Monday, January 23, 2012

Discipleship, Evangelism, and the Aim of Christian Fiction

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 aim at the Church, not the world
. Not long ago, celebrated Christian novelist Athol Dickson dropped by 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 11 years, I learned that evangelism and discipleship were both 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. 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 sense there is a fundamental confusion among Christian authors as to the exact aim of Christian fiction. Is it evangelism, discipleship, or both? But at this stage, I'd have to suggest we're flying on one wing.

1 comment:

Bruce Hennigan said...

Mike, once again you’ve nailed the conundrum for us all. In his book, “Seven Faith Tribes of America” George Barna points out that 2/3 or 67% of Americans claim to be Christians. BUT, when you look at what they believe you discover they have cherry picked those elements of Christianity that fit THEIR lifestyle. They are “casual Christians”. This certainly illustrates the old adage that “80% of the people in the pews are lost”. Where would they fit on this continuum of Christian fiction? I can see them occasionally dropping by a Christian Book Store or wandering into the Religious section of a secular bookstore (if they get lost!) and looking for some answers. Should we be targeting them? And if so, what should be the goal, discipleship or evangelism?

One can argue that this huge majority of Americans are not really “saved” or “born again” and need evangelizing. One could also argue that they know what they need to become committed Christians and discipleship may be the answer. I’m not sure.

Barna says only 16% of Americans (1/6) are “committed Christians” who would be that audience Athol has identified as Christians in need of further discipleship if not downright entertainment by Christian fiction. Now, if you do the math that leaves 11% who are atheists and skeptics and a few other percentages in the other religions. Would a "Skeptic" EVER buy a Christian fiction book? Probably not. My second book, coming out in October, was picked up by a number of secular readers because they thought is was about vampires. I received some very positive responses from them in the way I handled the Gospel in that book. It was there, and will be there again in the next book, but not in a preachy way. So, is this the answer? For, if you pull back on the Gospel and include more “secular” elements such as language and life situations then you risk alienating that 16%.

I think each author has to examine their hearts and their “mission”. As for me, God has given me a desire to write “crossover” fiction with strong secular elements that will reach that 67% “Casual” and that 11% “Skeptics”. That strategy alienates me from the vast majority of the 16% “committed” and this has been borne out in sales of my first book. The critical response has been good, but there is the inevitable reader/reviewer who laments my use of violence and “too much blood”. Sorry, it’s my mission. It’s what I’m about. It’s why I’m with Realms!

I don’t think as Christian Fiction authors, we have to shove our work into round holes. There is room for targeting both audiences. It is really a challenge to do BOTH in one book, but it is possible. Look at the enormous popularity of the first Left Behind book. I saw many “casuals” and “skeptics” reading that book. And, our publishers really dropped the ball in the decade after that in reading the trend. I think our publishers are only now beginning to see the potential of “speculative fiction”. I found it interesting last week to read that the CEO of Thomas Nelson was praising the “emergence” of “Christian speculative fiction” as the fastest growing trend in Christian fiction. I can only hope he is right. And, I can only pray that WE get the stories and the books right!