Jonathan Acuff: He Knows About Stuff Christians Like
- Thursday, April 15, 2010
Okay. I'll admit it. The first time I opened Jonathan Acuff's book, Stuff Christians Like (Zondervan), I found myself frowning at the essay titles. Once I read the them, I laughed. Out loud. It didn't stop there. I couldn't put the book down and read all of it in two days.
Today, I'm a "follower" of the popular blog which helped birth the book, stuffchristianslike.net. And I'm a fan on Facebook, too. No, I'm not going to buy the "I Side Hug" T-shirt, but I do want one of the "Booty God Booty" buttons Jon has mentioned on his blog. What can I say? I'm hooked.
Wondering what makes Jon's material so enticing and funny? In his book Stuff Christians Like (which includes essays from his blog and newer essays written only for the book), he writes about his observations of how Christians worship and live out their faith at church and at home. I couldn't help but chuckle when I read Jon's essays. Truth permeates this book as this preacher's-kid-turned-writer really knows what he's talking about, yet with Jon's humorous satire we can step back, laugh and evaluate ourselves.
One of my favorite essays, "Thinking You're Naked," summarizes what I believe Jon communicates throughout his book. He gives us an understanding that despite our ways, we serve a God that loves us. Underneath all the exterior clutter, the purpose of the believer is not what we do, say, or even believe about ourselves, but how we genuinely demonstrate our love for God and for each other.
Another essay, "Booty God Booty," had me on my knees laughing. By the time I finished laughing, I experienced a moment of pure joy accompanied by peace. I understood that despite my behavior, God accepts and loves me exactly the way he created me.
What began as a blog for his family and friends has mushroomed overnight into a viral sensation and guilty pleasure amongst Christians worldwide. Jon writes what we're probably all thinking, but no one's saying. And now he's the one who's got a book deal. Recently, Jon shared about the blog, the book and what he hopes to accomplish with Stuff Christians Like …
Why don't you talk about the evolution of being a preacher's kid turned copywriter turned blogger turned author? Is this something you planned or was this a natural progression for you?
I feel like growing up as a pastor's kid—particularly a pastor's kid whose dad started a southern Baptist church in New England—I got to see how faith could be shared in an environment that wasn't hostile—that's probably too strong a word—but certainly, kind of ... had their walls up. Massachusetts isn't exactly a strong haven in the Southern Baptist Convention. And so I learned a lot about how to share faith in relevant, kind of honest ways. So that is probably where I started my faith training. Then as far as writing, I went down the journalism path for a little while—newspapers and what not—but I didn't like it. And I feel like what I really like to do is write action not art, and so what I try to write is about action ... ultimately. So, whether I'm a copywriter working for a client or I'm writing "Stuff Christians Like" the blog, or the book, I'm thinking about … what's the change that is gonna come out from this idea? At least that's the conversation of how it might start because I'm certainly not arrogant enough to think that everything I write changes something, but I like to think that it is a catalyst at times for conversation.
When you started StuffChristiansLike.net, you've said you were inspired by the blog, StuffWhitePeopleLike.com. Were you also just looking for an outlet to say what no one else was saying?
I had another site called "Prodigal Jon" that I'd written on for about a year or so—maybe 10 months—to like 100 friends. There were a handful of people who were telling me they didn't know me, but for the most part every reader was 3D. I'd actually interacted with them. They were family members. And so then when "Stuff White People Like" blew up, I just always have been kind of weirded-out of how we take ideas and put a little bit of God flavor on them—put them into Jesus ideas—so I thought how ironic to do that and write about that. … And I think day 8 or 9, 4,300 people showed up and I had told 100 people and it just went viral. So it has been kind of a day-by-day, drip-by-drip process. Yeah, definitely it has to be that I was inspired by "Stuff White People Like." Other people say it's more like a rip-off. It's always funny when people think they've exposed that. Every now and then there will be someone who says this is just a rip-off, as if they have "CSI'd" the whole thing. They are the ones that have "exposed the horror."
Talk about the development process for your blog posts. Do you plan out each day's topic in advance? Or is it more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants type of approach?
It really depends. I print out the month's views of calendars from Outlook so I have probably, you know, a little bigger than a postage-size stamp of a day and I write down these … ideas that I have that I'm gonna write about this month. And this is a process that is only about six months new. I used to write like that day, and what was happening is that I would end up writing into my work time—and I have a full-time job, and I think sometimes people think you're a blogger and you trip on money and you don't have to work. So usually what I do is plan them out, and what I found for me is that it gives me a chance to develop rhythm. I feel like as a writer, it's easy to get in a rut so I try to have three weeks' worth of posts already written and ready to go live.
