Should Christian Stories Evangelize? Chapter 1
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. ↩
Excellent article and excellent question.
I can only answer the question based on my interpretation for what God has called me (Parker) to do. We are commanded to evangelize and spread the good news of the Gospel. The way we achieve that command is given to different people in many different ways.
As a writer, I want to use my writing to benefit the Lord. I use my gift as an offering of thanksgiving for giving me the talent to write and as a vehicle to spread His word. Our stories, which range from the contemporary to the extraordinary, can be crafted to bring about His truths. It’s not JUST for evangelism but CAN include evangelism.
As a radio show host, I have the great honor to showcase other Christian authors across spectrum who are more eloquent than I. From authors who talk about sexual abuse to authors who explore the theistic conclusions of a multiverse, more often than not, in some way, the gospel is given. It’s such a humble privilege to be used.
I liked the part where you mentioned how some people feel church isn’t church unless you have an altar call. I’ve seen this particularly in the Baptist denomination (I’ve been every form of Baptist you can think except a few) so I get why that happens. The illustration makes its point clear. While we can go back and forth on whether corporate church services should have altar calls and the like, I think we can be more flexible when it comes to our fiction.
For one thing, not every author wants to evangelize through their writings. Sometimes, they just want to tell a good story that doesn’t include an evangelistic message. Others seek to make people think. I believe spec fict with a Christian message (subtle or overt) gives the author free reign on how they accomplish the task.
All that being said, at the end of the day, we can use our writings to evangelize or not but only the Holy Spirit takes our small offerings and use them as He sees fit. A story written by one of us could be a bread crumb for a sincere seeker who may come to the saving knowledge of the Good News.
Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to hear the other responses.
Thank you for your thoughts, Parker!
Oddly enough, I used to think the “preachy evangelizing Christian fiction” problem was relegated to “altar call”-style content in the story. But in fact some of the books I’ve seen are not like that. Their stories seem to recognize that “altar calls,” e.g. direct repent-and-be-saved/spiritual recommitment appeals, are unnecessary. Yet still they seem to reflect a mindset that the story isn’t “Christian enough” unless it includes some kind of passive-aggressive spiritually overt yet paradoxically Gospel-vacuous appeal to the reader, such as “take a leap of faith for the God who loves you.”
I’m speaking of Christian fiction in general, here. I suspect that Austin and I will later in this series get more in-depth about specific Christan-authored fantastical stories that do things better — and otherwise!
Oh my gosh! We should totally do a broadcast about this on my show some time next year and highlight Speculative Faith! Yeah! Can you let those powers that be know I mentioned it? That would be so cool!
Parker, we will have our people contact your people. 🙂 Thanks!
There is nothing in Christianity I would rather run away from than the duty to evangelize, because it carries many personally troubling ramifications — the many questions regarding soteriology (by far the bleakest kind of theology to think about), the duty to obey someone else’s Christian convictions instead of living my own way of experiencing Christ, feelings of hypocrisy and artificiality and the end justifying the means. I’m not trying to be a cool hipster by complaining about evangelism. Maybe my complaint means I’m not a real Christian and I’m going to hell. But this is how I see it.
I love the Story. Telling the Story is at the heart of all our Christian traditions and creeds and symbols. But I hate how the practical application of telling the Story casts all of life under the shadow of hell. But I guess I always have loved ideals more than real things, unfortunately.
Paul, I often feel this way myself, especially in contexts that are not readily “convertible” to gospel-sharing moments, such as, say, municipal meetings.
In this case I am certain God is merciful and recognizes our personality and emotional limitations. For example, I would not expect someone who just got out of a troubling spiritual-abuse situation to be “always on” for evangelism efforts when it’s all they can do to treat their own wounds.
To paraphrase an “infamous” poem, sometimes Christ walks beside us and sometimes he picks us up and holds us close.
I am not sure what you mean about casting all life under the shadow of Hell. I can understand that emphasis for someone who is willfully rejecting of our loving/holy Creator. It is not so for the Christian. And though it takes constant practice in Him, we can grow in confidence that the Story is so amazing and so Christ-exalting that all will indeed be right in the end — even punishments of the villains. But it is light, not shadow, that will be over all.
That anyone should go to hell is the most horrible thing. Going to heaven is the most important thing. Most people go to hell (Matthew 7:13-14). The most important thing is to stop people from going to hell, but it’s a losing battle, because most people are going to go there anyways–but we still have to try to convert whomever we can.
My understanding of the more-or-less “official” (or at least explicitly allowed to be believed even when not taught in so many words) position of evangelicalism/Baptists is that the most important things for anyone to do are (1st) to ensure beyond all doubt that you are truly born again so that you will be saved, and (2nd) to share the Gospel with as many people as possible so that they too might be spared from an eternity of eternal torment. This is God’s mission or agenda for every believer (explicit teaching), the most important one (strongly implicit bordering on explicit), the only one that really matters (probably only what my brain is telling me).
I know better, but I don’t really know that knowing better is truer for absolute certain.
I work a fairly normal job. It isn’t a job associated with a church or para-church organization, so it’s not a job where I’m being paid or supported in order to speak about anything religious. I’m paid to do the work the employers want me to do.
When it comes to such work, it’s not itself anything like a ministry. I do sometimes think about biblical instructions like “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God”. I sometimes recall that many of the people in the early churches were not ministry leaders or apostles, but people who were fairly normal for their days and places.
For me, writing is a bit different then my regular work. In trying to craft a story, I’m not just trying to manufacture something that people might like, but I’m trying to actually say something that I think is worth both my time and effort to put it to words, and worth a reader’s time to read. I suppose that, in some way, the notion of people needing forgiveness for sins does come up as something that needs to be written about, even if it’s done so clumsily. It’s a universal condition, after all.