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Women who answer God's call provide valuable local ministries (1/11/04)

Pastors predict bleak future if local casinos open (12/28/03)

Soap, figurines, candles keep books company in Christian stores (12/21/03)

In order to form a more perfect union (11/30/03)

Federal Marriage Amendment receives Fellowship’s endorsement (11/23/03)

Drug czar congratulates Teen Challenge (11/16/03)

Christian fiction no long back-shelf item (10/19/03)

DREAM3 benefits churches (10/19/03)

Youth rise to DC03 challenge (10/12/03)

Ministry uses drama, music to touch city for Christ (9/28/03)

Displeased viewers protest raunchy programs (9/21/03)

Grit, determination key to cities blocking cable pornography (8/31/03)

Economic slump doesn't always derail giving (8/24/03)

Ruling threatens family, Christian leaders say (8/17/03)

Anti-aging options require balanced approach to health, beauty (8/10/03)

Convoy of Hope reaches out to inner-city neighborhood (7/27/03)

Fight for the flag moves to nation’s schools (7/20/03)

Drama speaks volumes to alienated veterans (7/13/03)

Church's integrity well received following nightmarish ordeal (6/29/03)

Tornadoes cut wide swath across nation's midsection (6/22/03)

Accountability partners provide human feedback that filters don't (6/15/03)

Checking out your horoscope? God advises you to skip it (6/8/03)

Christian filmmakers pursue wider market success (5/25/03)

Intervention is key to preventing suicide (5/18/03)

Adoption often right decision for young expectant mothers (5/11/03)

Dallas-based ministry keeps inmates out of jail (4/27/03)

Medical analysis of Jesus' death generates interest (4/20/03)

Small-town church reaches community (4/13/03)

Young married couples lulled by false sense of security (3/30/03)

Virtual gambling days may be numbered (3/23/03)

Contemporary Christian music copes with its continuing success (3/16/03)

A/G prayer event set for gathering in nation's capital (3/9/03)

Volunteers give church voice in community (2/23/02)

Federal law protects churches in zoning battles (2/16/03)

Singles find cyberspace dating not always match made in heaven (2/9/03)

Predators often plan strategies long in advance (1/19/03)

The Cross and the Switchblade still makes impact 40 years later (1/12/03)

Frontline Reports

2002 PE Report stories

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Christian fiction no longer back-shelf item

By Kirk Noonan (10/19/03)

Evangelical Christian fiction has proven to be a powerful influence in the marketplace. If done well, it can take readers to places they have never been and allow imaginations to soar. Along the way, it might also impart biblical principles, morals and values, or even lead one to a relationship or a closer walk with Christ.

Such qualities have defined much of the genre for years. But, according to some, so have unrealistically perfect characters, sickening-sweet endings and the use of “Christianese” and preachiness. Such attributes have kept much evangelical Christian fiction out of the hands of nonbelievers and perpetuated the notion that writers of such works can’t produce material to compete with secular offerings.

However, in the past two decades writers of such fiction have taken the genre to never-before-seen levels by wrapping believable characters in compelling plots sans any coarse language, graphic violence or sex. The result has been stunning.

Since 1985, Christian fiction adult book sales have risen from 4.3 percent to more than 12 percent of the Christian market. In 1980, Christian books and product sales totaled about $1 billion; today, annual sales of such products exceed $4 billion. Some Christian fiction also has climbed to the top of secular best-seller lists, caught the attention of major media outlets and publishing houses, and become the basis for movies. But industry experts believe there is still room for growth, primarily in the quality of the product.

“It’s positive insofar as it empowers the imagination that God endowed us with,” says John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture in Carol Stream, Ill. “It’s negative, in that this fiction is doing less than it is capable of doing.”

Even today, with the millions of dollars spent on writers’ advances, agents and marketing, few Christian fiction books — especially evangelical ones — have been able to match the widespread excellence and acceptance of books such as C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 1).

It seems Lewis knew that one of the most powerful ways to share one’s faith was to tell a good story much the way Jesus told parables: without preaching. That simple premise eluded many writers of evangelical Christian fiction until 1986 when Frank Peretti released This Present Darkness, a spine-tingling, spiritual warfare tale.

Then in 1995 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins offered the first book (of 11, so far) in their Left Behind series, prompting evangelical Christian fiction’s boldest move into the mainstream market. Left Behind topped secular best-seller lists, found shelf space at Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart, and made it on the cover of Time. In the years since, the series has sold more than 55 million books, convincing publishers there is indeed a huge market for redemptive books without R-rated content.

“I don’t like anything that’s racy,” says Nancy Stark, 75, who attends Neighborhood Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Modesto, Calif. “Secular novels have a lot of swear words and they’re suggestive. I don’t like that. That’s why I read Christian fiction.”

Though Christian fiction — especially those books published with the Christian Booksellers Association imprint — is squeaky clean, many nevertheless deliver hard-hitting, engaging stories that force characters to grapple with some of life’s most challenging issues.

“I felt there was no way I would write Christian fiction because the characters were so perfect, always hitting their knees at the right time and always having the right response,” says Karen Kingsbury, a best-selling Christian fiction writer in describing her journey into Christian fiction writing. “That’s great, but that’s not where we usually find ourselves. I wanted to write fiction with real characters who made good and bad choices.”

Despite her reluctance, Kingsbury started writing Christian fiction. Ever since, she not only has created realistic characters, but she has been able to minister through her stories.

In one of her latest books, a married character has an affair with a younger woman. After his wife learns of the infidelity and painfully comes to terms with it, he eventually seeks her forgiveness. She grants it, but not all ends happily ever after.

“I try to write books where the characters become real and the story will touch and soften a reader’s heart,” Kingsbury told PE Report. “At the end, a reader might be crying, but at least she is still hopeful.”

Though evangelical Christian fiction has made great strides of late, it still must clear several obstacles in order to be as effective as its writers and publishers hope it to be. One of the main challenges the niche faces is convincing non-Christians to pick up the books and read them.

“The majority of Christian fiction sold at places like Barnes & Noble is being sold to Christians,” says David Horton, editorial director of fiction at Bethany House Publishers in Bloomington, Minn.

Wilson of Books & Culture concurs.

“By and large, Christian fiction is being read by people already in the evangelical world, especially books published clearly under a CBA imprint,” he says. “I don’t think you’re going to often see people reading them who are from outside that world.”

To a certain extent there is something for everyone when it comes to evangelical Christian fiction. Subgenres run the gamut from Westerns and legal thrillers to fantasies and military adventures. The downside is that with each new subgenre comes a new learning curve that must be mastered. And that takes time.

But if history is an indicator, Christian writers can catch up with their secular counterparts and eventually surpass them. Experts say good storytelling is the key. That’s a craft most writers recognize, but few have yet to master.

“Are they writing books people are going to be reading in a hundred years?” asks Wilson. “No. But they are good novels and they create an imaginative world that you believe in and they wrestle with important questions of life from a Christian standpoint.”

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