Monday, January 15, 2007

Emergent Church Fiction

In the recent issue of Christian Retailing, editor Andy Butcher wrote an editorial about the difficulties of Christian bookstores serving the “emergent church.” This periodical is targeted to booksellers, and there’s nothing in the editorial that speaks directly to Christian fiction, but I do see connections between Butcher’s thoughts and our fiction industry.

As the pull-quote notes: “For many Gen X and Gen Y believers, their local Christian bookstore simply isn’t on the radar.”

I agree. Whether they’re buying nonfiction or fiction, twentysomethings will tend to patronize a store that offers more choices and less outward “spiritualism”—and often, a coffee shop atmosphere in which to hang out. In other words, they’ll probably choose a B&N over the local Christian bookstore.

It’s great to see that the booksellers are grappling with how to reach this segment of the market. At CBA Advance later this month, a session will be offered that examines the emergent movement and its implications for Christian publishing. Butcher opines it will “be a lively discussion.”

I don’t want to get into debates about the emergent church and its pros and cons. There are people on all sides of this issue. But the fact is, whether you believe everything these folks believe or not—they are seeking truth, and they want books to help them do so. As more nonfiction books are being written for this age group and mindset, fiction should also be considered. I know some publishers are doing this—specifically targeting the 18-34-year-olds. (By the way, I’m nowhere near an emergent church expert. However, I’m not sure that one age group makes up for 100% of the emergent church folk. But it seems most people equate the younger generation with the emergent church, and so for general purposes, I’m going along with that equation.)

The fact that booksellers and publishers are targeting this group excites me because of what it could mean for our fiction in the future. I don’t think it will negate the kinds of fiction that are now offered. The core Christian readership will always be with us—and they want a certain type of story. Serving the emergent church group should expand our market into offering different kinds and genres of fiction. For example, many in this age group might enjoy fantasy and sci-fi fiction with a Christian worldview. They’ll enjoy certain kinds of suspense and contemporaries, too. By and large, these may be stories with less overt Christian tone.

Thing is, Christian booksellers will have to figure out how to let this target audience know the books are out there to buy. And there’s the rub. Any publisher who sticks its toe in such “emergent fiction” water is going to be watching sales carefully. If the books don’t sell, houses will quickly stop publishing that kind of story. And if this targeted audience doesn’t frequent Christian bookstores, and meanwhile the B&Ns of the world house Christian fiction and nonfiction together at the back of the store… Good marketing will be essential. And I’d far rather see the books bought at Christian stores rather than B&N. Butcher is right—our stores will need to work if they want to win these folks over.

So, yes. This whole “emerging” audience could enlarge our offering of fiction. But it’s going to take everybody to make it work. Novelists at the top of their craft to write great fiction for the audience. Houses willing to publish it—and market it well to the target audience. Booksellers willing to woo these folks—while also serving the needs of their core audience—who may not like the emergents and what they stand for. Not an easy task to balance these two groups, which often seek very different atmospheres in a store.

So much for my opinion—what do you think? Does the thought of expanded fiction for the emergent church excite you? Frighten you? Make you just a little wary? What do you think such fiction will look like? Could you write it?


Grady Houger said...

I don't align myself with Emergent Church theology, and I hope 'emergent' isn't going to be the new catchphrase for 'open minded youngsters'. I do look forward to more different fiction, and more appealing Christian bookstores. Doesn't the next generation always want somthing new? I'm sure trying to get off the map with my stories.

You ask what the next wave will look like. Each wave looks like the people who buy it. The Mitford series reflected the ideals of the demographic that made it a bestseller. The new stuff will honor the appreciation of stylishness, flash, entertainment todays young adults love, but also fill their hunger for meaning and truth. They want to connect to God with their non-traditional Church services and their Celtic cross tattoos. We need to show them the salvation of Christ that transcends every culture.

Popular education does not train youths to look back to the wisdom of classic Christian books of doctrine, it's hard enough to teach the Bible. But we are writers. We can read, study and pray. Our fiction can be the way to bring understanding to those who can be reached through stories!

Al Newberry said...

I don't really get the term "emergent church" but I definitely think art should be in touch with the culture. I don't know what genre my writing would be in, but I would do tend to push the limits. I'm still working on my first novel (have been for years). All who have seen what I already have done have been impressed and push for more, but I doubt most Christian publishers would touch it.

Mary DeMuth said...

Having lived among the emerging church movement in Europe, I have a unique perspective, perhaps. One thing that I've seen in pomo fiction is its apparent lack of cohesiveness. I don't think we need to jumble-bumble our way through writing a novel, neglecting good storytelling techniques, so we'll appeal to pomo folks.

Good storytelling is timeless. Now, the subjects and language we use may shift with each culture shift, but I sincerely believe the manner in which we tell a story remains pretty much the same: conflict, rising action, climax, denouement.

Maybe it's just me, but I can't handle experimental (in my mind, chaotic) forms of fiction.

Anonymous said...

The thing for me is that the gospel is always "in", it's timeless, it's novel, it's Truth, it has it all. Presenting it in all its unique-ness for "such a time as this" is the key that is at the core of this discussion, at least to me. BC has discussed "edgy" as has Karen Ball and others, but it isn't the terms we use, it's the motive and ultimately the story.
Truth is recognizable in all its varied ways of presentation (i.e. spec-fic, or SFF, or historical, romance, contemporary), but only the stories that ring true with this group will be read and passed on.
It seems as though some writers want to conceal the truth to reach those who need it most. By attempting not to sound "preachy", they abandon the source of every good and perfect gift.
I don't think it's about form, formula, topic, genre, or whatever you choose to call it. It's really about presenting the truth in an exciting or enticing way to whomever your audience is.
And marketing is such a labyrinth of successful and unsuccessful efforts. How do you get anyone to try a new book? One way works for some and repels others.
Sorry for the long post.