And so what I usually do is I think about the idea the night before, and I let it play in my brain and kind of sleep on it and then the next day I'll do like a sprint where I write it for half an hour as fast as I can with no regard for quality—and I usually hate whatever comes out, but it's not about liking it at that point. And then I'll, a week later, come back to it and put it on the site and the day of I'll kind of Q/A it. By that point, I've spent about two weeks away from the idea and I'm objective enough not to beat it up. There are times where ... like I was watching American Idol last night and this girl said that her audition was "spiritual," and I tweeted that that could mean she loves Jesus or yoga. So now I thought I have to write an "idol" post. My blog is not that plausible. You don't come to me for the fresh, newest ideas but occasionally if there is something big in pop culture … I'll kind of jump in.
You've achieved many a young blogger's dream by getting a book deal out of a popular blog. How does that feel?
The whole thing is very weird. It's a lot more process than a blog. You get kind of addicted and intoxicated by the immediacy of a blog. If you have a thought you … just post it and it's out there. It's very industrial and very kind of quick. But the book … it's a lot slower process, but the book thing has been cuckoo. This whole thing ... I don't feel entitled to any of this. I feel very fortunate, very overwhelmed, in a lot of ways. It's such a big opportunity. I saw somebody saying the other day that pastors and bloggers should be accountable for the things that they say and I thought, "Oh my goodness, I didn't go to seminary." I wrote about Fergie the other day. Surely I'm not that type of person and so ... I was blown away, honored by Zondervan being interested in it. The whole experience has been much easier than I could of ever imagined. I honestly felt like they were gonna edit out some of the fun stuff. If anything, they amplified it. I had a great editor. You've read the book … the first line says: "If you buy this book God will make you rich." Right off the bat, it doesn't wait for you to get into the relationship. And so I couldn't be happier with what Zondervan did and how they improved what I was doing, and that's what they are good at.
Have you had special requests from readers who want you to blog about something in particular on the site?
I would say, yeah. I think that's a great point. One of the things about being a blogger is figuring out ways to have self-renewing concepts, so that you have readers that are sharing. That is one of the profitable things that I feel I have tapped into is a Christian underground of humor. So then when you look at the comments and you kind of … get a sense that "I'm not alone." I've been very fortunate to benefit from that great idea. The most benefit I got is when someone suggested I write about breaking up with someone after a retreat. I thought that was so smart, so head on, and I really feel like it's such a privilege for somebody who goes, "You know what, I'm not a writer, I don't have a blog, I don't have a platform, but here's one sentence, can you make it into 100?" And I get to do that. That's probably my favorite. You get some scary ones every now and then. There are a couple of criteria that I follow when it comes to taking an idea, so I certainly have to weed out some. The readers, a lot of times, have comments that are funnier than what I say. And that was hard to deal with at first, but it's good. I try to get out of the way of those people that are very talented.
What about blog posts that weren't successful and crashed and burned? Have there been any ones that made you say, "Whoa, I didn't know this subject matter was so controversial"?
There was one that blew up because I wrote it poorly. Like usually what I do is when I think I have something controversial, I'll read it to my wife. A lot of times she'll be like, "Okay you need to take down the jerk by like 10%." Or, "This is the wrong idea," and I just didn't read this one to my wife. I wrote this post about opposite-sex friendships when you're married, because I really feel like that's awkward. And I did such a poor job writing it that I kind of broke one of the blogging rules which is that you want people to talk about the topic or idea, not about how it was written. If people spend time talking about how I wrote it, they missed the idea. So I felt particularly bad about that one because people just took it the wrong way, and they really didn't get to talk about the idea which I feel it was a good one for Christians to talk about, and again, it was just not well written on my end at all. I think it was rushed, and it got messy. …
Unlike some other books that have released in the Christian marketplace as of late, you can tell that there is an underlying love for the church in Stuff Christians Like. Nothing is so mean-spirited or vicious that it causes the reader to wince. How did you find that balance between poking fun and speaking truth when discussing your observations of how Christians worship and live out their faith?
That is probably the hardest line I walk. I was just talking to some people about this yesterday, because sometimes I get lumped in with hateful stuff because you hear Christian satire and you automatically are like "Well, here is an outsider talking about us ... well maybe even an insider." I've had so many different people say to me, "Christian humor only comes in two varieties: easy or critical." … And so a lot of times … I think people … assume satire is mockery, and it's not. Mockery always has a victim. Mockery always has a target, and its goal a lot of times is to hurt somebody. For me, satire is just humor with a purpose. And ultimately my purpose is to share the love of Christ. And so I think mockery is a great shortcut to easy laughs, but it removes your ability to be able to speak in love later. So when I write the silly stuff, I'm really looking down the road and going, "Okay, on Wednesday—which is my serious Wednesday post—will I be able to really share my heart if I've acted this other way the whole week?"
