The Mission Field of Young Adult Fiction

Re-examining Cultural Engagement with the Next Generation

ID-100391359If the church is always one generation away from extinction, as is commonly said, then it makes sense that the next generation would be an important mission field for Christians. Groups like Child Evangelism Fellowship, Evangelism Explosion, Youth for Christ International, AWANA, and many more seek to stave off generational extinction by sowing to the future. But while youth culture is often seen as primed and receptive for the Gospel, it is also perceived as existing within a rather narrow window. Which is why Jay Kesler, former president of Youth for Christ International, once said, "Any evangelism after high school isn't evangelism. It's really salvage."

As contemporary culture has changed, so has evangelical engagement of youth.

For example, Teen Mania was once one of the largest, most recognizable youth ministries in the world. Its most popular event, Acquire the Fire, was held in 33 cities nationwide and drew more than 3 million attendees. But after financial difficulties forced the group to close its doors in 2015, others speculated that disconnect with postmodern culture was one of the issues. Laura Turner, writing at Religion News Service, suggested that “young people are growing up in a different, more pluralistic society than those who were raised in the 1980s and 90s. The closing of Teen Mania is part of a shift in evangelical engagement in public life—younger Christians no longer want to fight the culture wars that their parents did with the Moral Majority.”

Indeed, the question of how to engage postmodern youth culture has become one of the more pressing issues for evangelicals with an eye toward future generations. But while pluralistic, postmodern culture has made some forms of missional outreach to youth archaic, it has simultaneously opened new avenues of outreach for trailblazing creatives. One such “mission field” is the YA (Young Adult) fiction market.

Back in August 2012, Publishers Weekly declared “Christian YA Fiction Coming into Full-Bloom.”

Christian teen fiction is coming into its own these days as sales rise for both digital and traditional books, and as publishers look for the next bestselling series. While Christian publishers haven’t found juggernauts that compare to Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, or the Twilight series, it’s not for lack of trying.

Though the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) was slow in coming to the YA party, the trend towards YA fiction is growing as more Christian publishers develop imprints, tween mysteries, and stories aimed at youth. But while evangelical authors and publishers should be commended for recognizing the vibrancy of this expanding market, this trend in Christian publishing is potentially problematic and symptomatic of the Christian subculture in general. For while Christian YA engages existing Christian readers by providing “alternative fare,” a huge, untapped, fertile field of YA readers remains in the general market.

Thankfully, more publishers and Christian authors are seeking to bridge this gap and reach this generation of un-evangelized, unchurched YA readers.

Jessica Khoury is a good example. Khoury’s popular YA debut, “Origin” (published by Razorbill, the YA imprint of Penguin Books), deals with the heady subject of genetic engineering and eugenics. Though published in the general market, Khoury is not shy about sharing her faith. In her interview with The Talon, she described her book as “pre-evangelistic”:

ORIGIN is not Christian fiction, but it is certainly influenced by my Christian faith. In a way, it’s what you’d call pre-evangelistic -- something which attempts to get people to ask the sort of questions that ultimately can only be answered in Christ.

While Khoury writes in hopes of provoking spiritual questions in her readers, other Christian YA novelists believe “emotional authenticity” with today’s youth is essential to winning their ear with a larger message.

Mary Weber’s popular Storm Siren Trilogy (published by Thomas Nelson) has garnered much critical praise from outside the traditional CBA ranks. In an online discussion, Weber expounded upon the need to understand today’s postmodern youth:

What most of the youth of today want more than anything is authenticity. Emotional authenticity and truth-authenticity. They don't want opinions -- they want someone to be unafraid to be real and accept them as they are. To talk sex and divorce and drugs and life and heartache with -- without feeling they can't measure up. They want to be entertained and respected that they can find elements of truth and God and honor in a story without needing a [S]cripture or certain Christian vocabulary spelled out.

Indeed, talking “sex and divorce and drugs and life and heartache” may be what actually prevents much Christian YA from engaging a broader audience. Today’s young adults talk openly about STDs, sexual orientation, gender reassignments, suicide, and school shootings, subjects often anathema in Christian households. One possible reason that Christian YA fiction has a problem engaging the general market YA reader is a Pollyanna approach to real-world issues.

Rachel Marks, author of the popular Dark Cycle trilogy (Skyscape) writes, “Speaking as a mom of four teens and as a Christian teen who was highly misunderstood, I think for a long time [Christian] YA has leaned too much in a Pollyanna direction. . . . Ambiguity of spirit and morals isn't allowed. But life is full of these things.”

It’s a tricky issue for Christian publishers, as the Publisher’s Weekly article referenced above acknowledged:

“Christian publishers walk a tightrope,” says Cook’s [Don] Pape. “We want to be real and deal with life issues, but also be redemptive and provide a light in the dark. We’ve had some parents return books because they’re dark, but when you look at what kids are into in the real world, you see the tension.” [Shannon] Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah agrees: “There are [Christian market] constraints on how candid we can be with our teen readers. Parents want a good, clean read, but kids are saying that’s not what’s happening in their lives.”
Wanting “clean reads” for our children while they grow up in an R-rated world inevitably leads to disconnect. Yet “connecting” with today’s postmodern youth culture is indeed one of the most important issues facing evangelicals. So while some forms of missional outreach to youth have become archaic, new opportunities continue to present themselves. The YA fiction market appears ripe for harvest. Evangelicals must find their balance on this cultural tightrope, and seek to embrace and empower the missional-minded creatives already working this field.

Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Mike Duran is a novelist and a blogger at deCOMPOSE. His latest novel is "The Ghost Box" (Blue Crescent Press, 2014).

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The Mission Field of Young Adult Fiction
How about the basics of what Jesus taught: Go into all the world and preach, "The Gospel", not social change. And, as Jesus stated in Acts 1:8, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. Start with your family, friends, classmates, co-workers, neighbors. If more Christians spent time in prayer for the lost to get saved and then were will to share the good news with those around them, more change would occur. We don't need more programs and events. We need the Saints to live right, pray and witness. It's that simple.