Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Who Reads Christian Fiction?

by Jennifer AlLee

There's an ongoing discussion amongst those who write Christian Fiction (that is, fiction written with a a Christian world view). Who exactly are we writing for? Who is our audience?

Some authors are firmly in the "I'm writing to spread the Gospel" camp. These books usually have a great deal of overtly Christian content, such as Bible passages, discussions about faith, and conversion scenes. These authors believe that their books need to speak to the lost. They want to spread the news of salvation through Jesus Christ with a hurting, broken world.

Other authors take a more subtle approach. They want their books to appeal to a wide audience. They aren't denying their faith, but they aren't waving it like a banner, either. These authors may also wish to push the envelope, showing the grittier side of life and dealing with hard subjects that make many Christians cringe. These authors want to touch people where they are, and generally believe that actions speak louder than words.

So which group of authors have it right? Both, I think. And neither.

Frankly, this is a tightrope we all walk. When it comes right down to it, most of the people who read Christian fiction are already Christian. If you shop at a brick and mortar bookstore, the Christian fiction resides in the religion section. The chances of a non-Christian stumbling across a Christian novel are slim. Of course, people lend books to their friends. And some people read Christian romances because they prefer a sweet romance rather than a steamy one. But in general, a Christian novel will end up in the hands of a Christian reader.

Ironically, the books with the least overt faith message are the ones that are most likely to get in the hands of non-Christians. It reminds me of the song They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love. Sometimes, people learn more by the way they see us live our lives than when we tell them how they should be living theirs. The same goes for books... the admonishment to show, not tell.

Don't get me wrong. I think an author has to follow his or her gut. If the book needs a conversion scene, then, by golly, it should have one. The worst thing that could happen is that we end up preaching to the choir. And sometimes, the choir could stand to hear a little preaching.

What do you think? Where do you buy your books? What kind of approach do you prefer in a Christian novel?

JENNIFER ALLEE believes the most important thing a woman can do is find her identity in God – a theme that carries throughout her novels. A professional writer for over twenty years, she's done extensive freelance work for Concordia Publishing House, including skits, Bible activity pages, and over 100 contributions to their popular My Devotions series. Her first novel, The Love of His Brother, was released by Five Star Publishers in November 2007. Her latest novel, The Pastor’s Wife, was released by Abingdon Press in February 2010. Her next two novels are The Mother Road (April 2012) and A Wild Goose Chase Christmas (November 2012), both from Abingdon Press. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance.
Visit Jennifer's website at


  1. Good job on the post, Jen.

    I fall into the camp of showing not telling in this case. I started by writing for the secular market because I wanted to show that Christians live with all the emotions that non-Christians face, but have Someone to turn to when life disappoints or tries to drag you down into the dregs of society.

    I saw a TV show once where a gang member was told that there are families in the US that didn't have friends or relatives on drugs or were a member of gangs. He didn't believe it. For him, it was a fact of life.

    And although I don't usually have people with addictions or gangs as a major plot in my books, I don't want to write a book that doesn't touch on sin in any way, because that's not life. We're all sinners trying not to be.

    Anita Mae.

  2. I write for the non-believer. I write for that one person who is going to read my book and find a message in the struggles of my characters. So, I know that if my work is ever published, it has to be able to entertain first and foremost, and yet, be ready to plant a seed.

    If 500 Christians read it and enjoy it, great. If one non-believer gets it by way of a loan, or curiosity, or a free kindle download and that person happens to hear the knock on the door from God, then I have made all these hours worth the work.

    I believe this with all my heart. We are always going to have people on both sides of the faith issue find it too preachy or too sensual.

    It would be wonderful to find a way to get more Christian Fiction out of the Religious shelves at B & N... Certainly digital books are making that leap.
    Whether they should be labeled as such. No. Unless we are going to label everything with a warning.

    Then we're back to listing every thing might offend someone and book covers would be all list and no artwork.

  3. I just want good stories, inspiring and yet dimensional characters. So often Christian fiction rubs me the wrong way because it seems the focus is on a giggly romance. I prefer a theme that is original, something I didn't expect, and that when I finish the book I won't forget the journey I too took with the story.

