How to Write Stories That Christian Readers Actually Need

May 21, 2020

Why does Christian fiction as a genre have to exist? Why can’t we ditch the special label and simply write good fiction? Skeptics tend to reinforce these questions with that famous Martin Luther quote: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”


While I understand the sentiment behind such objections, I think Christian fiction has a clear, legitimate purpose: we need stories that tackle the unique challenges we face as we strive to live out our faith.


Some struggles are common to every human being. But grappling with evil against the backdrop of divine sovereignty, discerning how to love unbelievers, and learning to trust an invisible being are distinct to Christianity. Though the average unbeliever probably won’t be able to empathize, portrayals of these issues are a balm to Christians. And as I argued in our inaugural article for the site, we need both implicit and explicit Christian stories to reach different audiences.


Part of the difficulty is that Christian fiction in practice sometimes revolves around self-laudatory conversion arcs instead of honest battles with doubt and temptation. We don’t need more stories that pat ourselves on the backs for how “righteous” we are. Christian fiction shouldn’t be a dumping ground for lengthy “chick tracts” but a wrestling mat for the trials of the Christian life.


That’s where our book of the year stands out.


What The Promise of Jesse Woods Teaches about Storytelling

For the past couple months, the Story Embers community has been reading and discussing The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry. The book follows the past and present journey of a twenty-something named Matt as he returns to his small, Appalachian hometown in hopes of preventing an old flame from marrying her previously abusive fiancé.


We chose this title for our 2020 book study because its vivid characterization, gripping dual plots, and rich, faith-based themes embody many of the traits we look for in exceptional Christian fiction. Over the next ten days, we’re going to outline the book’s strengths in a series of articles:


Instruction is often more effective when a principle is shown instead of told. Throughout this series, our goal is for you to gain an in-depth understanding of the techniques that worked for Fabry and how to achieve similar results in your own stories. To start, let’s look at how he tailors three thematic points to resonate with Christian readers.


(Warning: This article and its sequels will contain spoilers.)


Thematic Point #1: The Fall Affects Everyone

How the Story Conveys This Message:

A noteworthy element in The Promise of Jesse Woods is the lack of role models. Plenty of characters make virtuous decisions, but each one suffers from deep flaws. Matt’s passive father, racist Old Man Blackwood, and Matt’s judgmental grandmother aren’t exemplars for us to imitate. To quote Jesse, “them church people are meaner than snakes” (p. 181).


And that’s the point.


If Scripture is true when it says that we all fall short of God’s glory and possess hearts that are deceitful above all things, we should expect to encounter flawed churchgoers, whether real or fictional. You can’t leave Fabry’s book with the idea that people are intrinsically good because that’s not the world we live in—or the one he depicts. While the book’s climax is thematically rich, it’s also bittersweet, evoking the words of Romans 8:22 about creation continually groaning in the pangs of childbirth.


The Lesson Christian Storytellers Can Learn:

As Christian storytellers, we’re predisposed to paint the church as a safe, loving community in the midst of a cold, dark world. Individually, we should aspire to cultivate that kind of fellowship. Fabry reminds us, though, that we have a responsibility to represent humanity accurately—including how depravity tinges the church.


This doesn’t mean our perspective must be entirely dismal. The Promise of Jesse Woods contains moments where Matt and his parents sharpen and support each other, even in collisional conversations. But they’re never whitewashed of faults.


The gospel doesn’t automatically make believers perfect. It redeems us from our sins. On this side of heaven, we’ll always be sinners seeking to help other sinners. Rather than unrealistic, rosy depictions of the church, readers need reassurance that despite our brokenness, God still knits us together and uses us to accomplish His will.


In the end, that’s a much more encouraging message.


Thematic Point #2: Savior Complexes Are Problematic

How the Story Conveys This Message:

Sometimes Christians cast themselves as white knights who rush in to save others from terrible situations. This mindset not only infiltrates our lives but also our stories—especially those of a speculative nature. All of us have an inner longing to be heroes.


In The Promise of Jesse Woods, Matt plans to keep Jesse from a disastrous marriage, be the shining example this backwards group of Christians needs, and rescue everyone else from the results of their sins. He’s an archetypal Christian character—a stand-in allegory for Jesus who fixes all wrongs. In a shallower novel, the goal would have been for him to eventually succeed at his task.


Yet, as a human being, Matt is not perfect, and the more the story progresses, the more we see that the person who needs saving is not Jesse, Dickie, or any member of the bigoted congregation. It’s Matt, and that jars our assumptions. Through a series of failed rescues and hard conversations, Matt realizes that many of his actions have been motivated by pride. At the story’s climax, he experiences a powerful epiphany: a person’s desire to be a hero can lead to their downfall.


The Lesson Christian Storytellers Can Learn:

Making sacrifices and showing compassion are habits we ought to develop as Christians. Naturally, we want our protagonists to be paragons in these areas, but for human beings, that’s impossible. As The Promise of Jesse Woods demonstrates, people need a divine Savior, not a human one. That’s why every hero in the Old Testament had significant moral weaknesses that brought consequences.


The Promise of Jesse Woods reminds us to give protagonists serious flaws that coincide with messages the intended audience will connect with. As I mentioned in my introduction, Christian fiction shouldn’t preach to the choir but expertly point out the flaws within our own communities. How this book accomplishes that is starkly clear.


