Recently I have been wondering if decline of the independent Christian retail store in America is the result of a business model that is outmoded or if in fact something else is really going on. As I have thought about it more and more (and yes I am biased on this subject), I am convinced that part of what is going on is a right sizing that needed to take place and a return to the foundations upon which the whole industry was founded. For a while in the late nineties and early 2000’s even the secular media seemed to think that a Christian bookstore would be on every corner like McDonald’s. We were basking in the success of the Left Behind series, The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life. It might even be said that in parts of America it was “cool” to shop in a Christian bookstore. We had almost become mainstream. The mainstream stores and publishers noticed this as well and our world began to change radically as “our” products showed up in Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart and the airport. Even then, I wondered if the message of the gospel was really that popular or had the message somehow changed with the packaging. It was probably a little of both.
Fast forward to 2010 and we see a vastly different landscape these days. Not too many Christian bestsellers being produced, shelf space in secular stores for “Inspirational” products being reduced dramatically, independent Christian bookstores continue to close at a rapid pace and even churches questioning their decision to open stores on their premises. I wonder if this was a little bit what it was like in the 50’s and 60’s when a Christian bookstore was a novel idea in some parts of our country. Maybe it’s time for us to evaluate our purpose all over again and recognize how counter cultural it is to run a Christian bookstore in America at this time in our history. As a way of doing that I thought about the various product categories that we stock and the radical nature of what it is that we do.
1. Books – do people really read whole books any more? With all the new digital options before us and the nature of technology encouraging us to digest our information in bite sized chunks, this is a real question. I contend that the choice to read a whole book from cover to cover is becoming counter revolutionary and one that I choose to make on a regular basis. We have to share the joy of completing an entire book with those that we love and come in contact with – we need to be subversive about it. As I talk about books and their impact on me, I find that my enthusiasm is contagious. If a book has affected your life – tell someone.
2. Bibles – Wow, we sell and promote a book that has exclusive content that is God breathed and we believe contains the message of salvation and eternal life – sounds pretty counter cultural to me. How did the Bible become the best selling book of all time with a message like that? God had something to do with it, I think. However, just like the books I mentioned above, how many Bibles are purchased as a good luck charm, or for random sound bites that are selectively chosen by people who read it very occasionally? What an amazing privilege it is for those of us who work in Christian bookstores to share the whole counsel of God as reflected from Genesis to Revelation and to reveal the truth of the Gospel on every page as it points to Jesus and what He has done for us.
3. Music – even with digitized music having changed all that we do in this category, people still buy and listen to music on a massive scale. It is a part of the fabric of our lives. A TV show about the picking of America’s next music star remains at the top of the ratings charts for years in a row. The choice to buy and listen to music by Christian artists has become a lot easier as their quality of music improved greatly over the years. However, the choice to buy and listen to music with overtly Christian lyrics and that is designed to usher us into the presence of God is much more counter revolutionary. It is a lot easier to chose to listen to Coldplay that Chris Tomlin. Helping people make these choices is part of what got Christian bookstores started in the 1970’s when Christian comtemporary music was radical in every sense of the word.
4. Christian lifestyle products (framed art, gifts, t-shirts, etc) – even the thought of declaring the concept of a Christian lifestyle has gone out of vogue. At one point, our industry was referred to as a part of a Christian sub culture that many in the secular world were really afraid was about to take over America. How far we have come in 2010 with some even asking if evangelicals are relevant in the world that we live in today. In many ways, I am glad that this has happened so that wearing a Christian t-shirt is not the product of a “cool” shopping trip to Urban Outfitters, but the result of a conscious choice to make a public stand for a faith that is not the norm. Maybe now, guests to our homes will not just comment on the beautiful decor produced by a piece of Christian framed art, but might even ask why we have art with scriptures on our walls at all.
5. Kids products – long before we had great kids departments with colorful and attractive books, secular stores and libraries were vying for the hearts and minds of our children. I have no problem with moms going to story time at either place to hear the lastest books by any of our world’s children’s authors. However, I am overwhelmed by the opportunity that we have to share the truth of the gospel with impressionable minds at this key stage in their lives through the books in our stores. The Jesus Storybook Bible may be one of the most effective tools for this purpose that has been produced in the last decade.
So I challenge each of you that is reading this blog to join me in the Counter Revolution. Make the choice today to visit your local Christian bookstore and take a friend with you.