Farewell, Jesus Junk? Christian Retail Finds a Deeper Purpose

With the closing of Family Christian, stores focus on curation and community involvement.
Farewell, Jesus Junk? Christian Retail Finds a Deeper Purpose
Image: Kate Shellnutt

At the start of this year, author Jared C. Wilson tweeted a list of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s 100 best-selling books of 2016. Among the titles in the top 20: three versions of Sarah Young’s controversial Jesus Calling, two kids joke books, two adult coloring books, titles by HGTV stars and athletes, and, of course, the latest from Joel Osteen.

Wilson called the rankings “proof American evangelicalism traffics mainly in superficiality, sentimentalism, and superstition.” Hundreds of fellow evangelicals chimed in to speculate about the list and point fingers at the church, the shoppers, and the stores selling these titles—as well as offer suggestions for better books out there.

When America’s biggest Christian chain, Family Christian Stores, announced last month that it would be shutting its doors, a small number of Christian bookstore cynics brought up similar critiques over the shallower content its stores promoted alongside Bibles and Christian classics. The speculated silver lining: Did Family Christian’s closure mean consumers were turning away from the celebrity books, inspirational titles, and “Jesus junk”?

Compared to America’s other major Christian retailer—LifeWay Christian Resources—Family Christian was more relaxed in its offerings and carried some items its Southern Baptist counterpart did not. Its harshest critics, including a blogger at World Net Daily, blamed its downfall on the “heretical books and other materials” on Family Christian’s shelves. On a similar note, satire site TheBabylon Bee posted the headline: “Recent Shortage Of Heaven-And-Back Trips Puts Family Christian Stores Out Of Business.”

Still, evangelicals across the book industry say even if some Christians took issue with Family Christian’s offerings, it’s hard to see its demise as anything but a loss for Christian retail and Christian publishing overall.

“I am hurting that Family did have to close,” Thom Rainer, LifeWay CEO and president, said in an interview with CT. “They’ve had an incredible history throughout decades of ministry in their communities. They’ve been a great force for the kingdom.”

And, despite recent financial blunders, a great force for brick-and-mortar Christian retail. Its stores were a go-to for new Bibles and bestsellers. “Those books are going to continue to sell,” even without Family Christian, according to Andy LePeau, who retired as InterVarsity Press assistant publisher last year.

But the question is where. When bookstores close, their business doesn’t just transfer to another shop. Instead, “you are effectively teaching more people how to order online,” according to Paul Wilkinson, owner of a Christian bookstore in Ontario and an industry blogger who posted last week in response to Family Christian’s critics. That hasn’t stopped independent shops from trying to recruit new customers in areas where stores are closing.

With Family Christian closing, stores feel the financial pressure from competitors like Amazon and their evolving customer base even more. Chains like LifeWay as well as independent stores have to be strategic about their position in the marketplace if they want to secure a future for brick-and-mortar Christian retail.

The discussion over Family Christian’s doctrinal guidelines and reputation gets at the tensions Christian retailers face. Stores must balance competing factors like business and ministry; popularity and significance; variety and orthodoxy; and reader discernment and industry expertise. If shoppers continue to see unique value in their mission and function, there’s a greater chance they’ll stick around longer.

As a former Family Christian employee and longtime customer, blogger Christopher Williams saw for himself the drawbacks and unexpected benefits of the store’s wide selection. “As for a theological standard, there didn’t seem to be one, aside from possibly no Mormon materials and nothing with any language that might not be PG-rated,” he said.

Family Christian became a nonprofit ministry in 2013. In addition to giving away its earnings to support global charities, the chain adopted James 1:27 as its ministry calling: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Family Christian previously declined to offer details on its product guidelines, and did not respond to CT requests for comment on its mission.

When Williams worked at Family Christian in Michigan about a decade ago, he noted how many books conflicted with each other on major theological points; one time, he shelved John MacArthur’s critique of the emergent church side-by-side with a book by Brian McLaren, one of the pastors targeted by MacArthur.

Still, Family Christian’s theological breadth ultimately benefited Williams, who admits he was a “pretty pedantic Calvinist” when he started working at the chain. At first, his employee discount went straight to buying books by John Piper and John Edwards. But being around so many books eventually led him to check out Arminian-leaning authors as well, and even some Donald Miller and early Rob Bell. Looking back, he believes exposure to other writers helped him appreciate teachings outside his tradition and softened some of his “cage stage.”

“There has to be a balance between respecting differing doctrines, protecting orthodoxy, and promoting growth,” said Williams, now an entertainment writer and podcaster. “That said, I think stores professing to edify Christians need to take a stance on what material they choose to sell.”

By now, booksellers mostly know where to draw the line based on their mission; even if they don’t read and review each item individually, associations, institutions, and trusted names help indicate whether a particular title is theologically sound.

“The problem isn’t the filters the independent stores or chain stores are using,” said Wilkinson. “The problem is the part of the market that has been ceded to Amazon, which has no filters.”

What Christian bookstores can offer today’s overwhelmed shoppers is curation.

“Anybody in any church can go to Amazon and have this incredible breadth and incredible service,” said Rainer. “But here’s what we’re finding: Church leaders—whether staff or lay persons—are asking questions like, ‘How do I know this resource is best?’ We have a contextualized answer because we know the church, and we know the resources.”

