Today’s guest post comes from my friend Adam Navis. Adam is the Director of Operations for Words of Hope and is also studying the intersection of faith and writing for the focus of his D.Min. studies at Western Theological Seminary.
As part of my Doctor of Ministry studies, in early in 2014 I interviewed a selection of students and faculty at Western Theological Seminary concerning their habits, attitudes, and beliefs about good writing. All of these people were identified as good writers, so it wasn’t a surprise to hear them speak about beautiful and precise language, the use of various forms of evidence, and how to move a reader’s head and heart.
But one aspect that was surprising to me was how many people mentioned trying to write pastorally.
As I moved deeper into the research, I began to understand that writing pastorally did not require a person to be a pastor (nor that all pastors necessarily wrote pastorally). To the people I interviewed, writing pastorally meant writing in the same spirit of hospitality that they would have in face-to-face conversations, or when hosting a guest in their home, or when speaking from the pulpit, or serving the bread and the wine, or baptizing a new believer. They were not writing for self-promotion or to show how well they use words, but to build a more expansive vision of the Kingdom of God.
In this way, pastoral writers approach their work from a kind of sacramental posture. They don’t attempt to master or control a subject by their knowledge or their writing acumen, but rather honor and revere the deep theological and personal complexities of life. They understand that communication is a gift from God; a gift meant for the good of other people. And when done well, it can be an act of worship.
Further, the research showed that this does not exclude critical writing, but that when being critical of someone else, there is always a sense of compassion, even tenderness. One respondent said,
“I do not want to write with bitterness or anger or [in] any sort of self-protective mode. Let’s be creative and gracious and assume the best of our readers…Try to open up a more expansive vision of what God is doing. If I have to criticize people on the way, I will do it, but I’ll try to do it graciously. And it’s that positive constructive task which has got to drive it. … I refuse to deconstruct without reconstructing, without giving an alternative vision that takes seriously the ministry concerns and tries to make a case for a more expansive positive vision.”
One of the implications of this research is that we – the readers of blogs, articles, and books of all kinds – should evaluate what we read not only by its clarity, craft, and beauty, but also by its pastoral quality. Often the most popular articles on the Internet are the most inflammatory (or a reaction to the inflammatory) and usually result in people on either side of an issue pulling into their separate corners. This is probably as true for Christians as for any group of people writing today, if not more so.
But by developing more complex criteria to evaluate what we read and by demanding writers be more than merely provocative, we might raise the level of public discourse, encourage participation by those voices who are unwilling to be incendiary just to increase page views or books sales, and more often celebrate the messy mystery of God’s church than pick it apart.