To Influence Your Generation, Be a Writer

I’m a sucker for a great beginning of a book.

Here is how Kelly Gallagher kicked off his outstanding work Teaching Adolescent Writers:

You’re standing in a large field minding your own business when you hear rumbling sounds in the distance. The sounds begin to intensify, and at first you wonder if it is thunder you hear approaching. Because it’s a beautiful, cloudless day you dismiss this notion. As the rumbling sound grows louder, you begin to see a cloud of dust rising just over the ridge a few yards in front of you. Instantly, you become panicked because at that exact moment it dawns on you that the rumbling you’re hearing is the sound of hundreds of wild bulls stampeding over the ridge. There are hordes of them and they are bearing down right on top of you. They are clearly faster than you and there is no time to escape. What should you do? Survival experts recommend only one of the following actions:

A) Lying down and curling up, covering your head with your arms.

B) Running directly at the bulls, screaming wildly and flailing your arms in an attempt to scare them in another direction

C) Turning and running like heck in the same direction the bulls are running (even though you know you can’t outrun them)

D) Standing completely still; they’ll see you and run around you

E) Screaming bad words at your parents for insisting on a back-to-nature vacation in Wyoming

Gallagher, who teaches high school in Anaheim, California, says experts recommend C. “Your only option is to run alongside the stampede to avoid being trampled.”

Then, being the consummate teacher, he applies the great attention-grabbing beginning: “My students are threatened by a stampede–a literacy stampede.”

He adds, “If students are going to have a fighting chance of running with the bulls, it is obvious that their ability to read and write effectively will play a pivotal role.”

Illinois high school teacher Judy Allen, wife of Pastor Jim Allen of Palmyra, gave me her copy of Gallagher’s book when she saw how fascinated I was with it. I’m grateful.

As the grandfather of eight intelligent, wonderful young people, I am most definitely interested in their being able to “run with the bulls.” But my concern on this blog, as readers have figured out by now, is for pastors and other church leaders who are trying to find their greatest effectiveness.

I hear veteran pastors say, “When I retire, I’m going to go to the mountains (or the beach) and write my memoirs.”

I think, “No, you’re not. If you’re not writing now, you will not suddenly become a writer when you retire.”

Sometime around 1996, our church’s minister of education, Jim Lancaster, installed a computer in my office. He did it without being asked. As he plugged it in, he simply said, “Pastor, you’re going to be needing this.”

He was so right. That small act from a friend changed my life and, if I’m allowed to say, has influenced a lot of the Lord’s people toward greater service. Thank you, Jim. (I am eternally in the debt of this good man who now pastors the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Louisiana.)

Writing is a remarkable thing. Almost magical even.

In a 1994 article in Christianity Today, Philip Yancey notes just how remarkable it is. In a scene from the movie “Black Robe,” a Jesuit missionary tries to persuade a Huron chief to let him teach the tribe to read and write. The chief sees no benefit to this practice of scratching marks on paper until the Jesuit gives him a demonstration. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he says. The chief thinks for a moment and replies, “My woman’s mother died in snow last winter.”

The Jesuit writes a sentence and walks a few yards over to his colleague, who glances at it and then says to the chief, “Your mother-in-law died in a snowstorm?” The chief jumps back in alarm. He has just encountered the magical power of writing, which allows knowledge to be transferred in silence through symbols.

Pastor, let us transfer some knowledge in symbols. And let us get on with it. The stampede is bearing down on both of us.

These days, in my so-called retirement, in addition to cartooning for Baptist Press and accepting every speaking opportunity I possibly can, I write for Baptist Men Online for our North American Mission Board and serve on the adjunct faculty for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary teaching masters level students.

I love to write and I really, really love to read good writing.

What I do not enjoy is reading bad writing. And–ask any college or seminary professor–I have to do a lot of that in grading book reviews and other reports.

It is not a new revelation to say we are raising a generation of ministers who need help in learning to write effectively. As far as I can tell, the only ones who are getting help are those who take the initiative themselves to learn the craft.

Consider this article as one tiny step in the direction of encouraging ministers to learn to write well.

1. Minister, start writing today. Write some every day.

My pastor has an internet column he calls “Ask Mike.” People pose religious questions to him and he responds. It’s a great way to reach out to seekers, a good way to sharpen his writing, and an effective way to connect with his people.

In 1990, years before I thought of getting a computer, I started keeping a journal. At the bookstore, I bought a hard-back wordless book and opened it, wrote the date at the top, and proceeded to write down what was going on in my jobless life then. (I figured the day would come when I would wonder what was going on in my mind in that interlude between churches.)

