Recently I started doing environmental journalism for general audiences after writing primarily for Christian audiences for years. Like others who pivot between Christian and non-Christian audiences, I worried about my credibility for both audiences. Would my writing be seen as too religious for secular publications? Not Jesus-y enough anymore for Christian publications?
You may not be a journalist. But whether you are a Christian graduate student with an advisor who doesn’t share your faith, a Christian professor at a secular college, or a professional who wants to bring your faith to bear in your work, perennial questions arise: How much do I reveal about myself? What is important for others to know about me? How do I maintain a sense of integrity as I navigate different audiences?
Leaving Parts of Myself Out
Straddling different social worlds is not new for me. I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family in an almost all-white Southeast Texas town. After high school, I plopped into Wheaton College, “the Harvard of Christian colleges,” as the community only half-jokingly boasts. After four years of adjusting to the suburban evangelical culture at Wheaton, I did a year-long masters in social sciences at the University of Chicago, where the integration of faith and learning (a key element of my Wheaton education) was not discussed at all. In fact, in my ethnographic methods class at the University of Chicago, one student picked Wheaton College as her field site to study the oddities of collegiate American evangelicalism.
In any social group, I often feel the pressure to leave part of myself out. As my University of Chicago classmates laughed about the awkward male and female student interactions at Wheaton, for instance, I didn’t mention that I had actually attended Wheaton as an undergraduate. It felt too risky, at that moment, to identify as part of the outside group that was being observed and critiqued. But it also didn’t feel good to withhold part of myself. I have always longed toward wholeness, where, as the educator Parker Palmer has written, my insides and outsides align.
Wholeness has been a challenge for me in Christian settings, too, where there is pressure to tie up the loose ends to my unresolved questions with phrases like, “But I know God is in control” or “It’s all going to work out for my good and His glory.” Though I might come around to such conclusions eventually, it feels disingenuous to patch them on to gaping wounds as a way to minimize or ignore real suffering. There is less room when writing for Christian audiences, I’ve found, for the honest, “I really don’t know.”
Remaining in the Church
As a Christian who cares deeply about environmental issues, it’s tempting to exit the church entirely. The needle among people of faith seems to move too slowly toward climate action. It’s why I decided to pivot into environmental journalism. This move is a tangible way for me to address our collective ecological crisis with the gifts I have, for audiences who don’t turn away from the devastation but want to do something about it.
But I’ve stayed in the church, if only on the periphery, because of the relationships I have with other Christians. Despite my disillusionment with the church as an institution, the vulnerable and honest friendships I’ve experienced with individual Christians anchor me in the hope that those of us who desire to walk in the way, the truth, and the life that is Christ (John 14:16) may still have something to offer the world together.
It’s also helped to find subcommunities within the church of people who do care about the same things I do. Among others who share my conviction that earth-keeping is integral to our Christian calling, I no longer feel alone. There is the support and collective momentum to keep playing the long game, even if we don’t see immediate change within our local faith communities.
Whatever your passion, it requires patience, trust, and perseverance to continue communicating the insights from your field to Christian audiences who might not immediately see why the topic matters for people of faith. Being a bridge-builder isn’t fast work. It happens across a lifetime of learning and relationship development.
Code-Switching and Christianese
Code-switching, broadly speaking, is “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others” (Harvard Business Review, 2019). The term is often used in the context of racial minorities who adjust their mannerisms to fit into the dominant culture. It’s something I learned to do when I became a Christian as a teenager in the Bible belt and later as a student at Wheaton College.
Because I wasn’t raised in white, evangelical culture, I had to learn the ways of speaking that people used to signal they were part of this group. Phrases like, “It was a God thing” or “The Lord put it on my heart to…” or “loving on.” This isn’t to say I was performing. As I immersed myself in the teachings of my faith communities, it was natural for me to begin to speak like others in these communities.
But I didn’t use the same language when I spoke with my parents at home. For one, we spoke in Mandarin. But even in Mandarin, “Christianese” didn’t make sense to my parents, who grew up in non-religious, even anti-religious, settings in Mao-era China. I had to find other ways to explain my newfound faith to them.
So, I code-switched. I adjusted my ways of speaking from one context to the another to make others more comfortable. To signal that I belonged in these different groups. By the time I started freelance writing for Christian publications, I was steeped in the language of the church and spoke it fluently, as a native, so to speak.
But as my own faith has deepened, some phrases that Christians often use started to feel stale and meaningless. “God has a plan,” for instance. After years of wrestling with chronic pain and wondering what healing meant, hearing others say this to comfort me felt like their way of refusing to enter with me into the pain and unknowing. It has become harder and harder to speak Christianese.
Writing for general audiences, for me, forces me not to fall back on pithy, over-used statements like these. Can I express the trust that such a statement entails without using that phrase? Writing for non-faith audiences gives me the room to explore the unanswerable questions of life without having to stay within the theological guardrails that can sometimes stifle honest truth-seeking. But is it a slippery slope?
In Whom “All Things Hold Together”
In one of my Christian education classes at Wheaton, the professor, Jerry Root, made us memorize the phrase, “All truth can be plumbed deeper, applied wider, and seen in coherent relationship with other truths.” Fifteen years later, it is the only thing I can quote verbatim from my college years. I remember it because I come back to this insight over and over when my truth-seeking seems to take me too far from the fold of the church.
If Christ truly is the way, the truth, and the life, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), then any truth I discover will undoubtedly lead deeper into Christ. I need not be afraid that I will venture too far astray, because Christ is the fiber that binds everything that is real, good, and lasting in this universe.
Sinking deeper into this truth, I’ve become less dependent on the affirmation that comes from signaling I am part of this or that group, whether that’s environmental journalists or Christian writers. Perhaps the way I write or speak will not be comfortable at times to either audience, and I will have to find contentment at the margins of different publishing spaces.
But I’m also finding, more and more, that readers and editors are seeking out writing that is at the intersection of different worlds. Spirituality and health, or environment and religion, for instance. Christian and non-Christian audiences can be separate spheres, but there is a small but growing Venn-diagram overlap of folks asking questions of both fact and meaning, faith and science, what and what for. This is the space where I find the most exciting energy. Synergy, if you will. In these spaces, I can bring all my different questions and all the different parts of myself to the table. I gain the courage to go back to my more-siloed audiences and write with greater integrity.
Whatever audiences you find yourself pivoting between, don’t be afraid to ask the questions that no one else seems to be asking. Or to say, “Yeah, I’m one of those people, the people that we always talk about with disdain. And look, I’m one of you too!”
To live into the unanswerable, but absolutely-worth-asking, questions of our time, the world needs more bridge-builders. People who can code-switch, live with discomfort, and bring separate worlds together.
Photo by Freddie Marriage on StockSnap