Q4U: Fiction and Ministry

Wow. What a nice, long weekend. BUSY but great! Hope you all had exactly the kind of Fourth you most enjoy. Me, I had a crazy day with the family, starting with the pancake breakfast down at the church, then the big holiday parade, then the street fair. Back in the afternoon for a brief recovery period, then off to the big picnic & fireworks display. I was so tired at the end of Friday night, then got up and had a garage sale on Saturday. (I hate garage sales, but it was a ploy to get the kids to clean out the basement and get rid of ten years’ worth of toys. It worked.) Sunday was girls’ day out for shopping… of course, my daughters had to spend that garage sale money. Whew! I’m worn out.

Five days until I leave for ICRS so this is going to be a doozy of a week. Nose to the grindstone, no more messing around, it’s work, work, work. If I could ask you a favor… if you’re planning on sending me a query or a requested partial, it would be totally okay with me if you’d wait about two weeks to send it. Seriously. It seems everyone has decided to bombard my inbox, right when I don’t have any time to deal with incoming. So, hold off if you can. Thanks.

So, how about a post for today.

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One of my clients wrote me:

As I toil on my romantic suspense, I confront a question I can’t answer. Is writing a romantic mystery for Christians a “ministry”? You mentioned you love the romance part of my book — and actually I do, too. But writing it doesn’t feel “ministerial” enough, whatever “ministerial” and “enough” are supposed to mean. Do other Christian novelists wrestle with this?

I answered her:

I believe writers often speak more “truth” in fiction than they do in non-fiction. In a novel, you don’t hide behind your own defenses, but you allow your characters to experience the full gamut of human emotion. So in a novel, you can portray the full spectrum of the human heart without holding back. You can show desire and temptation, discipline, fear, anger, doubt, and of course, love. You have the opportunity to “entertain” while also illustrating deeper truths. People always benefit from seeing the truth on the page. This is why I think Christian fiction, including romance, is ministerial.

I think you can only see romance as ministerial when you acknowledge that romantic feelings and desires are real, human, and God-given, and serve an important purpose in our lives; and that the Christian church (Western, mostly) has tended to try and ignore that, keeping love, romance, and sex in the dark hidden corners, making them unspeakable rather than an important part of the way God made us. I think it’s beautiful to see an honest portrayal of a romance, complete with conflict and pain, sexual desires, and amazing overwhelming love-feelings, because it reminds me of how God was so scandalously generous in giving us the gift of “each other” in the first place.

I could write a lot more… it’s much deeper than this. But I think I’d like to hear what others have to say.

Readers? How do you see your fiction writing as a ministry?

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  • Kim Kasch

    >Everyone needs downtime to relax and unwind.

    Providing entertainment is relaxing and an opportunity for someone to escape from the daily routine of everyday life for a few hours is a gift. If you don’t think so, offer to babysit for a friend for a few hours so she can get away then ask her what it meant to her.

    Everyone writes with a unique worldview and, whether it’s a mystery, suspense or romance, our stories offer a unique perspective.

  • Timothy Fish

    >As Gwen pointed out, Jesus was the master storyteller. Many ministry workers, such as pastors and Sunday school teachers, use stories to teach the truth, so there is a potential for writing novels to be ministry. In looking at the novels I have seen, however, I think that is more of an exception than a rule. I do not see my own fiction as being a ministry, though I believe there are spiritual truths people can learn from reading my books and I hope they may encourage people to become more involved in ministry. I suppose some may see that as a type of ministry, but when I compare that to other ministries, it doesn’t compare. Perhaps we could call it a minor or secondary ministry.

  • Gwen Stewart

    >I would like to rephrase what I said originally.

    Jesus told many of His truths in parables. Modern brain research proves that knowledge carrying an emotional “tag” is more deeply embedded in the brain than memorized facts. I think most writers and readers agree that a good story creates emotion, which carries the lesson, theme or meaning into long-term brain “storage”.

    Our marvelous Savior was, of course, ahead of the research. ;)

    Also, Rachelle, I appreciate your thoughts on Christian romance stories. This romantic-at-heart will not derail your post by blathering on about the great gift that is Christian marriage, but if you’re ever inclined I would love to hear your thoughts on the status and direction of romance novels and storylines in the CBA.

