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Tim Challies Strange Survey of Christian Readers

In the end, it’s a survey that says more about the author and the world he lives in than it does about anything else.

Still, you need to take a look at the Christian Readers Survey at Tim Challies blog at Challies.com.    And if you ever purchase Christian books for personal use outside of your store’s trade environment, you might even want to complete the survey as I did.

It’s interesting to compare the priorities of online purchasing versus what we experience on a day-to-day basis in the world of brick and mortar Christian bookstores.

Obviously, the array of available e-commerce sites permits one to choose on the basis of price, choice, shipping costs, speed of delivery (not sure he covered that one), and the type of books with which the site specializes.

That last one is the biggie.   Tim’s blog often proclaims the deal of the week at sites like Westminster Books and Monergism Books, but never enough to tempt me to make more than a superficial examination of their wares.  An early question in the suvey gives you a choice of denominational preference:  Calvinist or Non-Calivinist.   I can’t imagine living in a corner of Christianity where everything can be reduced to that one simple question.

Therefore, the value of the survey is somewhat limited.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how much weight our bookstore customers place on where we go to church.    In my part of the world, the people in Whitby were Salvation Army, the woman who owned Oshawa was Pentecostal Assemblies, the people in Bowmanville are Christian Reformed, the owner in Peterborough is Pentecostal, the couple in Belleville have Free Methodist roots, the woman in Napanee attended a Charismatic church, the manager in Kingston had either Baptist or Missionary Alliance roots.

I know all these things because I know the people personally.   I’m not sure to what extent it affects their customers, or to what extent my own denominational affiliation — somewhat varied in the past few years — would make or break a customer choice to shop in my stores.

But of course it’s the buying that matters.  My store is judged by the books that are visible when you walk in.   The survey’s wording hints that it might be the case that people would boycott a book source if it sold books that they theologically disagreed with.    That’s rather narrow.   It’s suggestive of, “If you won’t play my rules, I’ll take my ball and my bat and go home.”

First of all, the world of Christian book selling is totally dominated by companies with a reformed heritage, so Tim’s core readers have little to be concerned about.

Secondly, it’s a given that an interdenominational bookstore is going to carry a mixture of doctrinal flavors.   During the 1980s and ’90s it would be financial suicide not to carry some charismatic bestsellers, since some of those books were driving sales in many markets in the U.S. and Canada.   To this day we still have a  modest “Charismatic/Renewal” shelf in our store, but it is segregated from the larger “Christian Living” section because we don’t want people thinking that the more extreme voices in that movement represent anything close to mainstream Christian theology.  (Not that we carry those; our stock is more ‘conservative Charismatic.’)

On the other hand, Tim’s video blog a few months ago of the book sales area at the Together for the Gospel conference was, for me, not unlike visiting a Roman Catholic bookstore or a Word-of-Faith bookstore.   It was an environment most foreign, with perhaps less than 5% overlap of titles we would find stocked in the average Christian bookstore.   (But certainly available by order, any time, cheerfully, quickly and often with familiarity of the authors concerned by virtue of previous orders.)  They’re good books, they are far from ‘fluff,’ but only a handful will have ever appeared on a Christian books top 100 list.

Stocking many of those authors, however — with the exception of the few who do break out into the larger market — would simply not be viable.

The deal breakers for my customers would be if we were stocking material that was very liberal in theology.   Actually, let me pause and restate that as “stocking material which appears orthodox but is in fact liberal in its theology.”   I say that because my customers have been willing to think outside the box and read everything from Kevin Roose’s Unlikely Disciple (the atheist who embedded himself in Liberty University) to Flander’s Book of Faith (a not entirely irreverent look at Christianity by the writing staff of The Simpsons TV show.)  (Comment writers:  Please don’t seize on this last one, it’s not normative at our store.)

People would vote with their feet if I stocked Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong, but to date, we don’t know of anyone who wrote us off because we carry The Shack.  (We’ve had lots of heated Shack-based discussions, but nobody said they weren’t returning.)

It’s simply all there, like a large Christian family album:  N. T. Wright, John Piper, Henri Nouwen, Rob Bell, John Ortberg, Philip Yancey; all seated together at the table and looking at the photographer and smiling.

Actually, I thrive on environments like Family Christian or Parable stores when I’m in the U.S.  The cross-pollination that can take place when we mix books for different theological views — or more important these days, different generations — can only be healthy.

I guess my main issue with surveys like this one is that they seem to have an agenda.   It appears that the writer is not at all neutral, but intentionally or unintentionally is advancing the view that you don’t want to buy a book from an organization that doesn’t fully endorse every word on every page.  It’s a survey that I think, with some people, just puts ideas into their heads that perhaps their discernment meter should be turned up higher the next time around.

Or to put it another way, it puts ideas into peoples’ heads that there is a such a thing as retail orthodoxy.

But how far back to do you trace that?   Do the most exclusively Reformed publishers use printers who share their doctrine?   Do those printers purchase paper stock from like-minded  believers who own pulp and paper mills?  Are the books delivered by trucking companies whose owners subscribe to the five major points of Calvinism?   If so, are the individual drivers so screened?   Is the person who built or leases the offices theologically onside?

I’d rather be part of a more encompassing Christian book industry.

I’d rather do theology living a few steps closer to the real world, as I believe Jesus would have us.

And I’d rather be able to walk into a Christian bookstore using my own discernment meter to decide if something is suitable for my personal reading or for me to give as a gift.

Check out the survey, read some of the comments, and tell me what you think.

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  1. May 12, 2010 at 6:00 am

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