Bonnie S. Calhoun
the Founder and Publisher of Christian Fiction Online
Magazine . She is also the Owner and Director of the Christian
Fiction Blog Alliance which is the parent organization for
Evangelicals spend a great deal of time plotting ways to reach non-Christians. We host concerts and picnics, and saturate countless doorsteps with gospel tracts. With each encounter, we slam our audience with the ABCs of salvation. It doesn’t matter if they want to hear it or not. Doesn’t matter if they understand it. Nope. It’s all about “getting the message out there.” And once done, we step aside, pat ourselves on the back, and wait for that mysterious, saving-faith bolt of lightning to sap our poor, bombarded, unsuspecting friends or readers.
Jesus did things differently. When speaking to the masses, He used stories, and quite obscure ones at that―they required a bit of nibbling and offered savory morsels, not mouthfuls of information. Not enough to fill the gut but to trigger hunger. If writers want to reach non-Christians, they’ll need to set aside their long-winded, brain-numbing sermons. Now, don’t get your hackles up. I’m not talking about watering down the message, but instead, targeting and delivering it in bite-sized pieces.
Crossover novels, those that extend beyond the church choir, take a great deal of work and planning. To write effective crossovers, authors must know their audiences, explore and address their readers’ unique barriers to faith, and, most important, avoid those door slamming Christian phrases that send non-Christian readers running for the shredder.
According to award-winning author Randy Ingermanson, crafting a crossover novel is a lot like cooking a pot of soup. Comparing truth to salt, he says, “Some folks like a lotta salt in their soup. Some folks can hardly stand more than a little.”
We might think it’s best to douse our novels with truth, hoping something might penetrate, but this approach causes more harm than good. I’m a picky eater, so I have narrowed down my restaurant choices. A while back my husband talked me into trying a new restaurant. The food was doused in salt (and ginger), leaving me frustrated and hungry. Perhaps the cook had a bad day, or maybe I ordered the wrong meal. Doesn’t matter. I won’t go back. So instead of encouraging me to try other items on the menu, the cook’s meal repelled me. This is exactly how non-Christian readers react to a poorly written, highly preachy novel. Instead of drawing them to truth, it pushes them in the other direction.
Why do we do this? I believe it’s largely due to ignorance, and maybe an inflated sense of self. We’ve decided to carry man’s salvation on our shoulders. We’ve forgotten that God has numerous writers sprinkling salt and sowing seeds. We’ve forgotten that it may take years or even decades for a person to come to faith. And oh, we are so impatient!
Art Criscoe, former LifeWay editor and Senior Editor of Christ to the World Ministries, an international ministry that broadcasts in twenty-three countries, said: “In our Western culture conditioned by television programs where everything is ‘wrapped up in a package’ and resolved in thirty minutes, we are not accustomed to waiting. We have forgotten that it took William Carey seven years in India to win the first convert to Christ, and it took Adoniram Judson six years to win the first convert in Burma.”
In his book, Living Proof: Sharing the Gospel Naturally, author Jim Petersen spends a great deal of time discussing a non-Christian’s journey to faith. He encourages us to imagine a long stretch of highway starting at Nonbelieverland and ending at the foot of the cross. According to Peterson, Christians must focus on forward progression, not ultimate destination. “Rather than looking for a single step, it is better to think in terms of mini-decisions” (p. 150). “If evangelism is a process, then our function is to accompany our acquaintances on the road to Christ, showing them the way. We must walk the road with them, a step at a time.”
Let’s unpack the gospel message, something the church often simplifies to three basic statements commonly known as the ABCs of salvation: Admit, believe, confess. Simple steps pointing at simple truths? Hardly! A lot of theology is packed in that three-sentence punch. Before our readers can admit they are sinners, they first need to know what sin is. Before they can know what sin is, they need to understand God’s righteous nature and sovereignty. Before they can understand God, they need to believe He exists. Before they can believe, they need to be willing to hear. It is presumptuous, and dangerous, to assume this is the case with the average non-Christian reader. To be effective, authors need to focus on small steps over a long period of time.
