Noah and the unknown Print
Written by Staff   
Friday, 18 December 2009 04:03 PM America/New_York

andybutcher_cropped2If the Christian retail industry as we know it is to flourish, it's going to have to become something we don't know.

Say what? It's time to recognize that the times have changed irrevocably. We can't continue to try to just ride it out and wait for things to go back to the way they were. Noah was on different ground after the flood waters receded.

The general market interest in Christian consumers isn't going to go away (though it may dip some), the economic downturn seems set to have long-lasting effects on consumer habits, we can't uninvent the Internet and online sales, and we haven't yet begun to understand the impact the digital publishing revolution will have.

We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Nor the 1980s or 1990s.

So while we need to work hard at improving things as much as we can in our current context, through business excellence, I believe we also need to take some time to consider how things might be in the future.

And at the heart of that, I suggest, is a back-to-basics, cut-through-the-fluff evaluation of the place and purpose of Christian retail stores.

Now, the idea of such a ruthless inventory might make some people nervous, what with the competitive alternatives of Barnes & Noble and Are we just propping up an outdated system, or do Christian stores still have a vital place and function?

Absolutely they do. But figuring out how needs to involve more than just those of us directly invested in the daily producing and selling of Christian resources. It needs to include the wider church—and that means narrowing the gap that seems to exist between it and our industry, in some quarters.

We've seen the growth of church bookstores in the last few years, of course, but for the most part, that has been centered on serving members of their own congregation, typically on-campus. What might happen if churches took a wider view?

With each of our trade associations having faced their own significant challenges in the last year—CBA, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and the Gospel Music Association—they seem to be open to greater collaboration as they move ahead.

But it would be good to see some sort of wider forum, too, where a new kind of partnership and purpose for Christian retailing could be explored.

What about the strategic position and potential of Christian stores being on the agenda of some of those cutting-edge church leadership conferences about missions and outreach?

What might a new level of partnership between Christian retail and the church look like? Maybe stores could serve as church "outposts" in some way, hosting church events in an environment that could be less threatening and more familiar to non-churchgoers than an actual church campus.

Some of this is already happening, but it's far from commonplace. Indeed, I was shocked by how few independent Christian stores reach out to local pastors and congregations, according to one of our recent surveys.

Perhaps a group of local churches could get together to somehow jointly invest in an outreach store in their local community.

OK, the idea of charismatics and Baptists agreeing on whether or not to stock books about speaking in tongues may be a stretch, but let's dream a little. And don't forget that churches of different stripes have been able to put aside differences to work together on other efforts, like citywide crusades.

Such discussions would require some within our industry to think more inclusively, letting go of old prejudices and being open to new ways of looking at the world, their work and even the Word of God.

It would surely mean they have to stop looking at churches as "the enemy" for running their own store or ordering direct from suppliers.

But it would also mean some church leaders acknowledging that "relevant" and "radical" aren't solely defined by being relentlessly trendy and that selling Christian resources doesn't have to mean selling your soul. After all, they get paid for preaching, right? I'm so tired of the old "Jesus in the temple" jibe.

There may be some lessons to be learned from the way local Christian radio and local churches have found mutual benefits from working together on things like sharathons, concerts and community calendars.

Christian retailing's new ground may be more common ground. Ultimately, I don't really know what a more cooperative future of Christian retail and churches could look like, but that's the point. Kind of scary. Kind of exciting. Kind of like God's way of doing things.

What do you think? Do you know what your pastor might say about such an approach? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in our online community forum at our Web site,, or e-mail me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..