Three years ago when I was working on rewrites of The Shack with Paul and Brad, I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to find a publisher for that book, much less an audience for it. And, as many of you know, we couldn’t find a publisher who would take the risk. This has been my frustration with so-called ‘Christian publishing’ for so long. It was why I left it in 2000 to publish my own works, so I wouldn’t fall victim to the control and lack of imagination that I have experienced in that environment.
The industry seems to pander to a religious mentality deeply ingrained in Christianity-as-religion that is based on performance not grace, rules and rituals instead of vibrant relationship, exalting the trappings of institutions and leadership instead of the reality of the ever-present Christ, and turning the joy of community into an obligation to sit through a meeting, rather than the irresistible opportunity to share the life of Jesus with other followers.
And I’ve found I’m not alone. The run-away popularity of The Shack has opened a lot of doors for Paul, Brad and me to be in conversations with some of the key publishing people around the nation. We are hearing from authors, editors and executives who have struggled under the same constraints and are celebrating the fact that The Shack has helped to identify a massive spiritual hunger that lies outside the lines of our tightly-package Christian machinery.
This came from an email exchange with an author based in the Chicago area:
You have an eloquent way of putting words to thoughts I’ve had after writing five books and several articles for Christian (and secular) publishers. I couldn’t agree with you more that, ‘It is tough for Christian publishers to do a good job on books that challenge the status quo, and almost impossible for secular publishers to deal in positive terms with the reality of Jesus.’ This – ironically – makes authentic, cutting-edge, Christ-loving, truly grace-driven writing into some kind of anathema.
And this, from the Mick Silva, the editor of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House and one of the leading Christian publishers:
Briefly, my dream is to bridge the gap between safely packaged (often sanitized) Christian messages, and honest, warts-and-all God-encounters. I’m sure you’re aware that too. Too often God is given short shrift in Christian publishing. And that supposedly simply reflects American Christianity—many trappings, little substance.
That’s what I’ve had to accept—until the success of The Shack. Now I can ask: what if CBA (Christian) publishing doesn’t necessarily just reflect the problems in the church, but also perpetuates some of them? I used to believe that changing people’s hearts was the only way to show that the commonly held publishing assumptions about the “what’s-in-it-for-me?” audience have been off. But now The Shack may be proving there’s an audience hungry for something different—or at least intrigued enough to buy it.
I believe, like many of us, Eugene Peterson has seen this shift coming. The big Christian houses may not be ready to cut ties with their big accounts to chase this awakening audience—and the secular market is certainly not ready for that. But a small company like Windblown can be much more strategic. And that’s exciting to me, not least of all because God has been tapping me on the shoulder to consider my next step.
Honestly, I’ve been surprised to find so many people among the rank and file of Christian publishing who have longed for something that better reflects the breath of God to our culture. They, too, feel stymied by the corporate culture that markets to a demanding demographic instead of taking the risk to put something real and creative into the marketplace.
Brad and I have called this space ‘the Missing Middle’. We are convinced that there was a large group of Christian readers who are looking beyond the plastic answers and petty power structures of the Christian marketplace, and nonChristian readers who are ready to interact with stories and literature about the God of the Bible if they are engaging and relevant to the human struggle.
And now we’re finding that some publishers have been looking for that kind of material as well. Due to the success of The Shack, we are being invited to participate in some of the dialog that goes on in the top echelons of publishing across the U.S. Yes, we know they are wanting to share in the popularity of The Shack, but the invitations and the conversations have been wider than that. First of all, they have the capability to distribute far more books in far more places than we can. But more than that, they are inviting Windblown Media to a place at the table of putting books out there that encourage an out-of-the-box view of relationship with God, Christian community and engagement with the world that demonstrates that love and reality.
This is an excerpt of an email exchange from a C.E.O of one of the top-tier international book publishers:
Now that we’ve read So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore and He Loves Me, we are even more enthused about utilizing our skills to spread the messages of these books, plus the Shack. In fact, ever since we acquired (our Christian imprint), we have been in discussions with them about finding books which would appeal to those Christians who feel dissatisfied by the traditional Church, who are challenging the tenets of received dogma, who are no longer happy with the religion they acquired as children (emphasis mine). So it was with great pleasure that we discover these books at Windblown Media and see the strength of the message and stories in them!
I was quite impressed with the ways in which Wayne and his co-author, Dave Coleman, were able to put into words many thoughts I’d had myself about the ways in which today’s churches had become mostly rituals and rules, mostly about judgment and not about love or forgiveness. So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is an empowering book, which can really enable the reader to discover not only his or her own relationship with God, but also where and how he or she wants to express that relationship and, yes, worship.
I realize this is a market-driven industry and we’re a message-passionate team. We wouldn’t even be having these discussions if The Shack hadn’t been such a run-away best seller that has caught the industry by surprise. And I realize our opportunity to publish into that space will only last as long as we find an audience there willing to buy it. But Brad and I have felt for a long time that we wanted to speak into that space—not just through books, but movies as well. Now, we’re being invited to do so at a shockingly high level. Whether it will work out or not, is more in Father’s hands than ours. We realize he has been behind all of this.
We haven’t made a decision yet as to which company we will work with, but that decision is immanent and involves finding contractual language we can all agree upon. No matter which way we go, however, this will decisively impact my life and vocation for the foreseeable future. In many ways the last 12 years has been almost retirement for me. I’ve been in the background working on the books I love, traveling and meeting with people who are living this journey and dabbling in other opportunities such as BridgeBuilders and other people’s books as God has opened doors. I couldn’t have been more blessed at the simple life I was allowed to live. But it seems Father is inviting me into a different season that will put different demands on my life.
And add to all of this the fact that we are ramping up now to make the movie version of The Shack in which I will be significantly involved and you’ll see that my life is changing. We have been in meetings over the past few months with so many people in believers who are in the film industry, that we see Father assembling a pretty incredible team to help make that adaptation.
As fun as all of this might be, however, this increasingly invites me out of carefree schedule I’ve treasured for these past few years and into a workload and responsibility that will change some of those realities. I won’t be free to travel as often, at least in the short term. I won’t have as much space to do the articles and blogs as I have in the past, or even to have the extensive email dialogs I have had with people. But I am a firm believer that fruitfulness comes by our being responsive to different seasons in our lives and realizing that God calls us to different things at times, and we must have the freedom to respond.
Even with all of my misgivings, I am convinced that God is asking me to step into some space that will bring some radical changes into my life. I will be able to get back to some of the books I’ve wanted to write and to help others, who have something valuable to say to the body of Christ, find the place to say it.
I wish there was more I could say at this point, but there is so much that is still up in the air. Don’t worry about The God Journey. We have every intent of keeping that going as well as expanding it in some interesting ways in days to come. But I covet your prayers and your wisdom as God might speak to you about all of this. I will need some resource people alongside to help in the tasks that I’ve been able to do myself over the years and I have no idea who those people might be. One very specific request here is that God will provide an administrative assistant that is gifted in administration, editing and writing. I have no idea how to even begin to find such a person where we live.
But I know God is an amazing provider. And that he has things already lined up that I couldn’t figure out if I spent all day racking my brain. So, I’ll just move on like every other day—doing what he has put before me, knowing that my view of these things will get better in days ahead.
Stay tuned. There will be more details to follow.