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Carole McDonnell on Story Evangelism

“Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin.”
| Oct 9, 2015 | 29 comments | Series:

#StoryEvangelismShould Christian stories evangelize?

The easy answer is: “yes, we should evangelize.” Evangelism is often about making the world see our light…without us being aware of it.  They see us warts and all, without us being preachy.

However, most Christians are

  1. legalistic and preach the law more than the riches of His grace;
  2. inside a box but don’t realize they are;
  3. don’t seem to understand that it is often the goodness of God that calls sinners to repentance;
  4. are not really good at speaking about other big issues in the world; and
  5. American Christians preach their class, race, agenda, and denomination.

Here is more of what I mean.

1. We don’t know enough about the riches of God’s grace to share that. So often preachers will preach about the many facets of being good and how we should not sin and how thankfully Jesus saved us. This is preaching legalism under the guise of preaching grace. We have to understand the many facets of His grace. We have to widen our understanding of grace. Then we can teach and evangelize instead of always majoring in being good.

2. Christians often think they know what the world is saying, thinking, doing. But really they don’t know. Case in point, most Christians have been so taught that the world really needs to understand John 3:16. But honestly, the world has heard that a lot. The world already knows the gospel. Another case in point, most Christians see every conversation through what their church or denomination teaches. So even when they talk to or debate a fellow Christian, they are often unable to hear what the other Christian is saying because they are so trained to think the other Christian thinks like they do. Can you imagine such folks having conversations with non-Christians? Already imagining where they think the other person is coming from.

Case in point — a recent conversation I had with two Christians in which I used this quote:

“Once our hearts get broken, they never fully heal. They always ache. But perhaps a broken heart is a more loving instrument. Perhaps only after our hearts have cracked wide open, have finally and totally unclenched, can we truly know love without boundaries.”

— Fred Epstein

Every Christian who spoke with me about it interpreted it as Epstein saying “God’s sovereignty created trouble.”  They were self-righteous and angry and could not see that God was not shown as the causative agent at of broken hearts at all. They could not see past their assumption about what the “other” was thinking or about where the “other” came from.

For 3, I will just point you to this article. Note that this writer WAS a Christian and she believed that we go to heaven because we are “good.”

For 4, I will also use the above link. Note also that she speaks of social justice. American Christian evangelism generally only speaks of sin. There are no Romeros, Martin Luther Kings, etc in the United States. Not in a big way. Most of the times Christians talk about anything in the world, they speak of it in order to get a “person” to stop sinning. They ponder only personal evangelism and saving each human or saving The United States (as a nostalgic hearkening back to a rural type of Eden where America is the unique country, the city set on a hill) rather than saving the world.

#StoryEvangelismThe problem is that while some folks are focused on their personal sins and will be open to dealing with their own salvation, there are other larger “secular” (so-called) issues that Christianity could touch. And I don’t mean “touch” as “show how sinful it all is.” American Christians are also very divided so they deal with issues in a very me-oriented way. Most white Christians don’t go on marches against guns, poverty, climate change, torture, war. They don’t give flaky lectures in the way New Age philosophies do. Christianity and art. No. Science, sex, and dehumanization …or whatever else. The spiritual joy of sex, artistic creation, linguistics, horse-racing, interior design, fabric design, whatever. Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin.   The upshot is that the world (and the world’s religions) speaks of stuff like this and there is no Christian counterpart. There are Christians who don’t seem to understand that all good gifts come from God therefore even atheists are blessed with talents, etc, and are speaking of God’s beauty and creation even though those atheists aren’t aware of it.

For 5, I will use as an example the following quote:

I ask, “How have you all this wealth?” For the care of the poor consumes wealth. When each one receives a little for one’s needs, and when all owners distribute their means simultaneously for the care of the needy, no one will possess more than one’s neighbor. Yet it is plain that you have very many lands. Whence all these? Undoubtedly you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you want in love.

— Basil the Great

Even if this might be deemed by some as a bit extreme, a Christian should not look at the quote and immediately start talking about welfare mothers. But this is just what most white Christians do — especially when the quote is mentioned by a black Christian. If the quote is mentioned by a white Christian, then most Biblical American Christians will start talking about commies and progressives.

So then, to your question. How can people who have so much of the world in us, how can people who are so blind to the speck in their own eyes, how can people who cannot see past their own cultural issues truly bring a great wonderful Christ to a sinner without the sinner — if said sinner is perceptive — rolling their eyes?

Earthly things lead to heavenly things

Jesus said, “If I tell you of earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell  you of heavenly things?”

I think Christian fiction could improve by being more cosmology based. And not the usual cosmology of angels but about some personal dear truth that touches the writer’s unique soul.

