Religion Publishers Address New Issues to Court Millennials

By Kimberly WinstonJewishSocialJusticeWeb2

It’s a story as old as humankind—an older generation makes way for a younger one. That shift is now playing out in religion publishing, where books about social issues are moving away from divorce, abortion, marriage, and other baby boomer obsessions to focus on the environment, sexuality, poverty, immigration reform, and other problems that concern Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000.

Publishers also say they are now looking to capture readers who do not belong to a church or other religious institution—the so-called “nones,” or “unchurched.” Says Adrienne Ingrum, senior editor at Hachette Book Group’s FaithWords imprint, “There’s a new generation of Christians that handles the intersection of religion and social issues differently than the previous generation.” She adds that there is a “spirit of a rising group of under-40 activist Christians who are personally devout and Bible-centric, but not tethered to church. They find community online, at concerts and conferences, and their Sunday sermon is religion shelves at bookstores or They’re an exciting generation to read and publish.”

Who are these Millennials and what are their passions? According to polls from both the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute, they are a bundle of contradictions. Less likely to be religiously affiliated than their parents, many still are likely to say they pray daily. One quarter are married, half as many as their parents. Almost two-thirds say homosexuality should be accepted by society, and almost half say abortion should be legal in most cases. A higher percentage say global social issues such as sex trafficking, the environment, and poverty are more important to them than to their parents.

Perhaps most relevant to religion publishing, they have rejected the authority of religious institutions in favor of the authority of their own experience. “These are people who, by many traditional measures of belief in God and the Bible, look like people who are affiliated,” Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, recently told Religion News Service. “But in the survey they say they are not attached to a formal religious tradition and do not even identify with a nondenominational Christian church.”

An Evangelical Shift

All of that is reflected in books on religion and social issues, with many such titles coming from evangelical Christian houses—a newer development, since for the previous generation being an evangelical was more about personal piety than social activism. At Jericho, another Hachette imprint, the mission is to publish voices that come from outside church walls. In City of God: Faith in the Streets (Feb.), Sara Miles (Take This Bread) writes about urban ministry. The Invisible Girlsby Sarah Thebarge (Apr.) is about her encounters with Somali refugees to the U.S.; The Way of Tea and Justice by Becca Stevens (July) examines fair-trade practices. From FaithWords comesJesus Is Better Than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt (Apr.), who writes about finding God in unexpected places—such as in being the victim of a crime or confronting abuse. Ingrum says these young writers tackle the same subjects as authors who came before them, but with a focus on experience, not doctrine. “For the previous generation, credentials mattered,” Ingrum says. “Now that is much less the case. Life matters, voice matters, self-revelation matters.”

That emphasis on the experiential means a lot of books looking at how the author attempts to right social ills through the lens of faith. This season, a number of them center on orphaned and poor children. Andrea Doering, executive editor at Baker’s Revell imprint, which in April will publishHope Runs: An American Tourist, a Kenyan Boy, a Journey of Redemption by Claire Diaz-Ortiz and Samuel Ikua Gachagua, says these titles appeal to younger readers of faith because social justice issues are less divisive than culture war flashpoints like sexuality and abortion.

“No one is going to tell you they are for poverty or slavery,” she says. “Speaking out on those issues gives Christians a way to connect with the needs of the world. It is a sense of being for something, rather than being identified by what you don’t do” or don’t approve of. Other books with a personal point of view include Stolen: The True Story of a Sex Trafficking Survivor by Katariina Rosenblatt and Cecil Murphey (Revell, Oct.), Philip Cameron’s memoir of his work with orphans in They Call Me Dad: How God Uses the Unlikely to Save the Discarded (Higher Life, Apr.); and Rich in Love: When God Rescues Messy People by Irene Garcia with Lissa Halls Johnson (David C. Cook, Feb.), about Garcia’s family of 32 children.

Generational Change

Homosexuality is still a hot topic, but where authors of earlier generations focused on morality, this generation focuses on spirituality. “One trend we are seeing is publishing for those who have been harmed by or left out by religion,” says David Maxwell, executive editor at the Presbyterian publisher Westminster John Knox Press, citing The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart by Mark Achtemeier (June). “Another trend is publishing for seekers who may not have grown up in the church and come from a more socially liberal perspective,” he adds. Some of those seekers who identify as evangelical are looking to mainline Christian and even general interest publishers, “perhaps because traditional Christian publishers are not comfortable with some of the positions [these authors] would like to take in their writing. Westminster John Knox is beginning to attract some of them to our program.” Baker’s Brazos Press imprint tackles homosexuality in Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gays in the Church by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter (May). From the indie press Skyhorse Publishing comes The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians by Kate Fagan (May); WaterBrook’s new Convergent line has God & the Gay Christianby Matthew Vines (May).

