William Thornton understands the mercurial nature of inspiration. After 20-plus years in journalism — currently covering East Alabama for the Alabama Media Group — Thornton has learned that hard work and discipline — not sitting around waiting for divine intervention — is what gets stories get written, either for a newspaper or a book.

Thornton has recently published his third novel, inspired by a 2008 story in The Wall Street Journal, the headline of which read: "The Mystery Worshipper: To try to keep their flocks, churches are turning to undercover inspectors, who note water stains, dull sermons and poor hospitality."

The idea of mystery worshippers became the plot for Thornton’s latest novel, "Set Your Fields on Fire," about Alex Alterman and his "dedicated band of nitpicking zealots" who are hired to evaluate a Florida megachurch and its enigmatic pastor.

Thornton imagined the type of person who would be a mystery worshipper, and then what might happen if such a "hardcore" person was dropped into a church environment with the sole mission of picking it apart.

"The comedic aspects were ready-made," he said. "Then I borrowed from "Oceans 11" because I wanted the story to seem vaguely familiar. There’s an older character, a young learner, a female searcher, the zealot, and the voice of reason, as well as an adversary.

"Doing this also gave it a little suspense, because it becomes like a heist film, or a heist film about Sunday school, you might say."

The novel has been well received, winning the grand prize in the Aspiring Authors Writing Contest sponsored by WestBow Press and The Parable Group, a Christian retailer and marketing firm. The book has since been picked up for distribution by HarperCollins, and is available on Amazon.

The slow death of churches

Having taught Sunday school at his Southern Baptist church for 13 years, as well as being an active member and volunteer, Thornton has witnessed the changes and struggles his and other churches have endured — namely a decline in memberships, attendance and volunteers.

While it is comedic, "Set Your Fields on Fire" examines how churches exist and why they fail.

"There’s a moment in the book," Thornton said, "when the main character loses it with his people and says, ‘This is the most important thing in the world!’ I mean, if you believe in what Christ says about himself, then worshipping him and leading others to him is exactly that. But how many people take it that seriously?"

A few years ago, Thornton was touring an old church when he noticed names on the walls of those who once donated money to the church for renovations or new stained glass windows. While their names were still there, the church they loved was gone, its congregation scattered.

Precious things don’t vanish suddenly, Thornton realized. They quietly slip away when we aren’t paying attention.

"It’s late on a Sunday afternoon and you’re faced with the decision of whether or not to go to the Sunday night service," Thornton said. "You’d rather nap. You’ll go next week.

"Then next week turns to next year. Then your friends don’t go. Then your church cancels the Sunday night service because nobody goes. Then you bemoan the fact that people don’t seem to take it seriously, that the country is disintegrating and no one seems to care. But you don’t connect what’s going on in the pews with what’s going on out there."

It’s the responsibility of everyone sitting in the pews — or intending to sit in the pews — to keep not only their churches alive, but their faith as well, Thornton said.

"You hear the familiar criticism, ‘I don’t like organized religion.’ Well, most people don’t like organized anything if they’re a part of it," he said. "But church is the vehicle Jesus chose to get his message to the world. If you want to be part of that, there’s not another option.

"There are plenty of churches to choose from, though."

Distracted by politics

Thornton believes that American Christianity has become too focused on the political arena, ignoring the valuable role it can play in shaping art and culture.

"Christians consume pop culture — reading books, going to movies, binge watching television shows — like everyone else," he said. "But they only seem to engage in it when there’s something to get angry about.

"We haven’t done as good a job of creating it ourselves and explaining our savior to the world as we have telling people what makes us mad.

"I don’t think that was ever a conscious decision. It just happened that way. And culture has a more profound effect, and a more lasting effect, than the politics of any given moment in time."

For all of the serious themes within his novel, Thornton said the main goal was to write a book people would read and enjoy.

"I will say that when you write religious fiction, you are opening yourself up to criticism because people will always try to figure out what your agenda is," he said.

"If there’s anything I want people to come away with, it’s what Alterman says: ‘This is serious business.’ I figured the best way to get that point across was to make people laugh."

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

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