Writing is a ministry. Surely the Apostle Paul has taught us this truth. It is a form of ministry peculiarly suited to this period of cultural development. For who can predict where a printed word will go? The Christian writer can reach many who will be reached by no other kind of minister.
The writing ministry lacks the exhilaration of public preaching services. There is no choir of voices in the composing room, no lovely Christian symbolism on a typewriter keyboard, no stained glass windows in the editorial offices. There is no beaming parade of well-scrubbed parishioners ready to file by at five o’clock and say, “My, that was a fine editorial!” Writing is lonely work, hidden work, often unappreciated work. It is easier to feel that one is an ambassador of Christ when standing in a pulpit preaching or when counseling in the dead of night with a couple threatening to abandon their marriage than when one sits at a desk alone, searching for the right word, rebuilding a paragraph, or brooding prayerfully over the state of the world. But writing is a ministry, and a highly important one too.
It is a ministry which has many exciting possibilities, many potential growing-points. It always calls for more than we have—more thought, more reading, more prayer, more literary craftsmanship.
“Who is sufficient for these things?” asks the form for ordination. And the answer, plainly, is no one. So the form goes on, “Let us therefore call upon the Name of the Lord in prayer.”
The Christian writer is a teacher, an analyst, a prophet, a comforter, an angry conscience. He needs to be caught up into the presence of God and remain there until something of a divine perspective anoints his spirit and suffuses his work. Format, advertising, circulation, style, illustration, variety—all are important. Unless the hand of God is resting upon the shoulder of the Christian writer, however, his work is vanity. But with this divine accreditation, the Christian writer will be able to transfer the power and the glory from his own vital relationship with God to the printed page. Let me turn to the developing ministry which beckons the evangelical press in our land.
This growing ministry is heightened by the urgent need of help on the part of preachers to discharge their teaching function. Thousands of Protestants in the United States and elsewhere are found in the house of God just one hour a week on Sunday morning. Whatever they learn of the Scriptures and of the life of Christian trust and obedience will have to be gleaned from this one weekly period. This fact places an intolerable burden of responsibility on the pulpit to be a teaching medium.
The home life of those who attend evangelical churches is feeling the attrition of American activism. It is doubtful if the children in our homes have a training in the Christian faith marked by as much regularity and faithfulness as may have been possible a generation or two ago. Today, home is a place where people are fed and bedded down for the night and from which the members of the family sally forth to attend meetings. Regular family worship and religious training have for many been thrown into the limbo of forgotten duties, with a consequent rise in biblical illiteracy in a segment of the Christian church where it would be least expected.
Nor can the Church itself be completely exonerated from all guilt in breaking up the home. One may even wonder how biblical a view of the Church is which equates a member’s consecration with his willingness to abandon the weekday natural communities in which he lives and works in order to involve himself in meetings of the organized church. The Church on the Lord’s Day is summoned together in “family reunion” to meet her Head, even Christ. But between Lord’s days it is ordained to be the “church of the dispersion,” penetrating for Christ’s sake the common life of mankind. Accepting seriously this responsibility of “witness in dispersion” might conceivably reduce the number of church meetings and restore a measure of balance and poise to the life of the pastor.
The teaching responsibility of the Church gets even less help from the school than from the family. We are now committed to the secularization of our public schools, simply because we can see no viable alternative in a pluralistic society. Sunday schools, though improving, are still notorious for their ineffective pedagogy, and further breakthroughs in the understanding of the church school’s role will have to take place before there will be any decrease in the dependence of church members upon the pulpit for training in the faith.
I have no doubt that preaching could do a better job of instructing, even in this one lonely hour per week. Far too much preaching is still problem-oriented rehearsal of human experiences, or highly quotational discourse on the state of the world, or pious inspiration. Biblical exposition is at a premium, possibly because we do not aim at producing it, and partly because everything in the current crowded church program conspires against the concept of a studying minister.
In view of this burden of instruction thrown on the pulpit, and in view of the unlikelihood of reinforcements appearing from other quarters, I would suggest that the writers of the Church should become important teachers of the Church.
Denominational papers and magazines have the frequent advantage of entry into 100 per cent of the homes of many congregations. They come regularly. They come often. Ways must be found to enhance their teaching function.
“Writing is a ministry. It is a ministry symbolized by a desk piled high with work in process … by deadlines, letters to the editor, the anxiety of late manuscripts, reject notices. If a pulpit is an instrument of ministering, so is a sheet of white paper, poised in a typewriter, waiting for the costly fruit of mental toil and prayerful concern, to be yielded up in loving obedience to him who is Lord of all.”
