‘Crossing over’ with the cross

Here’s an adaptation of my lecture notes from a popular seminar:

Take out a clean sheet of paper and a Number 2 pencil and answer the following multiple-choice question:

    What is a Christian writer? (Please check one)

    ☐ a) Anyone who writes on Christian subjects
    ☐ b) A Christian who writes on Christian subjects
    ☐ c) A Christian who writes on any subject
    ☐ d) All of the above
    ☐ e) A and B, but not C
    ☐ f) A + (B-C)=DE2

I believe a Christian writer is c., “A Christian who writes on any subject.”

Let me try to explain that. For instance, I wrote a weekly news column about our small town of 300-400 for city paper. The big news this year is bringing sewer service to our community. Does that make me a “sewer writer”? It does if the term “Christian writer” means I only write about Christian subjects!

I’m not so sure if there are even such things as Christian writers, Christian subjects, Christian editors/publishers, Christian organizations, or Christian yo-yo’s sold in Christian bookstores. There are, however, Christians who write. There are even Christians who edit, but there’s no such thing as a C’ yo-yo.

Madeline L’Engle was asked “What makes Christian writing Christian”? Here’s her answer from Walking On Water

    I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.

Cliff Kelly, Regent University journalism professor, writes, “Biblical journalism [is] a truthful report inspired by truthful motives brought by truthful means.”

So, it’s not what you write that makes it “Christian,” but how you write it. One of my jobs as a Christian who happened to be a reporter was to bring truth to the readers. The small town could be a lot like Mayberry or Lake Wobegone at times with all sorts of rumors served up at the local watering hole. No sooner had Montgomery Trucking frieght built a depot in town, rumors were circulating that they were storing “jet fuel,” “hazardous materials” and “nuclear waste.” So, I did some checking and then ran long article about what they were really hauling: fertilizer! Was I a “fertilizer” writer that week? Not if we check answer C above.

Every article, poem, song, book doesn’t have to include the plan of salvation, but it does have to include truth as well as Christian values and morals.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis doesn’t include “The Four Spiritual Laws,” does include an incredible example Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin and the best definition of sin I’ve ever read: “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek are “psalms” that who won a Pulitzer prize. And the best presentation of the true meaning of Christmas, the classic cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

This is what I mean by “crossing over with the cross.” I’ll define “cross” as meaning Christian values such as
love, truth, justice, mercy, servanthood, peace, self-control, respect, etc. etc. I’ll define “cross-over” as taking the message of the cross into a society that’s “post Christian” at best and “pagan” at worst; confronting values that are exact opposites such as hate, deception, injustice, “looking out for number one,” wars and rumors of war, lust, disrespect, etc. etc.

And since those we want to reach are not reading The Christian Reader, Christianity Today and like Christian magazines or books by denominational publishing houses, it’s a deliberate effort to get our message into
publications that reach the secular person.

Unfortunately, some have “crossed-over” without taking the cross over. A former Gospel singer belts out, “If loving you is wrong, I don’ wanna be right.”

“Crossing over with the cross attempts to communicate the essence of Christianity in a form that non-Christians can relate to.

Scripture provides hundreds of examples of Christ taking the message “over” to the streets, the “red light districts,” and the local watering holes. In Matthew 9:12 Jesus defends his “crossing over” by saying “It is not the healthy that need a doctor.”

Paul share the same strategy in Acts 17:16-17:

    While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.

Unfortunately, most Christian writers spend time writing to the “healthy” in the Gospel ghetto, while ignoring the dying in the marketplace. So, how do we reach the secular world without compromising the Christian message?

I. Write in the cross roads

Write where “Christian” living overlaps with “wordly” living.

Lee Roddy, a Christian who writes “secular” TV shows, warns:

    To overcome a religious book market that is flat and shrinking, publishers are looking beyond traditional Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) buyers to patrons of the more general American Booksellers Association (ABA). Publishers who survived the recent wave of sales, mergers, downsizing or specializing generally agreed that today a book must reach beyond historic CBA buyers. Today’s writers must now produce manuscripts that appeal both to traditional CBA readers and new ABA readers.

George Barna reports that the “U.S. has a fascination with the supernatural and that religion is ‘hot.'”

Religious book sales have increased 33% making it the fastest growing category of publishing.

Paul ministers in the “cross roads” in verses 18-23:

    A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Notice Paul’s “cross-over” strategy:

He’s “in the marketplace”

He’s there “day by day.” One of Christian writers’ tendencies is to give the entire gospel, from Genesis to maps in one article or book. Paul is presenting the gospel bit by bit. He leaves them wanting more at the end of the day; keeps their interest.