Where I think bloggers—or writers and authors, too—get kind of torn up between is mockery is controversial and it will give you some nice traffic. But it's so short lived, and really if you read any of Proverbs, God hates mockers. And so I'm just too terrified to do it. And I get it wrong sometimes, but one of the rules I do is that I write about issues—not individuals. So for instance, if I was gonna cover prosperity ministries, I would cover the idea not a pastor because people are interested in the pastor. He's just another dude, another broken human like me. We'll talk about the issues. I feel like that is one of the rules that I have, and again I've failed at that and I could do better at that.
In one of your more serious blog posts you were able to raise a large amount of money in a short period of time by challenging your readers with a certain opportunity. Will you share about that and what happened?
Yeah, that was wild. … So my daughter, who was five at that time, Ellie said she saw a picture of a starving child in a book about weather and famine and she asked, "What is that, Dad?" And I said, "Well, that little boy doesn't have enough to eat." She was just flabbergasted and she said, "Well, that's pretend right? That's not real?" And in that question, I just heard her asking "You're not okay with that, right Dad? You're doing something about that, right? There's urgency, right Dad? That's not okay?" So really that challenged me. So I had worked, or my family and I had supported Samaritan's Purse for a couple of years, personally, and so they had a school you could build. So I contacted them, and it was in Vietnam. So I was really nervous about it because it's an intimacy level change for a blogger to say that. To say, "Hey let's do this." I've never raised money before. You look at folks like Anne Jackson at Flowerdust.net. She is a pro at that. That kind of is the rhythm of her site. I'm a silly satire site. And I had big huge ministry church organizations tell me, "Your readers will never raise money. That is not what you do." And had kind of written off the audience.
So one day, on a Monday in November, I said … "What if" And I thought it would take six weeks to raise the thirty grand, but we did it in 18 hours. And Samaritan's Purse was blown away, I was blown away and we felt like wow, we totally underestimated God's size. So we did a second kindergarten and we raised another 30K. All in all, we raised about 60K in 25 days. The gifts were from $5 to $6,000. Really, again, too big for me to sit here and say, "Well, isn't Jon great?" The readers were crazy, God was crazy. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, our biggest newspaper, did an article. They ended it by me saying, "It's not my talent; it's just that God likes doing crazy things." Even that is a miracle that this secular paper ended it with me putting the praise where it belongs. The whole experience was just very humbling.
What do your friends and family think about what you're doing as a blogger and now as an author? And as a pastor, what does your dad think?
He just laughs. He always says eventually he'll quit and manage my Facebook page. He is always saying ridiculous stuff. Parents are so optimistic. … I had a conversation with one of the biggest movie studios of the world about doing a movie version. I thought that's just ridiculous. It's flattering, but where do you put that? And the Dr. Phil show contacted me, and so it's stuff like that that we are just like I'm just this dorky blogger that gets sweaty when he gets nervous. I've got a unibrow. I'm not cool. They think it's pretty neat, but every leader I talk to … I keep talking to leaders about how do I not mess this up? Because I really believe that fame and adoration is one of the drugs that is killing Christianity and ministers. And you can see these guys skyrocket away kind of into their own ego thing. And a lot of times every leader I talk to says, "Well, does you wife think you're a big deal?" And I say, "No." "Well then keep that."
So you know my family has been amazingly supportive. Part of it that's fun is I'll call my brother and I tell him that this really important pastor commented on my blog and he will be like, "I've never heard of him." And I'll say, "Yeah, you're right." Or at work, the game I'll play is I'll name the biggest Christian name I know and I'll go to my friends and say, "Hey, you think my book will sell as much as Rob Bell's?" And they will say, "Who is Ron Bell?" "Yeah, thanks. …" Work keeps me very humble. Forty hours of work … nobody tells me I'm the next generation of Christian leaders; they tell me, "Where is my time sheet?" So, I have a whole network of people that are keeping me humble.
You attend a mega-church, which is probably a rich petri-dish of ideas for you. So, in picturing the staff there—the Sunday School teachers, the parishioners—they're probably all running away from you like you're King Kong or something. As in, "Oh no, there's Jon. He's going to blog about us!"
