Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What happened to writing?

I admit, I've been doing a lot of reading in a very narrow subset of a niche market: Books about designing/directing Christian Worship.  Be that as it may, I wonder why so many people who write about worship can't seem to write.  (An aside: I won't get into any detailed criticism here, but Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life book is another example of terrible writing in Christian Lit.)

I just recently finished Emerging Worship by Dan Kimball.  There are two forewords, by David Crowder and Sally Morgenthaler.  Both forewords are better written.  I've never met Dan Kimball, or been to his church (Vintage Faith), so he may be a dynamic speaker, an effective and creative leader, a person of great spiritual depth.  But he can't write, and apparently Zondervan couldn't be bothered by assigning him a good editor. 

Kimball's problems start with a poor vocabulary.  A good vocabulary results in an economy of words and a precision in meaning; a poor one yields vague, shallow wordiness. People that lack a good vocabulary start reusing some words and misusing others in an attempt to avoid the words they have been reusing.  They attempt to sound sophisticated, but in so doing expose their weak writing all the more.  When I graded papers of undergrads, I saw this sort of writing all the time.

For example, he writes on page 172: "Historically, church ministry functions in a certain way and there was a specific approach to looking at the church leadership structure.  But Graceland [an alternative/emerging worship gathering] started going against the norms of consistency and church uniformity!"  Lots of words, little clarity--I really have no idea what he is saying except that Graceland operated in a different way than the main church.

Or another passage, this time on the following page: "Instead of our discussions being exciting ones about mission and innovation, they turned into discussion about squeezing Graceland into how the rest of the church functioned....So, once again we began having discussions."  Again, clumsy and vague

So what if I were writing it?  Here's my armchair editorial suggestion: "Where our discussions used to focus outwardly on mission and innovation, they now focused inwardly on on conforming Graceland to the rest of the church....So we went back to the drawing board."

But the book suffers from a larger problem: Kimball is trying to represent a movement that resists generalizations.  Emergents--and Dan Kimball is one--champion the unique identity of each worshipping community and reject formulas for designing worship. (See his most recent post from Out of Ur . "It depends on..." is his mantra.)  He avoids making specific recommendations because he believes each worship gathering should be unique, but the consequence is that his writing lacks focus and purpose.

Another book I read recently, Designing Worship Teams by Cathy Townley, suffers from this same problem.  Because she asserts that each body of believers has its own way of operating (it's unique DNA, in her terminology), she takes pains to avoid specific recommendations, for fear that she will be guilty of fostering the very kinds of formulaic worship gatherings she decries.  (See my review on Amazon for more thoughts on that book.)

Both Kimball and Townley would do better to tell their specific stories, explaining what they have done and why.  This would allow them to write with clarity and depth, since they know their own stories well.  In fact, the best part of Kimball's book is when he profiles several Emerging Worship gatherings, giving specifics about what each gathering is like, and some background from leaders of those gatherings on why they approach worship the way they do.  Kimball still isn't a great describer because of his poor vocabulary, but at least he isn't obfuscating.  Townley makes no real mention of any specific situation she has been involved in, and that omission left me curious and a little frustrated.

Telling ones story in this way leaves it up to the reader to determine what elements of their ministries will transfer well, and does open the door to some futile attempts to copy their approach.  That could be easily warned against in an introduction or opening chapter, and those who disregards such an instruction will learn soon enough their mistake.  The rest of us would actually have a good, helpful book.

1 comment:

William said...

Has writing quality suffered because it's slice of the communication pie has declined with the growth of the telephone?

Might writing improve because of all the practice millions are getting on blogs?

One thing's for sure: "of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes XII.xii).