I kept the journal for the decade of the 90s. Forty-six volumes occupy the bottom shelf of my home study. Mostly, it collects dust, but once in a while I pull one out and read it, laugh at stories of my grandchildren, and decide to use some of the sermon illustrations recorded there.

What keeping that journal did for me was enable me to do what writers call “finding my voice.” Only by writing a great deal can one find the mode of expression that fits his personality, that feels comfortable, and which, when you read it, you decide, “Yep. That’s him.”

2. Read a great deal. Nothing helps your writing like reading.

Even if you do not pay attention to the way an author writes, even if you speed through the book studying its ideas and not the style of expression, you will still develop a sense for when something is written well and when it’s not.

But, since you are intent on learning to write more effectively, when you find yourself reading something particularly impressive, you will want to pause and study how the writer did what he did.

Gradually, little by little, if you continue writing some every day, your writing will improve.

3. You have been handed great tools for expression unheard of by your grandparents.

Even if you have no idea how to go online or start a blog and no desire to do so, you can buy a laptop and start writing. Write your sermons, record your thoughts, keep a journal.

Why use a computer? Why not pick up a pen and open a notebook and get started in the time-honored way of our past generations? Answers: you can do so much more with a computer and do it infinitely faster and more easily.

Editing something you have written is difficult when you pick up a sheet of paper on which you have scribbled something. You take your pen in hand, mark through some lines, insert words here and there, draw arrows to this phrase and that notation, and soon you have a royal mess.

But not with a computer.

With a computer, you “cut and paste.” You highlight a section you want to move, click on “cut” and then go to the spot where you wish to set it down and insert it. Right-click the mouse and then, click on “paste,” and lo and behold, you have it. Go back and delete that portion from the prior spot. Now, wasn’t that easy.

Do that once and you will wonder why you waited so long to get started on computers.

4. From the first, make up your mind to edit what you have written. Otherwise, forget it.

At first, just try to get your thoughts down “on paper,” as we say. Don’t fret over the details. But, then, a day or more later, come back and read what you wrote and make it better and stronger.

Kelly Gallagher recommends the STAR method of editing: Substitute some words, Take out others, Add in other places, and Rearrange some things you wrote.

Any writer will tell you that writing itself is not hard; editing is hard. Successful writers work at editing what they have written. If you are not willing to edit what you have put down on paper, you are opting for mediocrity.

Reading seminarians’ book reviews, I can tell which students have edited their papers. Those who do not edit will have obvious errors of the kind which we all commit when in a hurry. We left out a word, typed a sound-alike word instead of the one we meant, used a plural verb with a singular subject, that sort of thing. By simply going over what they had written a day later, they could have corrected all of this and gotten a letter grade higher.

I know, I know. I remember those days in college and seminary. Every professor assigns more work than you can get to, and with a family and a job and even a church position too, you feel good just to have gotten the book review in on time, let alone to have done it early enough to edit.

But we’re not talking to students here. We’re addressing adults who are already out there in the Lord’s work. Do you have time to write, and time to edit? I know the answer to that.

Each of us has 24 hours in every day, 168 hours in every week. We have as much time as anyone else and all the time we need. We have time to do those things which are really important to us.

Toward the end of his column, Philip Yancey confesses:

“I became a writer, I believe, because of my own experience of the power of words. I saw that spoiled words, their original meaning wrung out, could be reclaimed. I saw that writing could find its way into the crevices, bringing spiritual oxygen to people trapped in air-tight boxes. I saw that when God conveyed to us the essence of his self-expression, God called it the Word. The Word comes in the most freedom-enhancing way imaginable.”

Study that paragraph. It’s great writing. It’s powerful theology. And if I’m any judge, it’s encouragement to those called to be shepherds of the Lord’s people to write.

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Yancey did not write that paragraph that way the first time. He labored over it. At first, he jotted down the gist of it, and may have said something about “spoiled words” and “people trapped in air-tight boxes.” When he came back the next day to improve on it, he picked up on those images and decided to strengthen them. And–I’m just guessing here–it was not until the third or fourth look at what he’d written that this paragraph attained its final form.

That’s how assembling words together on a page become great writing.

In one of his books, John Piper observes that books do not change people’s lives, paragraphs do. And in some cases, he says, it’s sentences that change people’s lives. Or even, just a word.

Such power words have.

They said of Job, “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling. Your words have stood men on their feet.” (Job 4:4)

What do your words do, minister of (ahem) The Word?

To influence your generation, be a writer.

To influence future generations, be a good writer.

3 thoughts on “To Influence Your Generation, Be a Writer

  1. Joe,

    I needed to read this today. This dovetails perfectly with what the Lord is doing in my life right now, encouraging and commanding me to make more of my time and my gifts to get His Word out to more people. Thank you, brother.

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