  4. "Giggly romance". I love that expression, Annette, and you've perfectly summed up what I couldn't figure out how to say. I have noticed that I've bought less and less "romance" and more and more what I would term women's fiction. I wasn't really sure of the reason, but I think it's because I want something different and unpredictable.

    I do love books where at least one of the characters have a connection to God, and they learn something about themselves on the journey. I don't care much for conversion scenes. Most of them ring false and contrived to me.

  5. I love books that grapple with issues of faith and spirituality head on. I'm not talking preachy books. And I'm not looking for a conversion scene. I'm talking about books that look at true faith and how it changes people. I think this could minister to a Christian and challenge and guide them in their faith, or to a nonChristian, who would get to see the true inner workings of a relationship with Christ, not just the pretty picture we paint to advertise it to the world. Lisa Samson is the best example I can think of. I love all of her books. The Yada Yada books grapple with faith directly by looking at women approaching it from different angles. I'm currently reading "The Opposite of Art" by Athol Dickson. It's destined to hit high on my favorite list. I'll be doing a review at least on it soon. But I have a feeling I'll be talking about this one for a long time.

    All my books so far would fall into this category. I thought my new one, being more romance and entertainment driven wouldn't. But I'm me, and so it is. You see the African-American approach to the faith, the Indian, the traditional versus the fresher Methodist beliefs of the time. And you see how the main characters move from more traditional religious people to true intimate relationships with Christ.

  6. I think I need to clarify my comment. I still read romance, and I love books with romance, but I buy less and less of the books where H and H meet on page three and spend all their time thinking about each other.

    I do love books with "real" people and "real" issues. In real life, most Christians have problems. It's how they might deal with those problems that make interesting reading, to me, and I prefer that over the conversion scenes.

  7. Glad to see you all here, ladies. My personal writing style is also more along the lines of showing my characters' faith (or lack thereof) and how they deal with life. I don't know about you, but I personally have never read a convincing conversion scene. Perhaps it's because opening your heart to the Lord is such a personal, intimate thing. I'd love to know if anyone's read a book that dealt with it successfully.

  8. Here's a CRAZY thought... if we write books about love -- how to demonstrate love, walk in love toward our enemies, receive love, and choose love over selfishness, etc. -- are we not writing the ultimate in "Christian" books?
    Just a thought I'm debating.

    Great post, Jen! As always!

  9. Interesting discussion to an interesting post.

    I think the main issue with conversion scenes is that one person's conversion may not ring true for all Christians. While I can recall a conversion moment, the preparing of my heart to accept God's grace took place over a period of time--God patiently hammering away my objections and drawing me toward him.

    To share all that goes into a conversion--the subtle changes of heart over time, followed by the realization of guilt and grace--is really hard to pull off, as I'm finding out now with a WIP where the heroine is not a Christian at the start. How to give page time to all of these changes without making it preachy?

    And I think the obvious solution to many--condense the conversion into a few key paragraphs or ideas--may leave the reader with a gospel that is incomplete. Which won't ring any more true for the Christian, and is dangerous for the non-Christian who has stumbled on the book.

    I'm really struggling with that at the moment.

  10. The best "conversion" scene I ever read was in Embrace Me by Lisa Samson. The woman spontaneously asks to be baptized in a freezing lake. It's very symbolic and emotional. Not just some little repeat after me kind of prayer.

  11. Great post.

    You're so right in that we have to realize who our audience is. And not all books are for everyone. Not ANY books are for EVERYone (except the Bible, of course).

    We each have to write what God lays on our hearts and let Him decide who it's for. It's wonderfully liberating.

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  13. One of the things that I really liked about Deanna Julie Dodson's novel 'In Honor Bound' was the way that her characters were honest about sin, and what was right and wrong.

    When one character saw his brother doing something that was wrong he was not afraid to tell him so, even though he knew his brother might not recieve that truth very well, and might become angry.