There is a kind of trust Christians should develop, a kind of fearless delving into the unknowing and letting the creative chips fall where they may. But often we are so afraid of veering into sin, of veering into what we don’t know, and we work from an invisible doctrinal outline. I really think we have to brave the creative process and discover our own emotional issues. The Holy Spirit works in our spirit and in our emotions. The book of Revelation says that he who overcomes will receive a white stone with a name on it which no man knows but the receiver.

I think our personal relationship with God is like that. We are individuals whom God loves — and He works within our individuality and personality. As artists, Christians are so aware of a Christian creative tradition (Lewis, the Arthurian Cycle, and Tolkien, for instance) and so aware that other Christians want something like Tolkien and company that they unconsciously write for other Christians instead of writing from their own unique souls.

I think the problem with many Christians is that they are very conscious of planting spiritual seeds that might grow and mature in the reader’s mind. And some Christian writers even go so far as wanting to write a book that plants seeds, waters them, and harvests them into an altar call at the book’s end. But I think that’s hard to do when there are often so many mental, emotional, and theological arguments that make the mental soil of the reader so hard to cultivate. If the field is the soul of the reader, then Christian evangelism should try to affect that soil/soul. Even if we only cultivate the soil/soul and someone else reaps the harvest, we will have done our part.

One of my favorite books written by a Christian is George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and The Night Girl. One cannot read it and say it “means” anything. Because whatever theology contained in it is pretty unclear. But it touches the soul. There is such a thing as soul. And so many Christian fiction books touch doctrine, or the mind, or the emotions but not the soul.

It’s not an evangelical book but it is a seed-sowing kind of book that breaks up fallow ground. We each know what has wounded us against God or religious people, what has troubled us about the world, what has terrified us about the cosmos, what has enchanted us about the universe. That is our little white stone with our name on it. And sometimes we don’t really realize that what is what our soul wants to write about. If we would simply trust the creative force of the Holy Spirit and believe that we can dive into a piece of writing without being theologically “sure” how it will all turn out, then our souls will peek through.

When I wrote The Constant Tower, I wasn’t aware the story would be about God’s love. But since my spirit is joined to God’s spirit, God knew what the story would be about. When I wrote My Life as an Onion, I thought I was writing a romance, but Holy Spirit knew that I was writing about woundedness. When I wrote Wind Follower, I thought I was writing about cultural wars but Holy Spirit was writing about loss.

All these things — loss, woundedness, God’s love — are not obviously about the cross of Christ or His great work of salvation. But they can touch the fallow ground souls of people and will help to prepare the soil by creatively doing the Great Commission Work of healing, cleansing and raising their souls from the dead.

#StoryEvangelismShould Christian stories evangelize?

This is a crucial issue for anyone who loves stories but loves Jesus more, and wants to glorify Jesus through our enjoyment of stories or our making of stories.

During October our new SpecFaith series explores this issue.

On Thursdays, reviewer Austin Gunderson and writer E. Stephen Burnett host the conversation with interactive articles. On Fridays and Tuesdays, guest writers such as novelists and publishers offer their responses to the question.

We invite you to give your own answers to the #StoryEvangelism conversation.

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Thank you so much for sharing, Carole. I enjoyed this, and it connected to my heart. Letting go of the shackles of expectation and truly seeking what God desires and not what others expect is a challenging journey, but it is worth it. It’s also so important to realize what culture and tradition have infused within Christianity itself. Until that is recognized, especially on the denominational level, it can be hard for people to communicate at all. Your ability to trust God and release is quite inspiring.

Parker J. Cole

Wonderful post Carole. It got me to thinking about my own writing and how I hope to get better. I liked how you mention what makes American Christianity (as a whole anyway) weak and how we need to address other issues too.

This falls tangent in your post but I think it relates. It’s fascinating but I was just listening to a podcast about a theological view of environmentalism, climate change, and global warming yesterday. The guest on the podcast made some very good points but the one that struck me the most was the poor. In all the discussions about climate change, I’d never heard anything about the poor at all. In fact, it was the first time I’d even been exposed to that aspect of godly stewardship in our relationship with the earth around us.

So when you mentioned the quote about wealth from Basil the Great it struck a chord with me. Not that I begrudge anyone their wealth. Have at it But in preaching our class, agenda, culture, denomination, we forget what matters.

Great post!

E. Stephen Burnett

Carole, thank you so much for contributing to the #StoryEvangelism topic.

I have no doubt that people who want to take care of the earth might not connect to Christianity because they see us as close-minded indoctrinated fools under the control of Monsanto or Big Food. If we could show them that Christians are also honorers of the earth, they might open their eyes to seeing us as humans who care for the earth.