This is the approach Christ to the World takes. They’ve divided the gospel message, those three statements, into eight individual lessons. “Feedback from our overseas partners in many countries indicates that this incremental approach to presenting the plan of salvation is effective,” Art Criscoe explained. “Especially with persons who have little knowledge of the Bible or who may have a strong resistance to the message of Jesus Christ. Muslims and Hindus in particular may benefit from this approach.”
This leads us to my next point. Effective writers need to know their readers’ unique barriers and then address these barriers authentically and organically. In story world, it’s often best to give your characters the same struggles your non-Christian readers face.
Lisa T. Bergren wrote her crossover novel, Waterfall, for young adults, a group striving for independence, a unique identity, and frustrated by pesky adults who “force their opinions” and can’t relate. If you have a teen, you’ve seen this fierce independence in action. Tell them it’s raining, and they’ll search for a sunbeam. Mention you like a dress or shirt they’re wearing, and they’ll toss it out. Ask them to change, and the item becomes a must-wear.
Knowing this, Lisa crafted a novel that addresses those barriers and hit on a felt need—the desire teens have to explore options and arrive at their own conclusions. “[In Waterfall] the faith message is very subtle,” Bergren said, “since the girls are just beginning to think about the big questions of the faith, when they’re thrust into uncommon experiences/environment (time traveling back 600+ years―hello!). Even as they ask those questions, I tried to keep it natural to the characters. There is no clear resolution, just gentle exploration.”
A subtle message. Natural. Exploration. No clear resolution. Just a savory sprinkle intended to awaken the readers’ taste buds.
To craft a natural, organic novel, one that resonates with your readers, put your “Christianese” aside. In many ways Christianity is its own sub-culture, grounded in unspoken rules revealed through rather obscure dialogue. Phrases like “in the Spirit” and “Spirit filled” or “heart knowledge” create barriers, which is contrary to the goals of a great crossover novel.
For example, while researching this article, I popped in on a Goodreads discussion regarding crossovers: finding and writing novels that appealed to non-Christians. One author wrote that she “tried to write stories that appealed to nonbelievers.” A harmless statement, right? Unless you’re the “nonbeliever” reading her comment and thinking, “Nonbeliever of what? I believe in a lot of things. Oh . . . because I don’t believe as she does . . .” And slam goes the door. I can almost guarantee the non-Christians reading her post won’t pick up any of her novels because she laid a clear boundary. Translation: If you agree with me, you’re a believer. If you don’t, you’re not.
Instead of creating boundaries, we need to expand on points of contact―the common ground shared between two groups of people, or, as Allistar E McGrath, author of Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths, wrote, “A point of contact is a God-given foothold for divine self-revelation” (p. 16). It focuses on similarities, not differences, thus creating bridges, not divisions. Paul gave a perfect example in Acts 17 of how this is done. When speaking to the idol-worshiping Corinthians, he focused on their commonality—religion―using their “unknown God” to reveal the nature of the Creator.
In fiction, our point of contact is a universal “felt need.” Regardless of how different mankind can be, we’ll always share core needs. If writers zero in on and address those needs through an exceptionally written story or drama, the readers will begin to unveil their hearts.
The popularity of Amish fiction is a great example. How has such a conservative, highly religious genre managed to infiltrate the ABA market? According to Amish readers, they’re drawn to the sense of peace and community the genre offers. A felt need. In Lisa Bergren’s novel, readers are drawn to the exploration it offers. In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, readers are drawn to the unconditional love demonstrated by Aslan. In Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, readers are drawn to purpose amid chaos. Each of these novels provides thought-provoking, heart-stirring sprinkles, trusting God to do the rest.
If authors want to expand their reach beyond the church sanctuary, they must trigger hugger not nausea, and create bridges not barriers. It’s time to shuck “it’s all up to me” type thinking, realizing our stories are but a tiny part of God’s big-picture plan. Most important, crossover authors need to craft authentic characters non-Christians can relate to, with real problems that point to universal felt needs. Remember, it’s not about delivering a sermon but developing a lifelong reader.
Jennifer Slattery writes for Christ to the World Ministries (http://www.christtotheworld.com), the Christian Pulse, Internet Café Devotions and Samie Sisters. You can find out more about her and her writing at her devotional blog, Jennifer Slattery Lives Out Loud (http://jenniferslatterylivesoutloud.com).