It was October, 2008. The global financial markets were collapsing. Panic was in the air. The future looked bleak.
It especially did for William Thornton. The first five months of the year were horrible, said Thornton, a reporter for The Birmingham News and AL.com. Beginning in January, his father had a debilitating stroke that gradually robbed him of speech and mobility. This deprived his mother of a caregiver at a time when her Alzheimer’s Disease became more pronounced. About the time he was able to get them both in a nursing home, his father died. Then, in October, after a few calm months, his sister-in-law was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer.
But, as he sat in the hospital waiting room, he chewed on something he had read a week before in The Wall Street Journal. And in the midst of that turmoil, it struck him as funny: Church consultants—called mystery worshippers—were being used in churches in the United States. Like mystery shoppers, these people experience worship services as regular attendees, then examine how the body of Christ can do its job better. Did the guy at the front door shake your hand tightly? Were the restrooms tidy? Was church security sufficient? Would you want to come back here next Sunday?
And so, in the midst of an unpromising year, was born “Set Your Fields on Fire,” Thornton’s award-winning comic novel about mystery worshippers and the mystery of worship.
“I always saw this as a funny story,” Thornton said. “From the very first when I conceived this, I thought of people who go about the job very seriously, and that’s where the comedy comes from. Or maybe it has something to do with when the idea came to me. I needed some laughs.”
“Set Your Fields on Fire” follows the adventures of Alex Alterman, a mystery worshipper who leads a team of committed zealots examining churches by invitation and evaluating them according to a rigorous set of principles. The group is not above chicanery such as disguises, cover stories and surveillance equipment that would rival James Bond. But their aim is simple—to make sure the church takes its mission seriously.
“I thought it was a pretty serious subject, so the only way to approach it was from the humorous side,” Thornton said. “I think whatever message is in the story will resonate more among laughs. Humor is how much of the world communicates and explains itself to itself these days. Really, any story about any church is a story of people serving God, and people are funny.”
The church, both in America and globally, could use some mirth at the moment. Christians in some countries are undergoing historic persecution, while in America, surveys say almost every major branch of Christianity has lost a significant percentage of its membership, just as the number of Americans unaffiliated with a denomination rivals that of evangelicals.
Part of what makes the journey real is humor, Thornton said. One example he cites is from the Bible—the story of Jesus rebuking the waves—isn’t usually thought of as funny.
“But Jesus gets mad at the disciples! He’s been asleep, and it’s like He’s angry that they woke Him up, like you would be if somebody disturbed your sleep over something you thought wasn’t worth the trouble. When you think of it that way, it’s funny, and it teaches us about faith! Because that’s His attitude—‘What makes you think something awful is going to happen to you while I’m here with you?’”
Writing the book was one of the toughest tasks of his career, Thornton said, at a time of his life that was already challenging. Perhaps the best training for a crisis, he said, is writing.
“You hear people say about making it through a crisis one day at a time,” he said. “There are certain things you worry about, but you can’t let them dominate your thoughts because those things haven’t happened yet, and may never happen’ we walk by faith. Jesus doesn’t necessarily need to tell you how things are going to end up specifically. You just know that He’s in charge, and that’s what’s supposed to give you the strength to keep going.”
Set Your Fields On Fire
“I think the Lord expects us to take His business seriously, but not to take ourselves too seriously,” Thornton said. “If there’s anything I learned in my own experience, humor helped me keep things in perspective when nothing seemed right. If the book helps people focus more on how they can be used for His purposes, then it will have done some good.”
“Set Your Fields on Fire” took the grand prize in the 2015 Aspiring Authors Writing Contest with the Parable Group and WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson Publishers and Zondervan, the world’s largest Christian publisher. The manuscript was chosen from several hundred entries for publication and has been picked up by HarperCollins for distribution.
“Set Your Fields on Fire” is also available in softcover and e-book format on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million, as well as Parable Christian Stores. You can read the first chapter at Thornton’s blog, brilliantdisguises.blogspot.com.
William Thornton is the author of “Set Your Fields On Fire,” “The Uncanny Valley” and “Brilliant Disguises.” William is also a reporter for The Birmingham News and AL.com, a deacon in a Southern Baptist Church and teaches a Sunday School class.