I don't know that there is anyone at church that does that, but I have some people say, "Don't blog this." And even my six-year-old daughter Ellie—we were at a restaurant, a diner, and she was so focused on pancakes that when the waitress said what she wanted to drink she said, "Pancakes." And she immediately turned to me and said, "Don't tweet that." It's stuff like that. But part of going to a mega-church is like I'm just one like out of a million other people. And the thing I feel really blessed about is that Andy Stanley is one of the kind of pastors that achieves massiveness, and I never have to hear him explain to me why he needs a private jet. He is so down to earth with everything he does. He hasn't made fame a definer of success that I feel really fortunate to sit under his leadership. … And I certainly don't mean that as an attack on other ministers who do that, but for me personally it's been helpful.
You've said that one of your goals for Stuff Christians Like, the book, is to get people thinking and foster conversation. Anything else that you would like to see the book accomplish?
I guess for me—and some people won't probably believe this—but I would love to see the book used as a tool of evangelism. Because I feel and have joked about that in the book, but I really feel like it's the kind of thing that can show somebody who is far from God and go hey, there are Christians that get it. They get the silliness, and they get what matters most. For me, I'd love to see that. I guess, too, is that I'm learning to trust that God is such a mustard-seed kind of God that it's not right for me to get out of shape about what I want to do.
I got an e-mail from somebody in Washington state that said he was mentoring a meth addict who is in jail and [said] "I print out some of your serious posts," and he reads them in his cell block and they do a Bible study. Now clearly, I did not sit in Atlanta and say, "How do I reach cell block D in Oregon?" But God loves doing that. So I'm trying to be patient and faithful and do the day by day … and I think that is what good writers do. They just overflow with what God is flowing into them, so I guess that is one of my hopes. I want to write more books. I want to write a book that are all serious Wednesday posts. Kind of like the last chapter of Stuff Christians Like, the book. Because it's the stuff that is most powerful and it's the stuff that is most popular and has the greatest impact. So I'd love for the book to do well enough for me to do a second book. But again, I'm humbled that I got only one, and I'm gonna see what happens.
So are you already stockpiling some of your serious Wednesday posts, just in case?
Yeah, I kind of have three next book ideas. One is about work because I can't tell you the amount of people I meet who go, "I am not doing what I was meant to do at work." Our generation has this sense of entitlement like no other generation. … There's a whole generation of people who are going, "Like how do you do something extraordinary in an ordinary day?" And that is what I do, and I'm doing an extreme example of it. I'm getting off a plane after talking in Chicago, and then its like it didn't happen. I change clothes in the handicap stall, and it's just like you do a reverse Superman. It's kind of this sense of I really want to go against the Christian self-help books that kind of say to serve God you have to quit your job and move to Guam. And kind of the expectations that you can't love the people you are around, so that is one of the book ideas I'd really like to engage about … be in that conversation with people.
I talked to a comic book illustrator. "What you do full time?" He said, "I sell aircraft paint." Or I'll talk to another friend that says, "I want to be an actor." And I'll say "Well, are you doing any of that on the weekends?" And they say, "No." He kind of has this sense that magically it will all happen at once or not at all. So I'd love to engage in that how do you serve God where you are with what you have—not how to wait for that "eureka."
Is there a book tour planned to go with Stuff Christians Like?
I think I'll be around places, but I feel like Zondervan, and I believe this to be true too, my greatest influence is through online. Like often what happens is if I do a speaking event I get a good turnout sometimes. I did a meet and greet with Catalyst and two people came. And it was horrible and one of them was my friend who came with me. And granted it was a year and a half ago, and I had prepared a like a hundred quizzes to hand out to the masses of people. It was very humbling. I took a picture of me alone in a room. I keep that picture to keep me humble. In that moment I felt like God is about filling up hearts not rooms; don't get it backwards. So I think book tours—I'd love to go on one. But the reality is when I do an event, a thousand people in New Zealand are like sorry I couldn't come. So I think we are trying to figure out how online do you do stuff like that. This weekend, I'm going to Birmingham to speak at a banquet for Vietnam. I'm going to do a meet and greet in just a cafe and hopefully more than two will show up. But you know, we'll see.
For the last ten years, Jonathan Acuff has written advertising for clients ranging from the Home Depot to Chick-fil-A®. In addition to his many day jobs, he also blogs daily at www.stuffchristianslike.net. He and his wife live with their two daughters outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
To read more about Jonathan Acuff, his book, Stuff Christians Like, or to read his blog, please visit www.stuffchristianslike.net.
**This interview first published on April 15, 2010.
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