    Thanks for starting my day off with such great thoughts.

  • heather

    >Art can be ministry when it draws people (both the artist and the receiver) to God because as much as art is beautiful and truthful (ideas that are linked together), it reveals the beauty and truth of God.
    Participating in story-telling, or art, practices the Imago Dei (and, as Christians, the Imago Dei being restored from its corruptness). The act of creation itself is something beautiful and therefore an act that points to God.
    Also, I believe that inherent in any good story is a hint of God’s Story. (This is why Joseph Campbell’s story structure has a Resurrection, I believe.) In writing a good story, I’m therefore approaching Truth.

  • Mary DeMuth

    >I received this email last week that confirmed something deep inside. My heart was to write Watching the Tree Limbs to minister to folks. This was a confirmation:

    I finished the book Watching the Tree Limbs about two weeks ago. The first day I received it in the mail I read it for 3 hours and the next day I couldn’t put it down and read it for 6 hours and finished it. I felt like I had stepped back into East Texas and fell smack into the world of this little girl. I definately think I read it a little too fast and probably should have paced myself, but I couldn’t put it down.

    It was a very good book and I have already lent it to a woman here.

    I cried the whole time I read it, and when I finished it, I was so overwhelmed with the weight of this story I cried harder than I have ever cried in my life. I think my soul was touched by the extreme loss of this girl’s innocence and childhood that it reached down into my soul and pulled out all the loss and put it right in front of me to grieve. I felt like I was grieving for myself more than the child’s story. Her story helped me see mine.

    I really liked the book. I am still digesting it. She is a brilliant writer. I know it says that it is fictional, but the way she describes this girls life I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t paint a bit of her own life into the picture. That maybe it wasn’t her exact story, but a working out of it through this fictional story.

    I just wanted to write and tell you what I thought, great recommendation.

    Grace and Peace,

  • Kate H

    >I heard a great quote from jazz pianist Bill Evans yesterday speaking of creativity in general. I can’t give it word for word, but it was to this effect:

    You look around at all the evil and suffering in the world and think, what can I as a human being do to alleviate all this? If you try to take on everything you go crazy. But if you concentrate on doing one thing really well, the one thing you’re most gifted for, that will have an effect on everything around you. It will create an island of good that will help to combat the evil.

    Another version of the same idea comes from 18th-century Russian St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.”

    If writing romantic suspense is what God has truly called you to do, is the thing you do better than you could ever do anything else, then it is intrinsically worthwhile whether you can hang the word “ministry” on it or not. But you do have to be sure that you’re making the best possible use of your gifts. Don’t let “them” tell you that your work has to be more directly ministerial to be worthwhile; but if your own heart tells you that you should be doing something different, that might be something to listen to.

  • Heidi

    >I love what Kate H wrote. I was going to write much the same thing, only probably less eloquently.

    When I think about the books I love the most, the Christian books that touched me most, they are not necessarily “preachy” ones. They are ones with great characters that deal with really difficult, but realistic, conflicts, and have faults, and conflicting emotions, and sometimes fail. But always, always God is faithful, and they make me want to be a better person, to have more faith, to pray more, to believe more that with God, all things are possible.

    Scripture is ministry. But so is seeing God work in people’s lives. Even if those lives aren’t real.

  • Nicole

    >I think the condition of the heart is most clear in novel form. The focus of my novels seems to be relationship and contrasting the world’s concept of romance, love, and sex to God’s view of each. When readers come back to you in tears with wonderful quotes like, “You don’t know how much this book ministered to me.” Well . . . mission accomplished. Praise the Lord.

  • Camille Cannon (Eide)

    >I believe that a novelist dealing with feelings of love and sexual desire in a tasteful, discerning way is of tremendous ministry value if we approach it with plenty of prayer and apply biblical thinking to the situation.

    I have an element of overwhelming feelings of love and desire in my current novel. I hope to show characters who recognize their struggle with temptation and grow in their understanding that they need to rely on Christ to overcome temptation in their lives. I would hope that this message translates into any area of temptation.

