Death of Christian Bookstores

There’s been some interesting chatter lately about the decline of Christian Bookstores and whether we should mourn that loss or be grateful that there’s one less place to get your Jesus Junk.

Here’s the situation if you don’t feel like following the links. Christian bookstores are on the decline and many people feel that is a tremendous loss to our christian culture. Much like the battle between Wal-Mart and the Mom&Pop stores is the battle between Retail Bookstores and Christian Bookstores (online and off). For some, it’s a sad sign of the times – the secular world is “winning”. For others, it’s a purging of the false prophets.

Is the strength of the Christian Bookstore a good measure of the Christian faith?

Many people seem to carry their faith around like a burden to bare, a cross to carry. For them, the world is a place full of persecution and we are at war with its secular ways. For them, it’s always about who’s winning. If it’s a Christian movie, they’ll see it. A Christian CD, they’ll buy it. A Christian talk show, they’ll watch it. No matter how bad, poorly made, over-priced or theologically unsound, they’ll support it. These people will always choose “Christian [whatever]”.

On the other hand, are those who look at everything objectively. A Christian book can be better or worse than a non-Christian book. For this discussion, let me be clear that a non-Christian book is not the same as an unChristain book (aka anti-Christian). Sure the non-Christian book may hold certain world views but the discerning Christian doesn’t confuse a portrait of the world with a promotion of the world.

Case in point, Harry Potter. Some in the first group would burn all the books and banish the author for promoting witchcraft and sorcery, while those in the second group, can look past the fantasy and see how the concepts of good and evil are portrayed and how the world would treat issue of right and wrong. They also see the craftsmanship of the author and appreciate how skillfully she tells the tale.

If we can safely discern what is safe and what corrupts, then there is little need for a safe harbor of the Christian Bookstore. Not when all our book needs can be met at the secular bookstores and online. But can we safely discern what is safe and what will corrupt?

Discernment is not created in God?s people by brokenness, humility, reverence, and repentance. It is created by biblical truth and the application of truth by the power of the Holy Spirit to our hearts and minds. When that happens, then the brokenness, humility, reverence, and repentance will have the strong fiber of the full counsel of God in them. They will be profoundly Christian and not merely religious and emotional and psychological. – John Piper

The Gift Store vs. the Theology Store

From my experience, the only books I typically find in the major Christian Bookstores are The Purpose Driven Cheerleader and Your Dog’s Best Life Now. Beyond that, it’s every conceivable Christian nick-knack (aka Jesus Junk) ever made. Neckties, figurines, music, posters, tree ornaments, games, toys, etc. Now, before you get your Left-Behind Undies in a twist, not all this stuff is bad and not all Christian Bookstores are like this. But there is a distinct difference in the target audience these stores tend to market. These are what I’ll call the Gift Stores. Christian themed versions of the Hospital Gift Shoppe. Easy to digest and disposable – perfect for everyone, useful to no-one

To contrast this are the theology-heavy bookstores, where people write about infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, as well as 4-point vs. 5-point Calvanism and whether Jacobus Arminius was a heretic or just misunderstood. These are obviously what I’ll call the Theology Store. The difference being, all meat – no fluff. The problem is, many of us aren’t ready for it (or simply don’t want it).

I once went into a Christian Bookstore while waiting to meet some friends for dinner. Among all the bookmarks and wall decor and Veggie Tales plush toys, was a plethora of christian fiction (some may find that redundant). Of the three aisles of books, one whole face was dedicated to the Left Behind Series. The other aisles consisted of a few designer bibles, no study bibles, various self-improvement books (which seems ironic) and several different devotionals. Curious, I asked the clerk if they had any theology books. They looked at me kind of puzzled and then suggested I look along the back wall – which was pretty much a clearance rack. Needless to say, this was a Gift Store.

Conversely, a local Christian Bookstore I frequent is quite the opposite. The only thing they carry besides books (audio or text) are bible covers, highlighters and pens, and that’s it. They have as many bibles as the other store had Left Behind books. They offer various sizes of bibles from ultra compact to jumbo print and all are available in various translations (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT, etc.). They have commentaries on specific books of the bible as well as ones for the entire bible. There’s books on christian counseling, raising children, getting married, staying married, adoption, abortion, work, finances, grief – and all of them are based on scripture and focus you back to the gospel. They have books on theology, apologetics, preaching, evangelism, worship, tithing, church history and the like.

Is the loss of the Christian Bookstore a bad thing or a good thing?

