Some time ago, John Piper wrote an excellent book called, Brother, We Are Not Professionals, with the intent of helping the clergy to understand their God given role as His shepherds and not just professional religious people. As a missionary who is committed to the use of the written word as a God given tool for life transformation, I sometimes need this reminder as well. That was certainly true this past week.
In a fit of madness or simply fiscal frugality, I had decided some time ago to drive from Pennsylvania to Florida with a colleague to attend the annual International Christian Retail Show. I now realize that road trips down I-95 can actually be fun, but Florida is still a long way from home. As we arrived at the home of the Magic Kingdom, I was praying for divine appointments and that God would direct our paths as we met with dozens of people from all over the world.
This particular trade show has been in Orlando several times and I have been at these shows every year for the last 15 or so years. My how things have changed. After setting up our booth, I began exploring the various aisles and realized how much smaller the exhibit floor was than just a few years ago. One friend that I met said that he could remember a time when there were 38 aisles and now there were just 16. I could actually see from one end of the convention floor to the other in one sweeping glance. Almost unknowingly, I fell into a pattern of commenting about how “things used to be” to my CLC colleague who had never been to one of these events before.
One of the benefits of weeks like this is the opportunity to meet old friends and to make new connections. At a breakfast I was attending, several people commented that this should no longer be a show just for Christian Retailers and vendors, but should instead be a show that focused more broadly on the Christian products industry. As I was pondering this comment, I remembered a prominent statement on the front of one of our trade magazines that reads something like “serving the 4.6 Billion dollar Christian products industry”.
I had already begun to get an uneasy feeling in my stomach about viewing what I do as simply a part of the Christian products industry when I came across a Facebook post the same day from one of my friends. There are always some strange, fun, unusual and occasionally tacky vendors at this event. His Facebook post was commenting on a machine that was being sold called the “Grilled Chessus” that actually makes grilled cheese sandwiches with the face of Jesus on it. While this probably takes the concept of making no graven images of our God to a whole new level, it also woke me up to a new reality – some people really do view Christians as simply a market opportunity.
I wondered what the founders of this event 63 years ago would have thought about not just the strange things that are being peddled as Christian products these days but also about the whole idea of a Christian products industry. While, I am certainly delighted about the variety and quality of materials that are being produced by committed vendor partners, I was struck by the thought that maybe we all need another paradigm shift.
Instead of viewing what we do as a part of some monolithic Christian products industry, we might be better off thinking of the Christian Resources Movement that got this whole thing started in the first place. Passionate men and women were called by God to give of their time, talent and treasure to produce and distribute life giving resources that would enable the church and God’s people to reach a lost a dying world. I am sure that when Ken Taylor first produced The Living Letters, he was not thinking about their market potential or spin off products. His passion for his kids to understand the word of God in an English vernacular that made sense to them led to a Bible that continues to impact the nations decades later.
As the “industry” has changed over the years, we have seen a significant contraction in the number of people providing these resources in traditional brick and mortar stores and more and more being sold by secular vendors and retailors. While this may provide some greater distribution for a select number of products, it has resulted in a diminished capacity for people to get access to the breadth of these life changing resources in various parts of the world. I am convinced that what we need is a new understanding of our role as part of a God ordained movement and one that is dedicated to seeing a “fresh wind and fresh fire” in our generation. We need new people (and probably younger ones) to join us in this cause and we certainly need to see more kingdom investors committed to financing this movement as they have for generations. This will not happen if we simply produce new items designed for a market that continues to drift away from God on a daily basis.
At the end of this week, I was deeply challenged to look at my own role and ask what I might do to foster a re-commitment to a move of God in our country and the world through great Christian resources. As a third generation Christian resources provider, I am keenly aware of the reality that I stand on the shoulders of giants that have gone before me. May I choose to produce and distribute books and other resources that point people to Jesus and the power of the cross so that we may even see a revival on our generation.