Last year, LifeWay set out to lean into its local and community connections. More than 200,000 ministers shopped at the chain using its discount program in 2016, and church partnerships will be a major part of its strategy going forward. Employees proactively reach out to local congregations, recommend resources, and even deliver them for free.

The ministry is also working to make its brick-and-mortar locations into hangout spots. “We’re actually redesigning our stores so people can come for meetings, for coffee, for community gathering,” said Rainer. So far, LifeWay has piloted the new model in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky. “It looks like something we can begin to expand throughout the chain.”

In CT’s 2008 cover story, “How to Save the Christian Bookstore,” experts predicted that more stores would adopt the “third place” mentality to offer customers something different.

While LifeWay operates as part of the Southern Baptist Convention—and won’t carry resources that conflict with the denomination’s doctrinal statement—it serves a broad evangelical market of millions of customers a year.

“One of the main things we have to communicate to the customers in our stores is that they can trust us,” said Rainer, who has led LifeWay for over a decade. “Do we get it perfectly all the time? Absolutely not, but we are continuing to ask that question: Are the things that we are doing really true to Scripture? Is it true to what the churches need? I think we’re doing a good job.”

As Rainer reiterated at last year’s convention, LifeWay deliberately does not sell prosperity gospel books. In recent years, its stores stopped carrying bestsellers by Jen Hatmaker and Mark Driscoll, as well as books about visiting heaven, due to doctrinal issues.

With Family Christian closing all of its outlets, certain titles that don’t make it into LifeWay shelves will now miss out on exposure in a major chain.

“It makes things harder for us,” Jonathan Merkh, vice president and publisher at Howard Books, toldPublishers Weekly. “It’s a tough industry and it makes it that much more difficult for us.” (Howard is the Simon & Schuster imprint responsible for several Duck Dynasty books, as well as titles from Dave Ramsey, Charles Stanley, Karen Kingsbury, and more.)

Williams, the former Family Christian employee, also questioned why his store carried materials that weren’t explicitly Christian, but merely patriotic, conservative, or family-friendly. He worried that such selections would “pander to a conservative evangelical stereotype.” Other critics joked about Christian-themed merchandise like Testamints and Veggie Tales toys.

Stan Jantz, the executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and former president of a California bookstore chain called Fresno Bible House, said challenging certain products or accusing stores of “selling out” by carrying a popular item has been going on for decades.

“We had a section of our store that was devoted to ‘holy trinkets’ sometimes called ‘holy hardware,’ ‘Jesus junk,’ that kind of thing. They’d use it for Sunday school teachers to give to the kids. People looked at it, saying, ‘Why are you selling this?’” said Jantz, whose association requires all members to adhere to a statement of faith based on the National Association of Evangelicals. “Whether it’s at the retail level or publishers, there’s always been that tension. And I think that’s healthy.”

A decade ago, as sales began to decline and face competition from secular chains and online retailers, CT reported that stores became more reliant on gift items, which had higher profit margins.

One publisher told Jantz that he viewed the Christian coloring book trend as a lighter, popular product that would help fund more theologically nuanced offerings, saying, “Here’s how we see it: It’s going to give us the resources to really do the kind of books that are going to make a difference.”

Readers, authors, publishers, and sellers all told CT: Good books are out there, and plenty of them. They’re being written and published; however, they’re not outselling the big names and big trends.

Despite the challenges, Christian booksellers have reason to be optimistic. For most of last year, religious presses saw an 8.2 percent increase in trade sales, while overall adult book sales declined slightly, the Association of American Publishers reported. According to earlier Nielsen data, Bibles and nonfiction books outperformed Christian fiction.

Overall, millennials are actually buying more books than older generations and still favor printed copies. Their tastes, Janz says, have led to higher-quality offerings from Christian publishers—from the end of cheesy Christian book covers to more culturally engaging topical offerings. “The millennial buyers are driving this,” he said. “If they’re going to buy something, it better be good.”

But when it comes to where they shop, younger Christians, as Barna Group president David Kinnaman warned nearly a decade ago, aren’t looking for safe spaces. They side with authenticity—even if it comes with strong language—over squeaky-clean offerings. Millennials are used to encountering a range of perspectives online and among their friends. They tend to value diverse viewpoints over Christian gatekeepers or denominational labels.

Most discerning readers of all ages want to see bookstores offer a variety of viewpoints, though some have reservations about putting certain resources out there under a Christian banner. What if new believers get caught up in books whose teaching requires some sorting through?

That becomes the seller’s call. Some, like Wilkinson in Canada, will label books that certain readers find objectionable, a practice LifeWay did away with in 2011. At Wilkinson’s store, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s best-selling books come with a language warning, but “I still want to carry her, because she’s an important voice,” he said.

Between opening the gates wide and focusing on trusted theological sources, most agree that both strategies have a place in serving and enriching the church as a whole.

“Each publisher needs to fulfill its mission,” said LePeau, the retired publisher. “There’s room for a variety of missions.”

January/February
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
Farewell, Jesus Junk? Christian Retail Finds a Deeper Purpose