    Yes! Romance is a beautiful opportunity for a Christian novelist to minister to people about purity of heart, the value of love and the power of Christ in our lives.

  • JC

    >In response to Rachelle’s question – how do you see your fiction writing as ministry – I am probably the odd one out here. My book is ministry first, story second. I have often been told, it’s fiction, take writer’s liberty, but I can not.

    I believe God has called me to a particular ministry and He has just chosen “fiction” as the tool for me to use. When people read it, they tell me how suprised they are that I pulled it off without being preachy, that it is all story/character, etc. I love to hear this, as this is what I have tried so hard to do – to let truth speak for itself.

    I have a very calm peace about my book, because I know I am writing what God wants me to write. That is all any Christian author should write. Our books will be represented by whomever He wants, published by the publisher of His choice, and published in His timing. Any setbacks, rejections, etc are just His ways of “delaying” it until His time. In His humor (or desire for our faith), He chooses not to tell us beforehand. We are just to hold on and enjoy the ride.

  • Lea Ann

    >Our curent culture thrives on deception. From air-brushed photos of half-starved starlets to steriod use among athletes, we digest tons of deceit and half-truths by just living here on earth. Secular fiction continues along those lines many time, by painting a beleivable story but completly ignoring the roles that God and faith in Him play.

    Good fiction to me, whether secular or Christian, simply shows life as it REALLY is, with all our failings yes, but including all our heart yearnings for God, too. Showing us often how we could choose to live when we turn to God during our major crises.

    Christian fiction is a ministry to whoever reads it if it is HONEST. Is it showing human nature as it really is? Is it showing Christians as they really are or as they could be? Does it include the work of God as He moves and directs in the life of each person?

    It grieves me that secular fiction has turned so sharply to the dark and ungoldy, when humanity still yearns for the Holy. I think that’s our job. To be that Salt and Light in the fiction world, seasoning it with Truth.

  • Kathleen

    >I think you said it quite eloquently, Rachelle, regarding romance. Love and romance are, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful things that God created. The Bible says that the relationship between a husband and wife is symbolic of the relationship between Christ and the church. How many relationships do you know that you think accurately portray that symbolism?

    I feel that the world has TOTALLY lost sight of how beautiful and passionate PURE love and romance can be. The devil has twisted one of God’s most amazing gifts to such an extent that most people wouldn’t recognize the real thing if it ran them over. They don’t even know what to look for, courtesy of rampant broken homes.

    That is what I want to show the world. I don’t think it’s something that can be preached. It’s something that can only be SHOWN. That is the value of romance in fiction… and I think it’s something that every person that comes from a broken home, and and never got to see it modeled in real life needs to see!

  • Yvonne

    >Mary Demuth, I hope my novel will touch others like that.
    I think a writer should always have something to teach whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
    I think in fiction, the struggles and victories of the characters should be tools to teach the reader valuable lessons. A good writer will incorporate the lessons so that the reader doesn’t even notice the “lecture”.

  • XDPaul

    >I’m pretty sure I’ll be considered to be on the wrong side of the issue here, but that’s never stopped me before.

    When Jesus built a shed or a shelf or a table, was that his ministry?

    I approach my writing much more like a carpenter than a pastor. First and foremost, I want to apply what talent God has given me.

    Would I like what I build to be helpful to others? Certainly, as I would expect both a table or a short story to do what they are designed to do.

    When I’m chopping wood, I don’t think of it as ministry. Likewise writing a novel. If you can broaden the definition of a minister to any Christian who lives life in God’s grace and shares the gospel when opportunity comes, then certainly my writing fits within my ministry, as does my auto maintenance or skill with a slingshot.

    So I’m probably an outlier. I write fiction which, to my mind, would constitute “Christian fiction” but I in no way see it as “my ministry.”

    If I want you to know about Jesus, you’ll hear it straight from me. If I want to tell you a story I think you will enjoy, I’ll try to sell you a book. I would never withhold the Gospel from someone who could not afford to pay me for the kingdom work, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the only books I’ll be giving away for free are for marketing, not ministry, purposes.

