Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


On my list of books for 2017 is Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I have just begun, and I can see it will be a timely read. There’s even a grit scale to measure oneself by, ranging from extremely gritty to not at all gritty. Grit is all about stamina and tenacity. Staying at it through thick and thin.

I am learning that writing requires grit, but to find a publisher requires extreme grit. One must be tenacious to get the attention of an editor. But the truly hard work is writing a proposal that convinces an editorial committee that the proposed book will sell. After all, a publisher has to see the potential of a profit. And that means providing the kind of books people will buy.

When asked about my intended audience, I tell an editor I want to reach someone who wants more than fluff, someone who has a hunger for substance. I am writing for a reader who has not traded books for web page views, words for icons, and study for entertainment. I am aiming my words for a reader who wants to go deep, is tired of the superficial, and is fine with being provoked. I am writing largely to people I have known and shepherded.

I assume this will impress a publisher, but it doesn’t Here is what I hear too often: “That’s really a small market. We are not sure there are enough of these readers to sustain the sales of your book. If you want to sell a book, find a felt need and write anecdotally. Tell stories. Make it simple. Footnotes are optional and an index is unnecessary (unless you are writing for academics). Keep it short. People will not purchase books much over 150-175 pages.”

I’m reminded of a popular Christian speaker who I once crossed paths with while going to seminary. He could not understand why I would give my time to theological education. “People,” as he put, “tend to like things on a John 3:16 level.”

How did we get here? Here’s a very condensed and simplified answer (the kind publishers like). There was a time—a long time ago—when congregants demanded substance. It was expected that pastors were more—far more—than mere therapists, artists, or wannabe CEO’s. They were theologians who gave their lives to the church, believing that the issues of day-to-day life demanded clear and concise biblical answers. They were not choosing to be either pastors or theologians. They lived in both worlds—the theological and the practical. These leaders took serious the calling to be physicians of the soul, which required similar rigors physicians of the body go through—only more demanding. The stakes are higher. Eternal destiny and eternal responsibilities are in view.

But over time, a division occurred. After the Enlightenment, and with the expanse of the university, pastoral theologians were forced to choose between the academy and the church. Schools that once served the church became the chief critics of the church. Pastors without a doctoral union card were marginalized, and over time, the church returned the favor and disregarded the academy.

Spurned by theologians in the university, the church turned to other disciplines such as psychology. Theological education was no longer considered a necessity. In some cases, it was even considered a liability to a successful ministry career.  This is still true in some sectors today. Keynote speakers in pastoral conferences are usually those with success in leadership (as opposed to theological) skills. Attendees are warned against becoming “ruined” by seminaries which train pastors to become irrelevant. I was with a pastor in Montana last summer who told me he dared not admit he was a seminary grad to his congregation.

Much of this has created what Hiestand and Wilson (The Pastoral Theologian) call “theological anemia” in the church. It helps explain why there are books like Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. In ever-increasing ways, pastors who minimize theological training are bearing the day-to-day burden of leading God’s people. Fewer and fewer traffic in ideas. And search teams are less committed to finding a shepherd with theological skills or seminary credentials. It’s little wonder there is a diminished appetite for substantive sermons or respectable books.

Still, I am convinced this is changing. I hope I am right. Superficial preaching only goes so far. People are finding that getting their news on Facebook leads to shallow and opinionated discourse. Books that are trivial, that end up sounding redundant, are a waste of time. Maybe Evangelicals are coming to see that their impact in culture is and will remain negligible if their thinking is thin and their convictions are transient.  It’s time to become really gritty and recover our past.



1 Comment
  • Christopher McKillop
    9:48 AM, 3 April 2017

    People will read deeply if it’s a topic they love….

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