A well-written devotional can remind readers of key truths of the Christian faith, spur thinking that leads to a positive life change, actually draw people closer to God. A poorly-written devotional? Well, God can use anything for His purposes . . . but let’s consider some ways to “do devotionals right.”
Just think how popular devotionals are—they comprise some of the best-selling and longest-lasting books in the Christian realm (for example, Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling), and they represent entire ministries (like Our Daily Bread, The Upper Room, and Living Faith). It’s no exaggeration to say that new devotional material releases every single day, in books and magazines, on-line, and in outlets like church bulletins. How can we best meet the needs of this hungry readership?
I’d like to propose a TEST for you—that’s Topic, Example, Segue, Takeaway. Nail down these four elements, in this order, and you’re on your way to an effective devotional reading. In two blogs to follow, we’ll consider each element in greater detail . . . but we’ll wrap up today with an overview from my own experience.
My full-time job is editing books, but I’ve written or contributed to numerous devotional projects over the years. My most recent is The Real Force—A 40-Day Devotional, published by Worthy Inspired in Nashville. Here’s how the TEST applies to it:
Topic: Star Wars. About a year and a half before the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I envisioned a book drawing parallels between characters, events, and themes in the first six films to characters, events, and themes in Scripture. Happily, a publisher also caught that vision.
Example: Here’s one of the forty in the book—the trash compactor scene of the very first film, later called Episode IV: A New Hope. I give a quick rundown of the rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star, by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Escaping from Imperial stormtroopers, the four jump down what turns out to be a garbage chute, ending up in a dank, smelly mess far below . . . and shortly, the walls start closing in. It struck me as a metaphor for life: in a world that’s already scary and dangerous, we sometimes end up in a really tight spot—and, frankly, it stinks.
Segue: Now we turn readers’ attention to God’s Word. In this case, I point out that three Bible characters—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—found themselves in a similar situation. As Jewish men exiled in Babylon, they were already in a scary and dangerous place. And when they chose not to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, they found themselves in a tight (actually a hot) spot, the “fiery furnace.”
Takeaway: What does all of this mean to readers today? God saved the day for S, M & A, but He delivered them through, not from, the flames. I point out that Jesus himself hoped to avoid the pain of the cross (Luke 22:39–42), but “for the joy set before him he endured” (Hebrews 12:2), and that James wrote that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3). Ultimately, readers walk away with some sympathy and some encouragement: “Tight spots aren’t fun. Sometimes they stink. But God has reasons for them, and He’ll always be right there with us.”
Have some devotional ideas knocking around in your mind? Jot them down and watch for Part 2, as we’ll consider a devotional’s Topic and Example in greater detail.