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Done To Death: Who Are We Trying To Reach?

Who is it that actually reads Christian fiction? I’ll give you a hint by re-asking the question: Who is it that actually reads CHRISTIAN fiction? I know, it’s a stumper.
| Mar 28, 2012 | No comments |

I said two weeks ago that I wanted to talk about a trope that pops up from time to time in not just Christian speculative fiction, but every genre of Christian fiction. I don’t think it’s as prevalent nowadays as it used to be, but every now and then, when I’m at a conference, I’ll hear a newer writer fall into a particular trope, one that strikes us all at one time or another. it’s not necessarily a single factor in the story, such as characters or plots or anything like that. Instead, it’s an attitude that develops in these certain authors that then spills over into their books.

What attitude is that? Simply this: I’ll write this book and, as a result, hundreds if not thousands of people will come to Christ!

Now sharing the Good News of the Gospel with the unsaved, unchurched, dechurched, lost, seeking, or what-have-you is a worthy and laudable goal. As a matter of fact, it’s something that I think more Christians have to take seriously. Just last night, I found just that message in a YouTube video from a most unlikely source:

My problem with that attitude creeping into Christian fiction is this: writing Christian fiction to help save the lost and fallen sinners out there simply doesn’t work. There’s a fundamental flaw with that plan, and it has to do with who we’re trying to reach.

Or, to put the question another way, who is our audience?

That’s a question that I was taught to ask myself when I was in the Seminary. My Homiletics 101 (not the actual title or number, but you get the idea) professor taught us that a necessary step in preparing a sermon is to consider who it is you’ll be delivering it to. Is your congregation made up of older folks? Younger folks? New marrieds? Veteran Christians? Beginners? While God’s Word doesn’t change, the message we craft to speak about it must depending on who it is we’re trying to reach. The example that he used is that you wouldn’t deliver a scathing sermon about the need for sexual purity before marriage to a group of senior citizens in a nursing home, just as you wouldn’t preach about how to deal with the fears of impending death to a group of high school students. Two different audiences in two different places in life, and thus, you would tailor what you’re saying to each group.

We have to ask ourselves a similar question when we’re writing our stories. Who is the target audience for our stories? For example, while working on Failstate, I had to remind myself that I was writing my story for older teens, most likely boys, who enjoyed superheroes. The situations, emotions, and challenges that my characters faced had to ring true for that target audience or my story wouldn’t work.

I think we need to keep a more basic question in mind when we’re writing our fiction: who is it that actually reads Christian fiction? I’ll give you a hint by re-asking the question: Who is it that actually reads CHRISTIAN fiction?

I know, it’s a stumper.

That’s why, while it’s admirable to want to reach the lost and unsaved with our stories, it may not be a reasonable goal. They aren’t reading our stories and, truth be told, we’re wasting our time and, not only that, some great opportunities to minister to the folks who are reading our stories.

But that’s enough of that for today. In the next few weeks, I’ll come back to this topic and discuss who it is we’re trying to reach and what we can and should be saying to them. Until then, I look forward to hearing what you have to say. Have I completely lost it?


John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Sherwood Smith
Sherwood Smith

This has been a topic of discussion among people I know. (And likewise how to reach people who have been using the word ‘Christian’ to mask hate rhetoric, and to sow fear, both of which seem far from the words spoken by Jesus Christ.)

Bethany A. Jennings

I think sometimes Christian writers justify their writing in their minds with this argument.  “This is a good and valuable pastime because in the long run it might evangelize a whole lot of people.”  I know I used to think that way sometimes.  But that’s not why we should write!  We write because it is an expression of creativity and we are created in God’s image, and stories can be full of value and beauty – especially those that glorify God.  Certainly bringing an unbeliever to Christ would be wonderful, if God chose to use our story as an instrument to do that.  But I think as Christian authors our goal should be the more realistic goal of building up, encouraging, and entertaining fellow believers with our works.  And if non-Christians happen to read it, that’s great too!

Personally I am more interested in showing any non-Christian readers that Christian books can be powerful and well-written, and witnessing to my OWN faith, not trying to convert them on the spot with my story.  I don’t want to answer all the questions; I want to encourage them to ASK questions.

C.L. Dyck

“I don’t want to answer all the questions; I want to encourage them to ASK questions.”

