Should 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.
Almost any discussion about “Christian fiction” or “Christian art” touches on this question:
Should Christian stories evangelize?
People also assume we know what we mean by terms such as “evangelize.”
Some act as though there is only one way to evangelize, such as the John 3:16 way, or by saying “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” or some kind of direct appeal.
In fact these are good and effective evangelism methods in many ways, but not always.
Even if a Christian author were to say, “I want to make a story that evangelizes,” we ought to be a little uncertain—in a good way—about what sort of story that will end up being.
Instead the perception of the “Christian story that evangelizes” is almost uniform. (And there is a related issue about whether or not this perception is a fair representation of what novels Christian novelists are making and what novels Christian publishers are publishing.)
But first let me back up a bit. Let’s start with the title of this series:
“Should. Christian. Stories. Evangelize?”
Then let’s break down the title to help guide the series and resulting discussion.
Here we’re exploring the realm of moral command. We do assume one truth: All Christians are called to evangelize in some way. That’s because all Christians are called in some way to follow Jesus’s famous call to His apostles in Matt. 28:
And Jesus came and said to [His disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”1
This is a great and joyously non-optional command of Jesus to His people.
He says: I have this authority. Therefore you should do this.
His command goes to His disciples. But this is not a task that only certain special Christians do or trained professionals or ministers must carry out in our stead. It’s awkward, it’s often scary, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying, but Christians should do this.
Our only question is how and when and in what ways we must obey our Savior.
Yes, we’re talking about people who have repented of sins and received forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Our action (in response to God’s first action) is not just for the sake of being good but for the sake of becoming more like Him, transformed from the inside-out, so that we can be with Him for all eternity.
We’re talking about people who, despite all their filthy habits and thoughts and impulses, hate sin or want to hate sin, and love Jesus or want to love Jesus more.
“Christ-ians” = “Jesus-like persons.”
Some will object: “Well then, why do you say ‘Christian fiction’? Only a person can be a ‘Christian’ proper. But a thing cannot be ‘Christian.’”
I understand and appreciate that argument. But I think it may ignore the truth that Christians have their part in a kind of redemption relay race.
The apostle Paul alludes to this in Romans 8 when he speaks of Christian individuals as the first-fruits of a greater, epic-scale redemption plan. Christ died first to save souls from damnation. His redemption is no less than that, but it is also greater.
Thus, by participating in the Great Commission, Christians also play a part in announcing the worldwide Kingdom of Heaven, a divine operation to restore the world to its original state of fully reflecting the glory of God. In a sense, we are working to “Christianize” the world, to make a “Christian” universe—the Kingdom. That means we may enjoy and make intentional “use” of certain cultural things, music, stories, etc., for “Christian” purposes. It also means we can have “Christian” songs, “Christian” ideas, “Christian” homes.2
Therefore I think it’s fine to refer to “Christian fiction.” More on that below.
The SpecFaith statement of faith says:
God can and does let His truth be echoed in His creation, for all truth is His truth and remains so even if it is found in a story that does not specifically credit Him.
That’s why we’re open to reviews and discussions about “secular” fantastical stories.
But SpecFaith’s staff explorers still have a heart for fantastical Christian fiction—that is, stories created by Christians that generally include specific and intentional Jesus-exalting images and themes.
Of course, because we’re speaking of fiction and yet nonfiction, that means things can get a little squishier. You could critique a sermon for being based on amusing anecdotes or shallow exegesis of the Bible while just having fun with the subject. But some genuinely Christian novels can do exactly these things, and rightly so.
Similarly, we might criticize a sermon for failing to end with the appropriate “altar call” and summons to repent and receive salvation in Christ3 But it would be wrong to expect a Christian novel to do the same thing, and then critique it as being subpar if it did not. (Most popular Christian movies don’t recognize this difference.)
Finally we circle back to the first term and expand: What does “evangelize” mean?
evangel n. 1. The Christian gospel. 2. An evangelist.
[Middle English evaungel, from Late Latin vangelium, from Greek euangelion, good news, from euangelos, bringing good news eu-, eu- + angelos, messenger.]
The root of the word evangelism, evangel, is derived from the Greek word euangelion which is translated good news. From that same word, we derive the word gospel. We find also that many words we use in English are in reality synonymous — evangel(ism), gospel and good news all speak of the same thing and find their root in the same word. They speak of the act of spreading the gospel and to the content of the message that is given. This is an important point to note ï¿½ they refer both to the method and the message.4
In short, “evangelism” is “gospel-izing.” Having been redeemed, Christians seek to help redeem. But contrary to some implications, “evangelism” does not simply mean “being a good person and/or helping people while using only possibly necessary words in case people ask you why and give you a clear opening.”
From what I can tell, “evangelism” proper is absolutely inseparable from the use of words. “Evangel” is all about the “euangelion,” the gospel/good news. Thus, you can’t “evangelize” without explicitly sharing this “good news.” You might be doing a good ministry, you might be doing the Lord’s work, you might be pleased Him 100 percent, but it may not be “evangelism.” And that’s okay. He has also called us to do other things. But I don’t think we should define “evangelism” as anything other than using words to communicate the good news of Jesus and the coming Kingdom.
And this is why we keep talking about this in relation to Christian fiction.
Why? Because Christian fiction is all about words. And Christians uniquely use words to proclaim the gospel. Why then would we do anything that uses words without taking the opportunity to share the gospel? Christians like that phrase, “taking the opportunity.” And conversely we’re trained to despair of missing an “opportunity” to evangelize. In some Christian circles that leads to personal or social pressures to “take the opportunity” whenever we have it—meaning, anytime we have any kind of Christian-made book.5
So that’s where we are. Now I’m curious about your thoughts on any of these definitions, and/or why Christians keep having the “should Christian fiction evangelize” discussion, and/or the spiritual/social pressures of “evangelism opportunities.” Perhaps we’ll also soon get back to sharing our own experiences with different types of evangelism, which may be different from the perception of what “evangelism” is among many Christians.
- Matthew 28:18-20. ↩
- At the same time, many people have a wrong view of “safe” or “family friendly” places or objects that substitute this interpretation of the adjective “Christian” for an un-biblical meaning. ↩
- Whether the “altar call” ought to be viewed as a required tradition is another issue. ↩
- Evangelism Outreach, Tim Challies at Challies.com, Nov. 9, 2004. ↩
- You will notice that I may also follow this impulse and “took the opportunity” in this very article to explain the gospel. Below will naturally welcome any further inquiry about what the Gospel is. ↩