It was like a dense cloud that hung over the entire proceedings. Somehow it affected everything that it touched and impacted nearly every conversation. How would the combined impact of the bankruptcy of the largest chain of Christian stores in America and a Supreme Court decision redefining marriage impact an industry already reeling from seismic changes? These were the questions on the minds of everyone attending the International Christian Retail Show in Orlando this past week.
The fallout from the Family Christian Stores bankruptcy was evident from the moment that you entered the exhibit hall and saw how small the show had become. It was clear that a large number of vendors had not returned this year and that those who remained were occupying even smaller booths than in the past. Post-convention data revealed a 25% decline in attendance from one year to the next. Many of these Christian product suppliers had been hit hard by the financial impact of not having bills paid and not knowing if they ever would be. This reality had a ripple down effect on all the independent Christian retailers as well as these same suppliers cut back on the advertising in marketing group catalogs. One publisher decided to cut all catalog advertising for the rest of year.
While the FCS bankruptcy was a major point of discussion, it was overshadowed by the news that we now lived in a country where same-sex marriage had just been legalized by the Federal government. For some Christian retailers that were still trying to be relevant in a world that has largely rejected the need independent Christian bookstores, this was like a gut punch. What now? Are Christian stores now going to become targets for protests? Will Christian retail stores be perceived as the source of materials for bigots and the place to acquire “hate speech” in print? What does our future look like when we move from being irrelevant to being dangerous?
One thing was very clear – we could no longer do business as usual. Everything has changed and these were just evidences of the new reality that we all live in. Our job now is to learn to live a land where we no longer have “home field advantage” as Ed Stetzer from Lifeway research has recently pointed out. Instead we are going to have to learn to live as “elect exiles” and sojourners in a foreign land. All cultural superiority that has been such a part of evangelical conversations will need to be abandoned and a new spiritual humility will need to be our hallmark. We will need to follow Paul’s advice to the persecuted Thessalonians and “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with our hands”.
While the desire to do battle with the forces of darkness may be quite strong right now, that would only feed into a narrative that our enemies have already created for us. When evangelicals in America gave into the temptation to gain power and control over the governmental institutions in this nation, we made a grave mistake and have been paying the price ever since. God has called us to be salt and light, not to be the enforcers of morality in a pluralistic nation. As we spent all our time and energy fight a culture war, we lost a generation of young people who were appalled at our hubris and hypocrisy. Many of those young people were once in the church and how now left in droves.
As we mourn the evil that in encroaching all around us, we need to recognize the evil in our own hearts. Our God has allowed these things to happen and we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Were we more concerned about creating a Christian products industry than being a part of a real move of God? How did so many of us that started as committed ministers of the gospel ready to share the good news become culture warriors and part of a reviled Christian subculture? Did our desire to stay in business change our product mix and methods of doing business in way that it is no longer honoring to God? Did the difficulty of doing business in an increasingly competitive and hostile environment steal our joy? Have we lost our first love and become “the grumpy old Christians” that we used to criticize?
There are clearly challenging days ahead and choppy waters to navigate. Like Peter, we must recognize that our only hope is in Jesus who will rescue us from the drowning sea and that we cannot save ourselves. It is time for revival once again, but that will not happen until repentance becomes a reality. We must embrace 2 Chronicles 4:17, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” As we read that verse, we must remember that it was written to God’s people and not their enemies. We must turn from our wicked ways before we can ever hope to see that happen in the world around us.