If we can’t always be trusted to discern good theology from bad, and the shear volume of Christian books available is overwhelming, then how do we decide what to read and what to avoid. Typically, we rely on the recommendations and reviews of friends, colleagues, and our elders/pastors. But they can only read so much themselves and aren’t going to be there at the store when you’re looking at the shelf wondering “which book on this subject is best”. The good news is, the Gift Store makes it easy for you by limiting the choices you have. The bad news is, the Theology store can be overwhelming.

But inventory isn’t the only measure of a good Christian bookstore. You need staff qualified to know a good book from a bad one. People who have actually read the books and, most importantly, are actually Christian. If you’re looking for a commentary on the book of Luke, then you need someone who can determine not just which book does a good job of it, but also can select one based on your need for one. Do you need an introductory overview or are you looking for an in-depth analysis of the original Greek? This is something Amazon and Barnes and Noble can’t offer.

I really don’t have a blanket answer. All I can do is offer some conditional answers which really can’t cover every condition. Is the loss of a Christian Bookstore a bad thing? Maybe. But maybe it’s the kick in the head that some of us need to realize we were putting our hope in the wrong place (namely ourselves) or maybe we need more milk before we can have our meat
(1 Corinthians 3:2).

5 thoughts on “Death of Christian Bookstores

  1. Your bookstore sound interesting. Most of the Christian Bookstores I’ve been in are of the Gift Shoppe variety. I think you have the answer, the stores that sell things that you can buy anywhere are going out. The stores that offer customer service and staff knowledge are going to stick around.

    PS – You’re so right about that quote! BANNED is my hope!

  2. It is quite sad that Barnes and Noble has a bigger selection of theological books than my local Lifeway Christian Store. All Lifeway seems to care about is VeggieTales and Steven Curtis Chapman. I guess Charles Spurgeon just doesn’t make them as much cash as they want. If I ever find a good Christian bookstore around here, I think I will shop there even when the prices are higher than Amazon just to help them stay in business.

  3. Christian bookstores, until 1950, merely provided Sunday School material, Bibles and other spiritual tools for their core market of conservative evangelicals. In 1950 the Christian Booksellers Association formed and promised to provide them with a brand of fiction their core readers wouldn’t be offended by. The fiction already out there in the general market by wonderful Christian authors just couldn’t be counted on NOT to offend this very conservative market. The only books you’ll find in Christian bookstores primarily are supplied by those authors affiliated with the Christian Booksellers Association, an association you have to pay to belong to. CBA and the later formed ECPA (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association) are counted on to provide unoffensive Christian fiction for Christian Bookstores conservative market. As a Christian writing for the general market, I find it very unsettling that I can’t assert my Faith because it will surely mark me as belonging to a market I don’t write for specifically. Christian Bookstores do provide a safe haven. But only for a very specific group of Christians. Too many times my work has been called secular (by CBA publishers) because I don’t write for this very specific, very conservative Christian market. As a Christian, I’d love to offer support and suggestions on how to keep CBA Christian bookstores alive because I have sooooo many CBA readers. But until my book sells enough to get CBA’s attention, I’ll have to struggle to get it in one. And I’m an author who is a Christian. :)

  4. To me, the most interesting development has been the formation of church bookstores. Since mom and pop stores of all kinds have vanished, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it happen in Christian bookstores too.

    I grew up in the 16MM film production and distribution ministry through Ken Anderson Films, and Quadrus Films. I watched the same thing happen to our local 16MM film rental distributors, as video took over the market.

    There’s nothing new under the sun.

  5. I have worked at a “Mom & Pop” Christian store and am now at a “corporately-owned” Christian store. The owners of the M&P ordered in what they wanted and what their customers wanted. They were responsible for paying for the goods if they weren’t bought. They couldn’t match the prices Wal-mart set. Our frugal customers went to the best prices of Wal-Mart as well as directly to the product’s website. Said M&P went out of business.
    The corporate store has a home office that determines what we carry. Best sellers in books, gifts, and music come in regularly and can be returned if not sold.
    If our numbers are down from last year, they will cut our hours or move our store to a busier neighborhood (which is what is happening right now).
    While I agree with the “Jesus Junk” comment, I hope you will consider the advantages to having a Christian book/gift store nearby. We carry best-sellers and can also get back list of popular/classic authors and musicians. We can order needed items without charging for shipping.
    Some customers, bless ’em, come in looking for “Jesus Junk” specifically for gifts. Anything with angels sells quite well. We do have a strong theology/Christian living section, but sell the purpose-driven/best life stuff, too. The Christian fiction section is my favorite. Authors like Ted Dekker, Robert Liparullo, Tom Morrissey, Angela Hunt, and Francine Rivers are writing wonderful mysteries that are anything but fluff!

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