    I don’t write to minister. I write to write. Any ministry that happens is wholly accidental (or more accurately Providential.)

  • christa

    >Chopping wood would not be a ministry for me because I’d only be able to supply a handful of splinters with my ax-wielding capabilities. And while I don’t know if it would ever be a ministry (noun), I certainly think it could minister (verb) to someone who needs the warmth the wood provides.

    Perhaps the ministry of my books won’t be equal to that of a pastor or Sunday school teacher. There are those, however, who don’t hear sermons on Sundays or attend Bible study classes who read fiction. And the fiction that I write, I pray,as Lea Ann said, would show “how we could choose to live when we turn to God…”

  • JC

    >Hank Hannagraff often gives away books for free to those who really need to hear (be comforted) by what he has written. I would like to model after him. I would happily give away a book for free if I thought it would save the person reading it.

  • XDPaul

    >My stories don’t provide much comfort. They are just as likely to set a reader on edge (in a good way, I hope.) I guess that’s the difference for me. Perhaps the level of ministry depends on genre?

    Again, though, I think of ministry as something that directly addresses the spiritual need of someone. I owe a lot to C.S. Lewis, but I wouldn’t say his fiction ever “ministered” to me (although his theological non-fiction certainly has).

    I don’t pick up fiction when I’m in need of spiritual counsel. I read it because I want a good (that is, “well-told” as well as Good) story.

    Perhaps it is the semantics that confuse me. In any case, I certainly don’t see myself in a ministerial role as a writer (although I do in other aspects of my life – helping someone out of a jam, praying with or encouraging people, sharing the GN, etc.)

    But just because it isn’t ministerial doesn’t mean I see it in some way as a secular or temporal activity. My relationship with Jesus is often strengthened during the writing, and sometimes I feel that the writing of a good story somehow makes me a better person inside (or at least feel better). I just can’t make the connection between writing for readers and ministering to them.

  • Eric Dabbs

    >I choose to believe -and feel pretty strongly about it- that my writing is a form of ministry. I decided when I began four years ago that I would write Christian Fiction with God’s heart in mind.
    I could have went a secular route and still kept my writing clean and decent. It has been done before. But I wasn’t inspired to write that way. I was inspired to write Christian Fiction.
    Of course, the entire work isn’t going to be in-your-face preaching, but it can send a message, a message I hope will eventually be able to reach people.
    I guess you have to question whether God is using you when you write. Are you convinced He wants you to write? And can your writing benefit or minister to someone whether they are a Christian or not.
    So romance or not, it can be a form of ministry if it helps someone in some form or fashion.
    I tend to write more action/adventure/suspense, but I do mix romance in as well. As with anything it’s a matter of opinion, so that’s just my opinion.

  • Lizzie Ann

    >Rachelle, you’ve done a marvelous job answering that author’s question. Society has skewed the definition of romance into something that’s far from what God created. I’ve come across so many books that can’t seem to show a romance without the couple jumping into bed at least once because they find each others’ bodies irresistible. There’s no true love involved and nothing beautiful about it. Christian romances are a wonderful way to show what God intended love and romance to be.

    In answer to your question, I see my writing as a way to show readers, especially teenagers since I write mostly YA, that Christians can have fun and experience romance and love just like everyone else. My characters (both Christian and non-Christian) struggle with the same things real people do, and as others have said, it’s easier to show the inner workings of the heart in fiction than if I were to write an article on it.

    Most of my fiction isn’t written for the Christian market, though it is written from a Christian worldview because I can’t set my faith aside when I write. Since I am writing for the mainstream market, I see my writing as a way to give people hope and show them how faith in Christ can make a difference in their lives. I pray that my writing will be able to touch the lives of people who might not otherwise be exposed to Christianity. My father once summed it up pretty well: my writing is intended to open the door to the reader’s heart. Once that door is open, then the reader will be more willing to listen to the Gospel.

  • Rosslyn Elliott

    >xdpaul – It’s interesting that you say that C.S. Lewis never ministered to you through his fiction.

