By John Halford
Recently an aspiring writer asked me, "What is the secret to writing a memorable and effective article for Christian Odyssey?"
That is a hard question to answer. I have been writing and editing articles for more than 30 years. Some are memorable — like the first one, of course — and a few were exceptionally creative. But the vast majority of what I have written and edited has been pretty much boilerplate Christian journalism.
So what has been both memorable and effective? From my personal point of view, two stand out. They are not the most significant, and they had no great theological insights. But what they have in common is that they both changed, in a small way, my behavior.
Most of you reading this will never see your written work in print. But if you are “the genuine article,” you can be “published” every day.
The first was written by a farmer, explaining some of the anxieties of being a farmer today. He described the frustration of driving his tractor along narrow country roads, with angry motorists blowing their horns and shaking their fists at him. He didn’t want to block the highway, but, desperate to get a few more working hours into the day, he had to move his cumbersome equipment to another field. He wished people would understand that their impatience added yet another layer of stress to an already difficult job. It isn’t easy making a living off the land today, and the writer asked us to cut him and his fellow farmers some slack. I live in a rural area — and I have never forgotten that article. And it has indeed changed my attitude.
The other one was written by a young woman who worked for a while as a part-time waitress. She explained that in the U.S.A., waitresses are paid well below the minimum wage. They depend on tips to survive. She wrote (and many waiters and waitresses I have since spoken to confirm this) that Christians are the stingiest tippers, and the after-church Sunday brunch crowd is the stingiest of all. "If you can’t afford a generous tip, you can’t afford to eat in that restaurant," the writer dared to suggest. I had not realized these things, but I now remember that article every time I go out to eat.
So what made those articles memorable and effective? They both caused me to think and alter my behavior. I doubt either of the two authors realized the impact they had made on me. And perhaps also on you, now I have wafted the secondary smoke in your direction.
In my position as editor, I get many manuscripts from new authors, hopeful of breaking into Christian writing. These first-time manuscripts often are all-encompassing extravaganzas about the greatness of God’s love, or the depth of Jesus’ suffering, or the depravity of sin or the glorious promises of grace — and sometimes all of the above!
I understand — spiritual insights do tend to come in tsunamis, and when they do, creative people want to share them with the world. Trouble is, your great insight, so irresistibly clear to you, just washes over most people and makes no impact. So I usually write back and say, "Now you have got that out of your system, send me a morsel that our readers can digest."
Let me offer hopeful writers a simple formula: show or tell people something they don’t know, about something they are interested in, in a way they can understand. That is actually good advice not only for writers, but the Christian life in general. You just never know how something you do or say will be the catalyst that makes the difference.
Professor Rodney Stark of Baylor University has done some remarkable research on the development of Christianity in the Roman Empire. He has showed that the faith grew, not in response to elaborate campaigns, dramatic miracles or powerful evangelism. Those might sometimes have been instrumental in getting attention. But it was the steady, consistent, generosity and spirit of service of those early believers that made an impact. They didn’t do it to "get members." They took seriously Jesus’ command to be "salt and light" (Matthew 5:13-16). In the often harsh, dog-eat-dog environment of the Roman Empire, they showed their friends and neighbors a better way to live.
Most of you reading this will never see your written work in print. But if you yourself are "the genuine article," you can be "published" every day — by living the life of love Jesus commanded (John 13:34). You’d be surprised how often your kindness will, for someone, make all the difference.