    In another set of books by a Christian authir the characters take the opposite approach, they prefer to ignore and conceal the truth about people's actions and behaviour for fear of offending them, and instead present a false version of that character's or person's nature.

  14. I think the above raises another issue, and one that I as a non-writer am probably not qualified to address.

    Some Christian authors, in an effort to perhaps make thier books more 'popular' ignore or edit out some of the more difficult or seemingly 'negative' aspects of Christianity such as sin and the neccsesity of salvation, and instead seek to focus only on the 'positives'.

    In doing so are they presenting a 'watered down' version of Christianity to make it more 'palatable'? What are the pitfalls of this?

    As an example I read the novels of one author (I wont name names) who appears to have deliberately avioded using any terms that might have explicity Christian connotations in her work. Thus she used neutral phrases like "religious experience" instead of "conversion" and "supernatural activity".

  15. This is just a theory I'm working on, but there seems to be some sort of algebraic equation for what works in Christian fiction. Somehow the more flawed and real and honest your characters are, the more you buy yourself the right to forthrightly address spiritual issues. Dare I say, even preach.

    I'm thinking of Michelle Sutton's Never Without Hope as an example. There is some downright out and out preaching in there. And in my opinion, it worked. Why? Because after the cuss words and sex scenes and the heroine cheating on her husband, the preaching is not in any way self-righteous or judgmental. It's the truth the heroine desperately needs to survive.

    I'm not saying we should all run out and write books this way. Lord knows they wouldn't sell. But just to illustrate a point.

    On the other hand, if your characters are always doing good and living right and making it look easy, then we can't stomach to hear them preach at us.

    So something like:
    flaws + honesty + transparency = amount of preaching palatable

  16. I think I agree. In one of my posts I mentioned how some Christian authors aviod 'negatives' such as the neccesity of repentance and focus only on the 'positives' like love.

    I think that this though can be just as contrived and implausible as the opposite extreme, because it may seem as though that author it trying to hard to 'please' everyone, and not being true to thier own convictions.

    The thing I loved about in Honor Bound (sorry I have not read your novel yet) is that the characters were flawed, but thier bad actions were never condoned, or 'glossed over'.

    The book was not 'preachy' but honesty of the characters about core Christian teachings was not compromised either.

  17. "The book was not 'preachy' but honesty of the characters about core Christian teachings was not compromised either."

    Therein lies the dilemma of the Christian writer - how to encompass truth into our books in a way that rings true without compromising Christian values.

    I think, Anna, you may have hit on the answer to that dilemma when you said, the author may be trying too hard to please everyone instead of being true to their convictions.

    If we write from our heart, and our true foundation, our core beliefs are sure to shine through. And, hopefully, we'll be able to reach those who need the message without ringing false, while at the same time providing enjoyable hours of reading pleasure.

    It's a tall and humbling order. For myself, I can only achieve it through prayer as I write.

    Thank you, Anna, for helping me gain some new insight into this dilemma.

  18. Aw shucks, normally I ramble on and most of what I say is not much help to anybody. I was just saying what I think and I am glad you found it helpful.

    I know it can be hard to our convictions which tend by thier nature to be unpopular, and it must be hard to tell a good story at the same time.

  19. Surprisingly enough I think some Historical novels can actually allow more scope for writing Christian idead into stories than others.

    Those set in the Medieval times are a good example. In Deanna's medieval Chastelayne Trilogy all the major characters talk of hell as a literal place, and believe people go there if they have not repented.

    That may seem preachy but Medieval people in general did indeed believe very strongly in Hell and damnation (perhaps to the detriment of grace) so it worked in the Historical setting and in the story.

  20. Anna, I don't think you ramble on without saying anything important. On the other hand, I know I tend to ramble on quite often. I should not talk or blog when I'm tired or nervous. Those are the times when my tendencies to ramble are the worst, and the times I tend to get myself in trouble.

  21. You're sweet Suzie, but I know I ramble too, my essays are proof of that, and I think I'm a little likt you when I'm nervous too.
    Ramblers should stick together:)


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