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.

July/August
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Farewell, Jesus Junk? Christian Retail Finds a Deeper Purpose