With attendance down significantly at the Christian Booksellers’ Association trade show last week, I want to examine some reasons for the decline in Christian retail – without focusing on the much bemoaned economy.
Discussing the real reasons for that decline, however, can’t be done in polite company.
The production and sale of Christian books assumes that the publishers, trade organizations and sales channels pull in the same direction philosophically. That would mean, of course, that fundamentally, a person working in the Christian book industry would embrace the teachings of the Bible. The Christian Booksellers Association operated on this philosophy for many years.
In the 1990s, however, there was a shift in philosophy. Publishers, stores and distributors began to realize the vast potential for making money. As time went on, to appeal to the broadest possible audience, works began to creep in that were decidedly not aligned with the Bible.
I remember years ago walking onto the floor of a CBA convention and seeing Health Communications’ booth. They were rolling out the first of the wildly successful “Chicken Soup” books. In the first volume, I remember reading an essay that discussed the “Golden Buddha” inside us.
I don’t have a Golden Buddha inside me, and neither do orthodox Christians.
So I wrote to a CBA representative, saying basically, “Hey, you’ll never guess who I saw at CBA. You are probably not aware of this.”
They were aware of it. The representative sent me a letter, then his lawyer sent me a letter. Both explained they had to allow Health Communications to display.
In the intervening years, I have become aware that these venues will allow almost anyone in, so long as they have hot books that sell. As big-box retailers continue to squeeze, python-like, smaller independent and Christian chain stores, those smaller outlets in many cases will stock the same product everyone else stocks. They compromise to survive financially.
That’s why you see “The Shack” in virtually every Christian store, even though many ministries and individuals have objections to author Paul Young’s worldview. I won’t detail those issues – today – but under this open-tent policy, elements that reject historical Christianity have not only infiltrated communities like CBA, but have in fact become mainstream.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that no one in CBA “vets” authors. Everyone is allowed in. This has broad ramifications for the industry, chiefly death to the industry as it was originally intended. It will continue to exist, but in a more secular form, as more and more New York publishers gobble up once-orthodox publishers and turn them into, well, HarperOne.
I care little that many will think I’m crazy or meanspirited. The fact is, when the purity of the message is compromised, death is the end result.
Many publishers who used to hold to orthodoxy now embrace other philosophies. Baker Publishing Group, for example, formerly the publisher for Christian giants like Henry Morris, has now inked a formal contract with many authors of the theologically questionable Emergent community.
Authors like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo have voiced their displeasure over several issues, ranging from Israeli communities in the biblical heartland and how Christians interpret that reality in light of Bible prophecy to the intransigence of Bible-believing Christians who aren’t getting with their New Age program.
These authors, however, are embraced by the CBA.
In the recent issue of “Retailer,” the CBA trade magazine, Chairman Bill Anderson penned a column exhorting industry players to hold fast to the truth of the faith.
This is lip-service.
I suspect many of my CBA friends, in a smoky, darkened room, would whisper their agreement with some of my conclusions. But no one in authority says it out loud.
When you allow unorthodox authors and publishing philosophies into the Christian book industry, you are asking for cosmic trouble.
The evangelical left has made inroads into conservative circles, as well, including the clever use of the label “evangelical” in describing themselves. In fact, they have very little in common with traditional evangelicals, but they understand the usefulness of identification in gaining an audience with Bible-believing Christians.
Books by McLaren, Wallis and others have opened up attack lines on Israel and her Christian supporters – Bible prophecy enthusiasts and Christian Zionists. They also have disdain for that other “fundamentalist” community, young-earth creationists.
Momentum is building for voices like Rob Bell’s, whose “Velvet Elvis” appeals to younger audiences, even as it distances its author from traditional views of the Bible. A common theme among the new breed of author is a hardening attitude toward predictive prophecy and its alleged offenders, such as Hal Lindsey. And again, creationists are particularly odious.
Quite ironically, one of the most successful publishers in CBA – New Leaf Publishing Group – embraces orthodoxy, and richly. Is it any wonder they are profitable, operating in the black and experiencing actual growth?
When he purchased Master Books (a highly successful imprint of New Leaf Publishing Group) in early 1996, NLPG President Tim Dudley knew that the imprint was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. His leadership not only brought the creation publisher back from the abyss, but caused it to thrive. This proves that conservative apologetics still resonate in a big way with the American public, even if mainstream publishing and a leftwing agenda oppose that same public.
Laura Welch, editor-in-chief of Master Books, explains why Master Books is thriving, despite its defiance of the Christian publishing industry’s insistence on accepting the politically correct:
“As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to Christian principles and values, we have seen a tremendous increase in interest for resources focused to apologetics,” she says. “The ability to defend our faith is a vital tool for ensuring that individually and collectively as a body of believers we can articulate the relevance and power of Christ’s message of hope and grace in a culture that, at best, simply scorns this view and, at worst, actively seeks to silence it.”
Welch also recognizes the key to surviving:
“By providing relevant apologetics materials that resonate with our customer base, Master Books is continuing to find consistent sales success even in this difficult economic period,” she claims. “We remain the dominant leader in our well-defined niche, and continue to take steps to insure we make sound financial decisions while maintaining the quality for which we are known.”
At the same time creationist books are booming, those same forces mentioned earlier are in the opposition. When authors like McLaren, Christopher Hitchens (“god is not Great”), Mark Noll (“The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”) and John Shelby Spong (“Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism”) pen nasty critiques of young-earth creationist views, they often find themselves promoted by major news magazines, newspapers, television and radio programs, and, sadly, Christian media such as Christianity Today.
As I’ve said before, sales channels like WND are booming precisely because there is a still-huge conservative Christian audience out there disgusted with the compromise in other circles. As the light is switched off in some rooms, it is burning brighter and brighter in others.
Next week: more tales from the Christian retail darkside