He researches his audience. “I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship. I see that in every way you are very religious.”

He adapts his style to the audience.

    Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

How well do we know what our unbelieving friends and neighbors are thinking?!

1. Know your audience

Lee Strobel, one of the pastors at Willow Creek Church which has specifically targeted the unbeliever (or “seeker”) and runs over 15,000, has written a wonderful book called Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary.

The first six of fifteen traits, relate to us as writers

(1) Harry has rejected the church, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has rejected God. Again, religion is a “hot” topic. “God” is the subject of a current movie and TV series!

(2) Harry is morally adrift, but he secretly wants an anchor.

(3) Harry resists rules but responds to reasons. What did Paul do on Mars Hill? He “reasoned” with his audience!

(4) Harry doesn’t understand Christianity, but he’s also ignorant about what he claims to believe in. Our culture is “biblically illiterate” “God helps those who help themselves” and “All men are created equal” are not in the Bible.

(5) Harry has legitimate questions about spiritual matters, but he doesn’t expect answers from Christians.

(6) Harry doesn’t just ask, “Is Christianity true?” Often he is asking: “Does Christianity work?”

2. Appeal to audience’s felt needs (I talk about these needs in Communicate to Change Lives

3. Appeal to authorities that you and your audience both accept.

Unfortunately, the Bible and members of the clergy no longer count as “authoritative.” Book jackets never mention I’m a “minister.” I have a separate “bio” that goes to schools and secular media. I never lie, I only tell what I have to. I appeal to my 20 years of working with teens as my “authority,” so I view myself as a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

In my books, I use a lot of “University studies.” That’s an “authority.” For instance, in a book on relationship, I talk about the devastating disadvantages of “living together” and “divorce.” Not one word of Scripture, but powerful university studies that verify the Scriptural message over faithfulness in relationships (Top Ten Reasons I’m Not Divorcing My Wife).

We can also use entertainment and sports personalities who excel in their field#151;and in their Christian life — as “authorities.” (It’s always safer to use famous dead people as they can’t fall from grace as soon as you lift them up as an example.

Move from “felt needs” to “faith needs.” “Here’s how your deepest needs can be satisfied.”

II. Write in the cross currents

What are issues and trends that “cross” the lives of believers and unbelievers? Some that don’t include, The Arminian vs. Calvinist debate, Pre-millenial vs. Post-millenial theology, Congregational vs. Episcopal forms of church government, or Traditional hymns vs. Contemporary worship styles. These may be important to some believers, but they are totally irrelevant to unbelievers.

We need to address issues that impact the secular majority! Part of the “cross current” approach is using illustrations featuring people and places they can relate to: school and workplace—not in church. But not in a strip club, either! I deliberately tried to write The Why Files in the crossroads and crosscurrents. Sex, death and the supernatural are topics of interest to both believers and non-believers.

For fifteen years, my weekly secular newspaper column dealt with current issues that are of interest to a “wordly” readership. It was overtly “Christian,” but hopefully it fit L’Engle’s definition.

III. Write with cross words.

Paul warns us in 1 Corinthians 14:9-11:

    Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.

We’re all guilty of jargon. A fellow editor will understand me when I say “Make sure the kickers are really flush right on the galleys.” Ninety-nine percent of population will think I’m talking about the plumbing on a fleet of yachts! It means, “Check proof sheets to see if the typesetter lined up the headlines on the right rather than the left”

We do the same in speaking “church-ese.” An unbeliever won’t have a clue if we use atonement, carnal nature, conviction, justification, grace, repentance or salvation.

Having small children helped me to translate Theology 101 and 201 to a five-year-old. It’s also helped my own understanding of these terms we banter around.

(1) Define terms in text or by context if no way to substitute “worldly” words.

(2) Write/speak at their level of “spirituality”

Notice how Paul does this in 1 Cor. 2 and 3:

    When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1-2).

    Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (3:1-2).

    We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Cor. 2:6-7).

I’ve tried to write in the cross roads and cross currents with cross words in my explanation of having a relationship with God in Looking for Love

IV. Write in the cross’ power

Paul provides a powerful mission statement for our attempt to cross over with the cross:

    Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:3-6).

© 1991, 1996 James Watkins You are welcomed to reproduce this for educational purposes provided you include the copyright notice on notes and give proper attribution.

Photo: “The World Trade Center Cross” is a perfect opportunity to open a discussion about faith and the cross.

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