Millennials of faith are more interested in poverty, immigration, and the environment than their forebears, and titles are beginning to reflect that. These subjects, says David Zimmerman, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, “are not controversial compared to abortion and divorce, especially for a generation that’s grown up recycling and with conspicuous immigrant populations in their schools.”

Such topics are a particular emphasis for IVP, which is publishing Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel (Feb.);Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed About God’s Abundance by Caryn Rivadeneira (Apr.); Let Creation Rejoice: Hope & Ecological Crisis by Robert S. White (June); and Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke (July). Zimmerman also sees a turning away from easy answers for social ills and a move toward practical ways of coping with them. “We don’t want our faith to land on top of cultural issues and stamp them into submission,” he says. “We want our faith to commingle with the era we live in, to help us make sense of it, to help us make it better.”

Evangelical Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, now a part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, has long offered titles that propose faith solutions to social problems, but Webster Younce, publisher and executive editor of the Nelson Books imprint, says those books are changing. “Our readers are as interested as ever in exploring how their faith can and should relate to social issues,” he says. “But now they seem less concerned with political approaches and partisan labels and more with taking action individually and in communities for the common good, locally and globally.” New from Nelson in April are Love, Skip, Jump: Start Living the Adventure of Yes by Shelene Bryan, about providing clean water for poor children; Hope Rising: How Christians Can End Extreme Poverty in This Generation by Scott Todd; and Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue and Redemption by Vinh Chung.

Another evangelical house, Moody Publishers, looks at racial diversity and creating unity inUnited: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (Mar.), first-time author Trillia Newbell’s vision of what a diverse church might do. Paul Santhouse, Moody’s publisher, recognizes there is great racial and ethnic diversity among Christians, especially younger ones, but believes successful titles on social issues will tap into what connects them. “We like to see a natural expression of diversity in the authors we publish and are striving to achieve an ethnically neutral style,” he says. “That is how we demonstrate our shared identity in Christ.” Another evangelical publisher, Kregel, looks at race and other issues with Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel Is Good News for the Cityby Christopher W. Brooks (June). American Baptist publisher Judson Press has Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color (Feb.) by Mi-hee Kim Kort.

Catholic Consciousness Evolves

The Catholic Church has a long history of social consciousness and activism. Orbis Books looks at social issues from a Catholic perspective, and with them also, says acquiring editor Jim Keane, the focus has moved “from the pelvic issues to the public.” He adds, “Younger generations are immediately wary of most expressions of public Christianity that focus on sexual issues, and that presents a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to interest them in or re-engage them with their faith traditions, while the opportunity is to bring to light the hidden secrets of Christianity,” among which he counts its positive view of ecology and its defense of workers and the poor. New Orbis titles reflect those concerns, including Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis by Christiana Z. Peppard (Feb.), Jesus Was a Migrant by Deirdre Cornell (Apr.), and La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs by Lucia Cerna and Mary Jo Ignoffo (May). Also from a Catholic worldview, Rizzoli Ex Libris is publishing Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action by Marybeth Lorbiecki (Apr.). Such titles illustrate another trend, Orbis’s Keane says. “As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, a huge percentage of Catholic authors were priests of European descent. Today that is no longer the case. Our spring catalogue includes seven priests, but twice that number of women, as well as a large number of men and women of color.” And Urim, a Jewish publisher, weighs in with The Soul of Jewish Social Justice by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (May), which examines how Judaism’s wisdom can be applied to such contemporary problems as education reform, immigration, and business ethics.

How might the subcategory of books on religion and social issues mature as Millennials age? IVP’s Zimmerman says to be prepared to tackle more issues that Millennials have been aware of since childhood, such as war, economic inequity, and racism. “I suspect there are things to be written about a culture of violence, and I hope there will be more breakthroughs in writing about racial justice and reconciliation,” he says. WJK’s Maxwell says he expects authors to explore the criminal justice system, the legalization of marijuana, the nature of marriage, and the interaction between religion and politics. And Revell’s Doering believes major change is on the way. “A decade ago, people like Brian McLaren and others in the emergent church movement said quite forcefully, ‘here is what the church is not.’ What you’re seeing now is the other shoe dropping, [authors who are saying] ‘this is what the church is.’ And it looks a lot like addressing real needs around us.”

This article first appeared in Publishers Weekly.



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