Lynette Sowell said...

At this time, my audience isn't emer-church. It's not a deliberate choice, but it's just how things have happened for me. I write for the little 'ole lady who devours books because they add flavor to her life. I write for the harried woman on her lunch hour (novellas make excellent lunch hour reads). It's a narrow audience, but it's where my writing journey has taken me so far. Maybe it's preaching to the choir at the moment. But I have a definite heart for the 'lost thinker' of today. I just don't have a story for them yet. If that comes, so be it. I'm excited however 'we' can get the word out. :) In the meantime I strive to get better and better at my craft.

~michelle pendergrass said...

I think we should take notes from Tricia Goyer--Her GenX parenting book is excellent and she's writing a marriage one now.

Let's separate Emergant church (they seem to have some theology that everyone's keen on debating) and what I think of as the GenX church.

I'm the GenX church. I don't want stuffy, smelly hymnals or KJV's that I can't understand. Sorry. If you love that stuff--great! There's all kinds of places for you to go. But where do I go?

Where's the stuff I enjoy reading? In the ABA.

I keep hearing things like "that'll never go over in the CBA." Ok, great. I'll go somewhere else to get what I want then. That's what GenXer's do. If you can't offer me what I crave, I'll find it somewhere else because I know its there. And it's not that I'm craving evil things or that I'm pursuing "fleshly" desires, I just want something relevant to who I am. If we can't find it, we create it.

So I'm excited at the thought of expanded fiction for GenXers. Frighten me? No way. There's nothing that frightens me except God. :)

Can I write it? I'm working on it. We'll see, huh?

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I agree with Michelle entirely. My church holds an "encounter" service which targets younger adults with contemporary preferences. It is most definitely not "emergent" which is closely linked to Postmodern philosophy. Like Modern philosophy, some parts square with Scripture and some do not. Therein lies the theological debate that Michelle mentioned.

I am excited by this talk of expansing genres to reach Gen X and Y adults. I think it seems logical that SFF would be a natural, since a 20-something adult probably read Harry Potter, or saw the movie, as a teen.

Now if there are any ack eds out there who happen to be looking for a fantasy ... ;-)

Kaye Dacus said...

Michelle's comment makes me smile. I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum as a Gen-Xer--I love hymnals, preachers in suits, a full choir in robes, and music accompanied only by piano and organ. But, like Michelle, I will strike out to find reading material that fulfills my reading material cravings--whether CBA or ABA. And, like Michelle, I tend to find fulfillment of those cravings in ABA stuff right now. But my own writing does fit in with CBA guidelines--because that is the worldview I have. When I sit down to write, it is not necessarily with a certain audience or demographic in mind. I write stories I would enjoy reading. On my marketing plan, I describe my target audience this way: "Women, ages 25+, interested in reading sweet romance with inspirational elements." Why 25+? Because my characters are in their 30s (like me), and I have no delusions that young women under the age of 25 would be remotely interested in characters my age because, after all, when we are 25, life ends at 30. :-)

The people I am most heart-burdened to reach, mostly through my involvement with church and teaching, are singles over the age of about, oh, 25 years old. Hmmm... I'm starting to see a connection here.

Anonymous said...


I don't mean to throw cold water on the conversation,and I'm trying very hard not to bring in theology here. But with all due respect, this has to be said.

IMHO, before Christian booksellers decide whether to target a sector of the "Christian" audience, they should do some research on the definitions of "postmodern" and "christian," which are pretty much opposite. I'm not sure how Christian authors novels would appeal to some emergents who claim to be too humble to claim they could "ever know the truth." That isn't really seeking truth, IMHO. I'd rather write about truth and write what I love to write. If God wants me to be published, then it will happen, regardless of the way the winds of trend blow.

Eden said...

I'm not sure what I think about the "Emergent Church". First I've ever heard of it, but I like a mix of things church-wise. I love choirs, praise teams, preachers in suits, and the KJV. To me, the KJV just flows and IMHO, people don't understand the KJV b/c of the lower education standards in the USA. It's hard to be understood if you don't know what half of the words mean. I have no problem with the NKJV. But I stick to the KJV. Anyway, this blog isn't suppose to be about the KJV vs other versions.
I do think it would be awesome to have Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels in the Christian section. Would it be as good as non-Christian?!?!? Don't know?
No, I wouldn't write it. Only b/c I'm not a writer, I'm a reader.

Tamara Butler said...

Can anyone suggest some authors who would be considered as writing fiction for the "Emergent Church?" Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"Emergent fiction" is NOT connected to the Emergent Church. It's a word an editor chose to put a name to something that needed one. Nor is it postmodern in the sense that the fundamentals of morality and truth are cultural constructs. "Emergent fiction" is Christian fiction. In it's simplest form, it may define fiction that escapes the restrictions that CBA places upon its fiction. I hope it will go beyond than and more of it will follow the experimentation in form that we saw in modernism and which continue in postmodernism. The message and doctrine must remain Christian, it is the form and content that needs to open up.