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Trinkets or truth?

How bumper stickers, stuffed animals, and retail kitsch are squeezing the books out of Christian bookstores

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Within a cash register tape's width of the front door, the merchandising begins. Scripture verses dress up ceramic flowers and figurines. Fruit-of-the-Spirit logos make "Christian" candles of standard purple ones. Tiny red-and-white life preservers announce that "Jesus Saves." Bookmarks, bracelets, and assorted bric-a-brac ask shoppers, "What Would Jesus Do?"

Were He to walk into Berean Christian Store in San Diego, what would Jesus do?

It's a tough question. And it's not only Berean that provokes it. Once primarily purveyors of Bibles and books expounding Christian thought, many stores operating in the $3 billion Christian retailing industry increasingly push "product." Store owners and industry insiders defend that trend as smart business that supports a valid ministry. But critics say the peddling of Christian trinkets trivializes the name of God, and dilutes the market for literature than honors Him.

For nearly a decade, book and Bible sales have held steady at about 38 percent of Christian retailers' total sales volume. But the proportion of items like jewelry, collectibles, greeting cards, clothing, and art has been rising since 1993. Back then, such products accounted for less than one-third of total sales volume in Christian stores, according to CBA, the international trade organization for Christian retailers, whose annual convention takes place this week in New Orleans. By 1997, though, such items made up nearly half of retailers' total annual sales volume.

The trend shows no sign of slowing down. The product mix has changed so radically that some organizations have even changed their names. Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retailer, used to be called Family Christian Bookstores. And CBA was once the Christian Booksellers Association. In 1996, the group jettisoned the pigeonhole term "booksellers" and chose the more flexible handle "CBA," since many of its 3,500 member retail stores began selling more gifts and apparel than books.

Some retailers don't like the gift and apparel trend. John Cully is concerned that Christian stores' increasing emphasis on non-book products is misdirected. "It's not the coffee cup or the praying hands or the picture of Jesus on the wall that changes lives," said Mr. Cully, who owns Evangelical Bible Bookstore, a 30-year-old family business. "It is God-honoring literature that changes people's thinking. We've seen many people shift their theological positions because of good literature."

Evangelical Bible Bookstore sits in an older, rougher part of San Diego a couple of freeways south of Berean Christian Store's prime retail location. Mr. Cully, a tall and imposing gentleman with a trim white beard and wire-rimmed glasses, built every shelf in the store in his own garage. But his business is no mom-and-pop shop. His store is known worldwide (he regularly receives orders from as far away as Bucharest and South Africa) as a reliable supplier of Puritan and other Reformed works; his satellite store is located at Westminster Seminary.

Mr. Cully, a CBA member, regularly agitates for change among Christian retailers. Last September, he sent what he calls "my latest letter" to CBA president Bill Anderson. In it, he complained that Christian retailers were selling products, books in particular, which were popular, but wouldn't pass biblical muster. "As I look around our industry I see much room for improvement ... " he wrote. "I hope it is only an educational problem, and not a concern for the bottom line."

Though he doesn't sell any in his own store, Mr. Cully doesn't see gift and apparel sales as all bad. "Some of it is very tasteful and good, but it ought to be in the back of the store."

Whether it's on a back shelf or not, Brian Chapell believes Christian paraphernalia frequently subverts Scripture by trivializing God's name. "The Old Testament practice of not even fully writing out the name of God in honor of His holiness reflects poorly on glow-in-the-dark crosses and smiley-face key rings with 'God loves you' slogans," said Mr. Chapell, director of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "Whatever represents God without reverence profanes His name."

He may have a point. The plethora of Christian giftware now on the market has attracted ugly monikers like "Christian kitsch," "holy hardware," and, most regrettably, "Jesus junk." Major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Post all have used those terms in recent years in stories on Christian retailing. Mr. Chapell believes that selling knickknacks is detrimental to the cause of Christ if it ultimately erodes reverence for God's name.

Baylor University marketing professor Marjorie Cooper agrees. "I think that, to some extent, we're trying to peddle a popularized God in sound-bite mentality so that He's palatable for the masses. But God has never presented Himself that way-this is our idea." Mrs. Cooper also is concerned that unavoidable business considerations may result in doctrinal compromise for Christian retailers.