    When I look back on my ten years of agnosticism (between ages 17 and 27), I believe that Lewis’s _Perelandra_ played a major role in my return to faith. I think there are other agnostics and atheists out there who have found Lewis’s fiction persuasive on a deep level that nonfiction just can’t reach. I’m a great admirer of Lewis’s nonfiction, but it was his little-known science fiction book that wreaked havoc with my secular worldview.

  • Megan DiMaria

    >I write because I want Christians to know that despite life not being perfect, it can still be good. We all hit low points in our lives, and it’s a shame when we let that derail us in our walk with the Lord and our relationships with our loved ones.

    I wrote what I consider a simple story. Searching for Spice is about a married woman who wants to have an affair–with her husband. I also write with humor, and I believe that humor helps to balance out the mood of the story when you’re traveling to the deep places.

    Three reader emails I received have warmed my heart and confirmed that my writing is a ministry:

    “I just finished reading your book (I got no housework done once I started it yesterday!) What a fabulous read. I have a special needs daughter and I so related to the couple that comes in to view the photos of their pregnancy with their beautiful daughter who has Down syndrome. Thank you for writing that particular scene so beautifully.”

    “You touched on so many issues and emotions that we all face at times. I am inspired by your words.”

    “I can honestly say that one of the most refreshing things about your book for me was that it was Christian fiction. I didn’t realize that when I first read about your book. After reading your book it definitely reminded me how important it is to keep God in your relationship and to know that he is there always! In our busy, hectic lives I think it is easy to think that we are fighting our battles alone, when really we are never alone as long as we let him into our lives. Thanks for reminding me of that!!”

    Can I get an “Amen?”

    A prisoner of hope,
    Megan

  • Kate H

    >xdpaul:
    I owe my conversion to reading the fiction of C. S. Lewis. His vision of heaven in The Last Battle captivated me; then the Space Trilogy showed me that there is a battle going on and made me want to be on the winning side. Mere Christianity clinched the deal, but I would never have read it if I hadn’t read the fiction first.

    While I absolutely believe that fiction should be literature, not a sermon, we never know how what we write may touch someone else’s heart. Only God knows that.

    I highly recommend both Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker and Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water as explorations of what the creative process means for a Christian.

  • XDPaul

    >Perelandra, Narnia and even the Great Divorce are excellent stories first and foremost. I believe they can even have a hand in directing a person’s heart toward God…as a side effect.

    In fact, good novels can be very good at attacking or building a new worldview. But I simply can’t write with “worldview change,” “message” or “ministry” in mind. That isn’t my stated purpose for writing. Now, I will be delighted if that stems from my work organically.

    But the story comes first.

    Maybe it is a question of perspective: when a man builds an altar to God, is he thinking “this is my ministry” at the time, or is he thinking “I think I need to measure this piece before I cut it.”

    I’m simply measuring pieces and cutting right now. I don’t really think about in the context of ministry.

    Let me put it another way: believe it or not, and I’ve been writing for 20 years now, I never have “had a message to give.”

    I’ve always had a story to tell. I don’t see it as ministry (except in the very broadest sense – where a man’s work is part of his ministry), or at the very least I don’t understand the need to justify fiction as a ministry in order to write it.

    Some may have an overtly stated ministry through fiction. I don’t. The art must be first for me, or it doesn’t get done. If I get tangled up in wondering if it is “minstering enough” or on the other hand “too preachy” I lose steam in a New York Minute.

    “Walking on Water” actually says this much better than I can hope to.

  • Pam Halter

    >Very interesting conversation. I wonder if we *should* write with ministry in mind. And the more I think about it, the more I think not.

    What I mean is, I should write the story that’s in me. If it ministers to someone, then glory to God! I do not know what will touch a person’s heart, especially someone I’ve never met. How then can I minister to them?

    It’s up to God what He will do with my meager offering. I only need to be obedient.

  • Megan DiMaria

    >I agree with Pam Halter. I’ve always believed that God didn’t call me to be a best-selling novelist (although I wouldn’t mind that), He simply called me to be obedient.

    Any ministry value that can be attributed to my novels arises from my world view as a follower of Jesus. It just is there, but not in a contrived way.

    A prisoner of hope,
    Megan

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