Next time you sit down to write, consider what message your audience needs. If you’re writing in the Christian genre, what have you noticed fellow believers struggling with? How can you meaningfully address those issues so your story nudges readers toward sanctification?


However, lest you view yourself as a knight on a mission to save Christian fiction, perhaps the real question that warrants asking is what message you need to hear. When we write stories that deal with our personal struggles, the Christian fiction genre becomes an opportunity for growth instead of mere cheerleading.


Thematic Point #3: The Christian Life Isn’t Solely about Conversions

How the Story Conveys This Message:

Unlike many works of Christian fiction, The Promise of Jesse Woods doesn’t include a conversion narrative. The protagonist has backslid in his faith, and his behavior is called into question at the end of the story. But the book isn’t about conversion as much as it’s about repentance.


In Matt’s final conversation with Kristin, he confesses, “I confused being a Christian with being someone who rescues others.” The context surrounding this line might seem to indicate that Matt wasn’t a real Christian beforehand, but in light of other scenes (such as the piano lesson, which Gabrielle will unpack in the next article), as well as Matt’s overall candor, that’s not the impression I get. Matt loves God and wants to do the right thing, but (like all of us) he doesn’t fully grasp what his faith implies. He isn’t coming to Christ for the first time; he’s maturing in his daily coming and resting in Him.


The Lesson Christian Storytellers Can Learn:

I’ve discussed overused conversions (and other clichés) in Christian fiction elsewhere, as have Maddie and Mariposa here at Story Embers, so I won’t repeat the advice. The point I’d like to emphasize now is that our themes ought to center more on repentance—and not the kind that turns on at the flick of a switch. I’m talking about the painful, bold repentance we’re called to as Christians, which Matt displays when he acknowledges his pride, makes amends with his enemies, and admits he isn’t the hero he assumed he was.


Maybe the stories that Christians and non-Christians alike need to read aren’t about rotten unbelievers who turn into angels after salvation or Christians who act righteously without breaking a sweat. Maybe both groups need stories about misguided Christians like Matt who are transformed and redeemed by a beautiful Savior.


The Stories That Truly Glorify God

The gospel saturates the pages of The Promise of Jesse Woods, not through evangelism shouted from a street corner but through the quiet, stumbling footsteps of a Christian who discovers how to rely on God’s grace instead of his own willpower.


This is the grade of fiction Christian storytellers ought to be known for.


We shouldn’t be afraid to write protagonists who are deeply sinful, churches that are severely broken, and events that can’t be wrapped up neatly. After all, God never shies away from the messes people create. In the Old and New Testaments, patriarchs, leaders, and apostles commit shocking sins. They’re constantly lying, dishonoring, betraying, murdering, and losing faith. But they’re brought to repentance by a Savior who constantly takes the spotlight.


God is magnified by stories that contrast human weakness against His strength. When we stop extolling unattainable human perfection, we’re able to direct the focus where it belongs—on God’s redemptive work at shaping flawed people into gems fit for His kingdom.

Return on Monday when Gabrielle Pollack will look at what The Promise of Jesse Woods teaches about quickly and effectively introducing characters. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. If Christian fiction gives us an opportunity to wrestle with the challenges of the Christian life, what struggles would you like to see depicted more regularly?



  1. P.K

    Wow! Great article, Josiah! Definitely something to work on for me. 🙂

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks PK! Glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  2. Olivia

    Most the time I don’t take the time to read the articles posted on SE, but when I saw this, I decided to try it out and see what I thought. And I’m so glad I did!

    As I read, I realized that all of what you said, Josiah, is super helpful and true. I’m an amateur when it comes to writing, so it’s hard for me to weave themes into my stories without just outright saying them. So this article was super helpful in how I can make Christian themes, but not go about preaching to the readers.

    Thanks! I’m looking forward to the other articles. 🙂

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Olivia! I’m glad you decided to try it out as well. 😉 We have a bunch of other articles on how to do this with theme here if you haven’t checked them out yet: https://storyembers.org/article-categories/theme/ Hope you find the rest of this series helpful as well!

  3. Bethany Fehr

    Thank you so much for this, Josiah!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Bethany!

  4. eden anderson

    Thank you so much for this article!

    I was one of those readers who apparently missed A LOT of things reading it through the first time. 🙃 I finished the book and was like “okay, cool story but I’m still kind of confused about what the story was supposed to mean.” Reading this article was very helpful because I can now see a clearer picture of the message Fabry was trying to convey. The book makes a lot more sense now! 😂

    Even if I missed a lot of stuff in the book, I did pick up on #1. I was both pleased and bothered by the fact that all the characters had major flaws. I appreciated how real the characters seemed but it also kind of unnerved me because this was a Christian book and I’m not used to reading Christian books without at least one “holy” character, if you know what I mean. In the end, I really appreciated the humanness of the characters, and how complex and layered they felt.

    You’ve given me quite a few things to think about as I return to drafting my story and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I’m glad this book helped you see some more of the themes in Fabry’s work! The second read-through also helps a lot (in my experience) to see everything that the author’s doing. 🙂

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