I am among those uncertain about this approach, particularly when:

  1. Christians are already faulted, often rightly so, for conflating biblical concepts of good works with nationalism and certain political postures. How would adding to or reversing our political polarity help?
  2. The concept of attempting to “show people” that “we’re not really like X” is fraught with flaws. The Christian’s goal is first to glorify God in all things, not to attempt to contradict any possible perception or misperception of us by nonbelievers. In fact, this perspective easily leads to the kinds of squishy fiction “evangelism” that only address made-up “unbelievers,” or else “whitewashed” unbelievers the author has met. They do not seem to take into account that often unbelievers’ “good” reasons for rejecting Christ are a cover for very bad reasons, e.g., “I like sinning more than I like the idea of worshiping a Creator.” Acting otherwise can apply a sentimental sheen to our nasty world.

    For example, I am all for discussing how Christians frequently minimize our role as our planet’s caretakers — or rather, stewards. There is a myth about that God only cares for souls and not things that He has created such as oceans, coral reefs, cliffs, and gila monsters. But I want to repair our faulty thinking about this topic based not on what I believe unbelievers want to hear, or what I believe the scientists are saying, or what a politician says. My motives may be mixed, but theirs are (at best) even more mixed — or else downright corrupt.

    Moreover, I am wary of crafting a response that is first and foremost a response to other people, rather than a proactive obedience to my Savior and His written word. Living life based on an “anti” (whether it is “anti-conservative” or “anti-liberal”) can be dangerous. And it is not helpful in training to live life forever, in a world when there will be no antis but only a forever-glorious pro — the worship of Jesus Christ.

    I do not say that is what I read here; only that this is a tendency among some who say, “Yeah! Christians need to do better at [engaging in X popular social/political issue],” based out of dislike for purported Christians who have purportedly done a horrid job at this before.

    At the same time, many Christians have done badly at many issues, such as combating racist ideas and institutions, so this requires care.

  3. In some sense, shouldn’t most Christian-made stories be above all that anyway? Today’s political issues are fleeting, but they are grounded in timeless questions of humanity and morality. For example, the issue of abortion is a vital one, but I would be far more interested in a story that explores the whys and not the whats of abortion. Science fiction is particularly good at this, when it challenges our temptation to treat human or sentient life with a cavalier pragmatism.

I enjoyed this piece! Yet these points certainly merit further discussion. Which is why the #StoryEvangelism conversation is going all month and I look forward to the conversation in response to this installment.

E. Stephen Burnett

Here’s my thought, though. These sound like very “contemporary” stories. I come to fantastical stories to escape from the contemporary trappings. I get enough headlines and politics in my nonfiction. That is what I need, yes, and Christians must engage here. But I also need to escape — that is, usually to escape deeper into the whys and wherefores of humanity and our grace-mixed-with-idolatry-mess of a world, and our good/holy God who is still sovereign and using all this to tell His story.

Which is why stories about natural food-eating and even contemporary power dynamics in abortion sound dreadfully boring to me.

I like the plot idea of, say, a professing Christian family forcing someone to have an abortion to save face. (This is an act so contrary to faith that an honest story could not show this to be anything but a spiritual disaster.) But this seems to be to be still surface-level. What’s going on beneath the surface, in rebellious and broken humanity, that leads to such nonsense? What lies do we tell ourselves? What would happen if we those natures and those lies were transplanted them to a world unlike our own, so that we can see them more clearly? That’s the role of the fantastic story, and that’s what I seek as a reader, and find in the best stories.

For example, I recently read an article that touched on a contemporary issue. Despite its encouragement and challenging tone about what Christians need to do better about this issue, it included a mention of someone on the wrong side of this issue, who was behaving in such a way that can only be described as “bratty.” I read this, and I thought about it, and I tried to understand why a grown adult — who holds what can only be described as a secular “ministry” role — would do this.

Then I thought of C.S. Lewis’s description in Perelandra of Dr. Weston, once a brilliant scientist, who begins to practice mystic arts and ends up giving his body and mind over to be possessed by the Devil. And Lewis’s descriptions of the results, known as the Un-Man, still chill me — including his frank analysis of the creature’s pathetically bratty behavior.

I wouldn’t have benefited from this if Lewis had not gone deeper — taking contemporary events and personality types and ideas, yes, but also asked what if and compared/contrasted them with eternal truths and beauties.


Oh yes, yes, yes and yes. Thank you so much. You have articulated what I so often struggle to express about the kind of stories I wish we as Christians would write more of. You nailed it on the head in that last section for me. I will refer to this post often, I know that already!

And now….off to check out your work!

Julie D
Julie D

Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin.

Amen. It’s like trying to paint a picture in only mustard yellow, but the picture is supposed to be a realistic landscape. Nobody recognizes it; whereas, if the color were used more sparingly, it might be more faithful


E. Stephen Burnett

In one sense, engaging the culture faithfully must be “all about” sin. Otherwise we actually risk being more sentimental and withdrawn from the real world. What are the criticisms of things like Thomas Kinkade paintings based on if not the fact that his potentially sentimental and ridiculous “world” appears not only untainted by sin, but never-was so tainted?