Exactly. And that in itself is a far bigger challenge than cobbling together a bunch of answers-as-we-know-them. To me, fiction is a lab experiment, sort of a correlation to the “field testing” we do when we go out and live life. It’s a way to experience the world differently. We don’t generally live out a formula of answers in a conscious, overt way, if only because there’s no way we can predict what problems each day will bring.
So I’m not sure why we’d write a character like that. If the life problems are predictable enough for a formulized response, the plot’s probably too trite to challenge the character in a sufficiently interesting way. It’s the gut reaction to unexpected challenges that really gets us thinking and questioning ourselves and the things of life. At least, that’s certainly where I question myself most deeply, and learn the most–when there’s no time/too much pressure to rationalize my choices.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Interestingly, I think the book the CSFF Blog Tour just finished touring shoots this theory to smithereens. Seriously.

I’m talking about Matt Mikalatos‘s Night of the Living Dead Christian. It’s a book for Christians; it’s a book Christians can give to “seekers.”

And it preaches. My does it preach. But it isn’t preachy. But if you don’t believe me, check out the posts from other people on the tour. I think I’ve read nearly every one and in the 50 some articles, I don’t remember a single one saying it was preachy. Convicting, yes. Holding up a mirror for us to see ourselves, yes. Transforming, yes.

Here’s a sample of the preaching:

“You must give up everthing you have or you cannot be my follower.”

Everything. My wife and daughter. My money, all of it. My house, my car, my television, my Internet, my friends. My preferences, my rights, my comfort. A sudden regret seized me for many things I had done in life. I could not deserve life. The way I had treated my wife. Or my father, or my daughter, or my neighbors. These things would not be acceptable any longer. They were less than what was demanded of this King’s servants. Less than would be demanded of a member of the royal family. I resolved to do away with those things, to give them to him if he desired them.

This section goes on for another page or so. Of course, without the context, it’s not apparent how this blatant preaching isn’t preachy, but it isn’t.

I’m convinced, as I think most of us are, that we aren’t going to write the same way, to the same audience, for the same purpose. Nor should we. Hence, I’m not going to say to someone else, all stories must have a conversion, nor will I say, none should have a conversion. I’m also not going to say, all books should be overtly Christian like Matt’s; nor, all books should be symbolic and subtle like mine.

I think it’s good to remind writers to think about our audience as John has, but we need to give writers the benefit that they are creating what God is leading them to create, and if that’s a story with a conversion, then may God use that in the life of someone some time to draw them to Himself.


Melanie Fyock

“I don’t want to answer all the questions; I want to encourage them to ASK questions.”

I think that is an excellent goal for all Chrisitan fiction writers. 

Shannon Dittemore

It’s a challenge, isn’t it? To tell the story God’s placed in our heart and to craft it for the appropriate audience. With exceptions, of course, I’d like to add that if we’re crafting a story for the incorrect audience we could be short-changing those who actually read it. We could be over-telling or under-selling. We could easily fall into the mindset that EVERYBODY will want to read this when the reality is that books are marketed to a specific crowd. Lots of thinking to do on this topic. Thanks for tossing it on the table for discussion.  

Kessie Carroll

The more I see this mindset (I can save people with my writing!) the more I see how unrealistic it is. When Christians read it, they like it. When non-Christians read it, they throw your book across the room. I used to think that way and my old work smacks of preachy. It’s icky.
There’s a passage somewhere in one of Paul’s epistles that talks about how the Gospel is perfume to the believers and the scent of death to unbelievers. If we want to appeal to unbelievers, we’d better not slather ourselves in something that smells of death to them.

Bethany A. Jennings

Agreed, Kessie.  My older works are so preachy, too…a certain conversion scene comes to mind, between a main character and a minor character whose only purpose (when I wrote the scene, anyway) was to show up, get converted in a moment of near-death, and then die.  Bleck.  Later it turned out that the character HADN’T died, and a whole side-plot of the third book was her and the MC’s trying to convert her bitter, divorced, alcoholic father.  Eeew. And this is a sci-fi alternate world fantasy!  The heavy preachiness only served to weaken the book because it was so out of place.

“We’d better not slather ourselves in something that smells of death to them.”  Good point.  I hadn’t looked at it that way before.


I’ve never had that thought in connection to my writing. I have seen it some in other stories, but it’s not an issue I struggle with.

Melanie Fyock

Thank you so much for posting the video. I just shared it on twitter and I am praising the God who will use an atheist to speak to His children.  I am amazed that the most powerful message that I’ve heard in quite some time came from Penn.  I have sometimes found him amusing on TV, but I don’t  watch his videos on YouTube because of the language he uses.  I would have missed this one if not for you.  Thanks again.