Commentaries on Sunday school materials have long been common. Symposia on controversial social concerns have been done with good effect. Perhaps serialized popular expositions of biblical material, or short series on special episodes in the history of the Church, or consecutive chapters on great Christian personalities of the past might suggest the sort of teaching that is peculiarly adaptable to the Christian periodical.
The paperback field has not yet been seriously entered by Christian evangelical writers. This market is now booming. It requires a bright, succinct, pithy prose that can be digested on a plane flight or during daily bus rides to work. This is not to imply that substantial material cannot succeed in the paperback field. On the contrary, everything from Marcus Aurelius to Camus is moving through the bookshelves at the Willow Run Airport in Detroit. But with the exception of a few devotional classics, like Augustine’s Confessions, paperbacks with a serious Christian thrust are hardly to be seen. Adults and students are reading paperbacks, no doubt about it. And the field deserves something more than yesteryear’s reprints.
Thoroughness And Accuracy
Returning for a moment to the plight of the pastor, the time the average minister has to read material not related to his current sermonic output is meager. One has to fight for it with something close to a mother bear’s concern for her cubs. A shocking number of pastors apparently do very little serious reading of any kind. For a time they can live off the accumulated biblical and theological capital they acquired in seminary. But for most men there is no such capital in the area of Christian concern on social, political, and international issues. Here the average pastor does little more than repeat what he hears on the street, or he reflects the attitudes of the income level dominant in his congregation, or he gives religious sanction to his own very superficially grounded prejudices.
At this point those who write for the Christian press have a heavy responsibility. Ministers and literate laymen alike depend on what they read to deal with current issues at a level deeper than slogans. Editors and writers on such topics have a clear duty to inform themselves with thoroughness and accuracy before committing opinion to print.
Let us frankly admit that few of those who sit at editors’ desks have had a rigorous training in politics, or economics, or international affairs, or sociology. Most are ministers of the Word with a flair for writing and an appetite for hard work. In this situation, is it not common sense to suggest that what such men need is a willingness to use experts to fill in the gaps in their own knowledge? Every editor would profit from having ready access to a dozen or more men with skill and background in the fields just mentioned—and they need not all be Christians either—to keep him from chronic foot-in-mouth disease. The social and political issues of the day are too complex to allow an untrained person to write out of ignorance and not produce palpable nonsense.
We have seen how the social ethics of theological liberalism have had a profound and unfortunate influence upon American public opinion, and this influence derived from a faulty doctrine of man. Evangelicalism, with a more serious view of sin and a high view of grace, should be able to express itself in a much more biblical social ethic.
A Call To Writing
Here I set my sights high. Some of the most perceptive thinkers of our time are the news analysts who work for the major newspapers and networks. Is it too much to hope for that the writers of opinion in the Christian press shall study and read with such honesty and dedication that they will earn a right to mold Christian opinion in our land?
I would like to propose a sabbatical year for editors of Christian periodicals. A year of travel and study would be a great stimulation to men who take seriously the task of interpreting our time with its complex crosscurrents of thought to a discerning readership. A year of disciplined study in almost any field of special interest, preferably in another country, including some travel to a few well-chosen lands of current importance, would immediately result in wider perspectives, deeper insights, and fresher copy. If some foundation wishes to use its financial resources in a really critical way, it could underwrite the cost of twenty such sabbaticals and study the results.
While most of my remarks have special reference to the Christian periodical, the ministry of writing certainly cannot ignore the novel, the poem, the play, the short story, the television script. If there is a single point on the perimeter of the universe of discourse where the challenge to Christian thinkers and writers is presently the hottest, it is likely not so much the philosophy class, nor even the science lab, but the English department. Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Kafka, Tennessee Williams, Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot—these are the men who are posing the most pointed questions to Christian belief. And the Church’s writers able to write on these same questions with power, insight, and literary skill and out of the resources of Christian commitment are pitifully few. We speak of “a call to the pulpit.” Can there not be a counterpart in “a call to the pen”?
Writing is a ministry. It is a ministry symbolized by a desk piled high with work in process, by the sweet dissonance of the presses, by an endless flow of mail, by deadlines, letters to the editor, the anxiety of late manuscripts, reject notices. If a pulpit is an instrument of ministering, so is a sheet of white paper, poised in a typewriter, waiting for the costly fruit of mental toil and prayerful concern to be yielded up in loving obedience to him who is Lord of all.
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