many readers read for escapism purposes, and I totally get that. I also understand the desire to veer a bit more “preachy” if you’re trying to evangelize with your writing. I also think unsaved readers can smell sermons in books a mile away, but if the lessons come through characters’ choices/lives, they’re more likely to read the entire book and question things they’ve accepted as true that might not be true.
As I said, I know there are some Christian authors who are trying to get meatier topics in the door. Some already have. But I think if the bulk of books revolve around romance between two unmarried characters, you’re not writing for a large portion of the audience…readers who aren’t dating, who might have children and be struggling in marriage and parenting, just to hit the tip of the iceberg. I’d just be thrilled to see more and more CBA fiction hitting a wider demographic, including marrieds who don’t read light romance, or those who enjoy wrestling with meatier topics. For now, I’d say many of those readers go to the ABA for reading material.
The problem with coming late to this table is that it’s all been said already. I’ve enjoyed this discussion immensely, almost as much as the post that engendered it. Thank you, Dan for a great post. His great guests (in addition to Steve himself) are one reason I love Steve Laube’s blog.
I’ve always felt that my audience was the “choir” – it’s just that my “choir” likes rock and roll and doesn’t fit in the traditional church! Thanks for the affirmation that “preaching to the choir” is an okay choice.
Dan, I read your post nodding along until the end when you gave the numbers for Christian books published a year. And then I gasped, what the?!
Is that small number a reason why Christian writers might be tempted to “cross over”?
I would like to know the numbers of traditional books sold vs. Christian a year. It may be surprising. If those 6 Christian authors you mentioned have sold 150 million copies combined then perhaps that suggests that while the choir may be small, the voices are LOUD.
Keep singing y’all!
It’s great to know that God can use whatever He chooses to draw people closer to Him. Personally, I aim for my novels and blog posts to highlight the subconscious lies people believe and point them towards God’s truth. I especially love encouraging ‘nominal’ Christians towards an active, growing relationship with God.
But at the end of the day, I can write all I like – it won’t make a difference unless God moves the person’s heart. So I also think it’s important that writers pray for their readers.
Heather Day Gilbert
I’m so glad you mentioned that, Jessica. Each of our books offer unique opportunities to reach readers, and I think if we focus on praying for those reading our books each day, it helps us focus less on those our books may NOT resonate with. It’s a crucial part of the process, for sure.
Well said, Dan. I’m a member of the choir as well. I read somewhere long ago that there are two types of “Christian” books – the first: that if you take out all of the references to God, it will still stand. The second: that if you take out all of the references to God, the book would fall apart. I personally choose to read (and write!) the latter. 🙂
This post spoke so strongly to me! I’m a Scot living in England. I write Christian non-fiction published as Dorothy M. Stewart and I have a heart for God’s Christian women, especially in the 40+ range. I’ve written (revised and revised and rewritten and rewritten) a Christian novel based on the Fishermen’s Revival of 1921 and submitted it, on request, to a British Christian publisher who says it looks too Christian for them. I do feel the US is where it could find a home (several of my books are published by American publishers) but it seems impossible for a Brit to have a novel considered in the US. My alternative is to put this one with the others under the bed and water down something else for the British publisher. But I don’t want to! Any advice warmly welcomed! Thanks!
It’s so confusing being a Christian writer. I’m either too edgy, too preachy, or when writing for crossover, even a non-preachy mention of church or God because it goes with the storyline, is not welcome. I am reminded again and again that what converts atheists is the message of the cross. We have science that backs there is a God and archeological evidence to say the Bible is accurate, but its not that which converts an unbeliever; it is always every time the cross.