Writing is hard. Always. It takes time and discipline, skill and creativity, guts and humility, no matter the context or the audience.
Writing for Lutherans is especially hard.
Like Martin Luther, Lutheran readers tend to be both highly intelligent and steadfastly faithful. We do not suffer fools or heretics gladly. Like Luther, we can be compassionate, generous and warm-hearted — the sort of folks who will give you the shirt off our back and a savory casserole to go with it. Like Luther, however, we can also be critical, cantankerous curmudgeons who will not hesitate to bring the full force of Luther’s legendary insults crashing down on an unsuspecting social media comment thread if someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like Luther, we prefer our doctrine pure and our writing snappy.
Just because writing for Lutherans is hard, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it or that we can’t do it well. Throughout my career, and especially during my time as managing editor of The Lutheran Witness, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy musing about how to write for Lutherans. And while I cannot pretend to have completely cracked the code — it would take many more years and brain cells than I possess to accomplish that — I have winnowed out a handful of solid principles that shape my writing today.
In this column and those that follow, I’ll share a few pieces of this hard-won wisdom about writing for Lutherans. In an age of social distancing and pandemic precautions — when in-person events are rare and many pastors and church leaders find themselves writing for Lutherans more often, and with more at stake than ever before — I hope these brief reflections will prove useful.
The first and last rule of writing for Lutherans
The first, last and most important rule of writing for Lutherans is this: Be Lutheran.
What this does not mean
What I do not mean by this is that your writing must sound Lutheran. It’s easy — far too easy — to sound like a Lutheran when you write. Liberally sprinkle your work with quotes from Luther and Walther. Add in regular snippets from Paul Gerhardt’s hymns. Remind readers often to “remember your Baptism” and “pray the Catechism.” Toss in regular references to “Law and Gospel,” “the Two Kingdoms,” “Word and Sacrament ministry,” “sola Scriptura,” and any of dozens of other examples of Lutheran theological jargon.
Writing in a way that sounds Lutheran is fine, insofar as it goes. I’ve read and been blessed by many pieces of writing that sound very Lutheran by these standards. Even so, this is not what I mean when I say that to write effectively for Lutherans one must be Lutheran.
What this does mean
When I say that writing well for Lutherans requires you to be Lutheran, I mean exactly what I say: Be Lutheran. Live, think, believe and interact with the world as a Lutheran. Let every word, every jot and tittle that you write be shaped by who you are as a Lutheran — a miserable sinner redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection and raised to new life by God’s grace in Holy Baptism. This Gospel truth is who you are and what defines you. It manifests itself in every aspect of your life: how you treat others, how you spend your time, how you use the resources God has given you. It also almost inevitably manifests itself in what you write and how you write it.
Writing from the core of your being
In other words, write from the core of your being as a Lutheran. To show you what I mean about the connection between being and writing, let me explain it using another core identity marker that defines my life and writing: my gender.
I am a woman. Every cell in my body is female. I see the world through female eyes. I cannot turn this reality on and off at my own convenience. Every moment I live, every experience I have, every word I write is as a woman.
This doesn’t mean that my writing always sounds female. I don’t write inspirational Bible studies or romantic fiction (to lean into the stereotype of the Christian woman author). I don’t regularly share my deep feelings with the world (to lean into another stereotype). I don’t limit my scriptural allusions to Sarah, Ruth, Esther, Mary and that Proverbs 31 woman. Indeed, when I plugged the first few hundred words of this article into the Hacker Factor’s online “Gender Guesser” tool just now, it pegged my writing as “65% male.” It doesn’t matter. None of this changes the truth: My writing is female because I am female. It could not be otherwise.
What does this mean?
Well, then, you may say: “By that logic, I am a Lutheran, so my writing will naturally also be Lutheran. No problem there. How exactly is any of this helpful?”
Wait a moment, though. Examine yourself (always a good Lutheran practice) and ask: How Lutheran am I, really? It’s a dangerous question, I know, but one that’s extremely important to ask regularly if you write for the church.
Every cell in my womanly body was encoded “female” from conception, but no one is born Lutheran. Each one of us enters into the faith through the waters of Holy Baptism. Each of us grows up in the faith as we study the Bible and learn the Small Catechism. Each of us is sustained by prayer and nourished by Christ’s body and blood. Each of us practices our faith in our everyday life as we serve our neighbor and glorify the God who has redeemed us.
Yet not one of us is perfect at this “Lutheran” thing. We are all sinner-saints. We know how easy it is to grow weary and how tempting it is to slide away. Most of us (dare I say all of us?) know how it feels to go days or weeks or months without cracking a Bible, darkening a church door, or whispering a single prayer. We know how it feels to turn little by little away from God and slowly become a lukewarm in our faith (Rev. 3:14–22).
The thing is (and I speak from painful experience here), it is astoundingly easy to keep sounding Lutheran no matter how un-Lutheran your life has become. Pious words make a wonderful smokescreen. But underneath the polished veneer of theological jargon, your writing suffers. Your readers suffer. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad tree just doesn’t.
If you want to be better at writing for Lutherans, then, be Lutheran. You don’t have to quote the Lutheran Confessions in every paragraph you write, but it is important that you know them, love them, live them. Beyond that? Go to church. Confess your sins. Hear the Word. Receive the Sacrament. Study the Bible. Pray. Serve. Give. Doing so will not only bring you great joy and deep faith; it will also give you words that are real and good and true to share with your readers, whatever the topic or genre of your writing may be.
More on that “truth” thing next time, though.