A visit last week to Family Christian Stores may illustrate her concern. Aisle after aisle featured theologically robust content: Works by Augustine and Spurgeon sat alongside the writings of contemporary authors like J.I. Packer and Billy Graham. But a trip through a section labeled "Spirit-filled Living" turned up weasels in the woodpile: at least six titles by "word of faith" preachers Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland.

Mr. Copeland, a proponent of the "prosperity gospel," which claims that God wants every believer to be materially affluent, wrote that "God cannot do anything for you apart or separate from faith," for "faith is God's source of power." Mr. Hinn's Good Morning, Holy Spirit is still on the shelf nearly a decade after Bible scholars, including Hank Hanegraaff, debunked it. Mrs. Cooper wonders how Christian retailers, most of whom say they're in business to reach believers and non-believers for Christ, feel about "selling books that propagate error."

CBA president Bill Anderson answers flat out: "If there are books and products that run cross-grain with Scripture, we shouldn't be selling them." But retailers do face challenges, he says, in trying to keep up with new titles coming out. "Most retailers I know are committed to pleasing the Lord, and running a business that is honoring to Christ. None I know would intentionally carry a title that runs counter to Scripture."

"Christian retail is a ministry in the arena of business," Mr. Anderson told WORLD. "The resources we sell should help a person understand the Bible better, apply it to life, and live life more effectively."

Family Christian Stores president and CEO Les Dietzman says his company's point of view is "to serve the total Christian church, but not to compromise on the most fundamental doctrinal issues, like the deity of Christ or the inspiration of Scripture. We will not carry products just because they sell." He has, he says, booted doctrinally deficient books off his stores' shelves in the past, and he echoes Mr. Anderson's contention that Christian retailing-even in the form of ceramic teapots and smiley-face key chains-is a legitimate ministry.

"Our method is retail, but our message is Jesus Christ," said Mr. Dietzman, whom friends describe as a genuinely humble man, and grandfatherly, but with a wide competitive streak. "We supply materials that can literally change people's lives, and I think that's a tremendous ministry."

Bibles definitely change lives. Books, too, sometimes. But can Scripture neckties also spark transformation? Mr. Dietzman thinks so. His customers, he says, buy and use gift and apparel items to reach out in Christian friendship, to encourage those who are hurting and to witness to non-believers. Sometimes, he says, a well-placed Christian product leads to conversations with people who have questions about spiritual matters.

"We might tend to look at some of the gift and apparel items as sort of lighter fare," Mr. Anderson explained. "But sometimes it's a young Christian who buys a lapel pin to wear because he knows he's supposed to share his faith, but doesn't yet know how. That lapel pin leads to a witnessing situation where tough questions come up. Those questions, in turn, send the young believer back to his books or his Bible where he can become more equipped to answer questions the next time."

CBA literature contends that the opposite-pole movement of secular society and Christian conviction "makes the Christian's desire to build a bridge to ... neighbors and co-workers increasingly difficult. Christians today are more aware of their need to be able to articulate their faith.... They're coming into CBA stores to buy products that help them do that." According to the 1997 CBA Customer Profile and Satisfaction Survey, 43 percent of customers at the group's member stores come in to purchase Christian products as gifts.

Mr. Anderson admits there is a tension in Christian retailing between ministry and commerce. But it's no more a balancing act, he says, than for other believers who are struggling to please God in their work. "For [Christian retailers], the issue is, are we maintaining perspective on why we do what we do, and whose work it is we're doing? Are we keeping our motives pure, and is our message truly one that is biblically accurate?"

Brian Chapell believes it is, in the end, this heart-motive that should concern every Christian retailer: "I understand that Christian marketers feel that they must at times tolerate the sale of merchandise they consider questionable in order to be able to stay in business and make available materials of greater merit," said Mr. Chapell. "I respect deeply those who weigh these matters as carefully as Paul did when he allowed Timothy's circumcision in order to be able to present the gospel. Those who do not weigh such matters, however, are in danger of selling out the riches of eternity for the treasures of this world."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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