And yet in another sense, our culture-engagement cannot be “all about” sin when we focus entirely on a shallow and sentimental notion of sin.

As if “sin is what you do,” rather than first who we are apart from Christ.

Or “sin is your brokenness,” rather than first our breaking of everything else.

Or “sin is lack of love,” rather than first our abject hatred of our loving God.

Or “sin is not caring for others,” rather than first our rejection of God.

These “seeker-friendly” modes of evangelism, not actual evangelism, are what I see in some shallow Christian fiction. At the same time, the myth persists that Christian fiction is limited to this shallowness. This is not so.


Thank you so much for saying the truth. Generally I do not read Christian fiction for just the reasons you listed.

Paul Lee

I think Christian fiction could improve by being more cosmology based. And not the usual cosmology of angels but about some personal dear truth that touches the writer’s unique soul.

This. My experience of American evangelical Christianity is that people are very afraid of pursuing truth and conviction to the cosmological level. Most people ignore me when I start saying things like Truth is God and God is Truth (which is a parenthetical statement in the Westminster Confession), and meaning flows down from God, and Jesus is the source of the river of infinite meaning. Suggesting that some people in non-Christian religions might potentially be saved by Jesus got me rebuked heatedly. Maybe I deserved the rebuke; I don’t know. But I do know that many evangelicals seem to be afraid of thinking very deeply about Christian spirituality. I’m dying inside because I can’t help wondering about God’s truth in broad and fuzzy ways all the time constantly.

If the exclusivity of salvation through explicit knowledge of the Gospel story here on earth is an evangelical truth that needs to be guarded against heretics like me, maybe I can learn to live with that particular fence. But all these doctrinal fences get locked down on arbitrary practical things, like specifically how to tell everyone about Jesus in so many steps.

We Christians have the greatest cosmology that has ever been proposed in any belief system. Too bad we’re often afraid of it.

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

For what it’s worth, I like you, Carole, and your taste in George MacDonald, though I think I know that story under the name Photogen and Nycteris.

I’ve seen other commentary on the emphatically, almost myopic, focus on individualism in (esp. American) Protestantism, probably from the Slacktivist. We focus so much on the individual that we don’t think about systemic things like social justice or how things work beyond our tribal bubble.

R. J. Anderson

The Day Boy and the Night Girl is one of my favorites, too. I encountered it first in an anthology called The Golden Key and Other Stories along with other MacDonald fairy tales like “Little Daylight”, “The Light Princess”, and of course, “The Golden Key”. It was published as part of a four-volume set along with the two Curdie books and The Lost Princess, another MacDonald classic. There is so much beautiful spiritual truth in those stories, both subtle and overt. But I really wonder if any of those books would pass the test of what is commonly viewed as “Christian fiction” today.

Bethany A. Jennings

I really enjoyed this post, Carole.  There were a lot of thought gems here.  particularly liked what you had to say about telling our own stories rather than what we think fellow Christians want us to write – and also the myopia of American Christianity, which is something I’ve thought about too (and I I’m speaking as a Calvinist here).  I’ve even see people question whether Christians martyred by ISIS are “really Christians” because they don’t believe all the same things doctrinally as we do.  Sigh.  Ultimately it’s just an excuse to feel apathy, in that case.  (And I know this because I am by NO means innocent of such thinking myself!  Double sigh.)  Sometimes we are so reactionary to other Christians’ experiences…especially if they use the words “I felt”…because we tend to emphasize the use of the brain and book-knowledge of doctrine, rather than heart- and spirit-knowledge of God’s Spirit within us.  He IS a Spirit after all, dwelling in our hearts.  “Feelings” are part of how He works.  But I think as Calvinists (particularly in the Reformed traditions where I am) there is a kind of reactionary “uh oh” when feelings are spoken about, because feelings don’t necessarily equal reality.  And it’s true, feelings can be inaccurate.  Feelings can be sin.  But we have to acknowledge that God works in our hearts too, not just through our heads.

I shared this post in my Simmer Starters, linked with the CommentLuv.  Thanks for a good, thought-provoking read!

Sarah Bennett

“Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin. ”

I had to chew on this for awhile. My legalistic side screams and claws against the side that fights for grace. I know you are correct; the woman at the well went after Jesus for legalistic reasons (Jew/Samaritan, man/woman) and He answered her with grace. He didn’t bring down the law upon her, but graciously approached her from where she needed to hear His words.

This entire series has been an eye opener for me, in a fantastic way. Thank you for your stellar article, Carole.