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Posts Tagged ‘Monergism’

CBD Add Niche-Market Reformed Boutique

It looks familiar, right? Look a little closer.

If the people at online/mail-order Christian book retailer CBD (Christian Book Distributors) were paying attention to the recent Tim Challies poll — and I’ll bet the rent that they were — they realized they are not as big a player in the Reformed/Calvinist book market as they would like to be.    This is a crowd that increasingly prefers to buy from their own.

While the Challies.com survey revealed that just under 50% had made an online purchase from CBD in the past two years, only 8.8% considered the company their “most often” choice; with Westminster Books scoring 9.7% and Monergism garnering 6.6%.   Of course, the commanding lead was held by Am*z*n, with a whopping 69.6%.

So it’s not surprising at all that we see the launch of CBD-Reformed (tag line:  Serving the Needs of the Reformed Community).  The company is hoping to win back customers at a time when the Reformed book-buying market clearly outstrips the former market-leader, the Charismatic market.

Does this distinction matter?   Time will tell.   As the screenshot shows, there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that this is simply a boutique within the same old CBD.   They’ve simply isolated certain titles, authors and publishers within the existing framework; and in fact, one’s order cart transfers back and forth between the Reformed site and the main site.

What does all this say to brick and mortar retailers?

A Christian bookstore trying to be all things to all people may have a Charismatic or Renewal section; there may be a Roman Catholic section; but I’m willing to bet many have never considered a Reformed or Calvinist section.   Reformed publishers greatly dominate our industry already, with Eerdman’s, Baker, P&R, and even Zondervan owing their beginnings to Reformed roots.   (Elsewhere however, Zondervan rated a low 20% on the question of publisher credibility.  With stats like that you could assume some Reformers have come to despise the company, and sure enough, asked in the reverse, the company got a 64.6 ranking for “low credibility” nearly double that of Nelson at 32.6%.)

But perhaps there is a need for a Reformed section in our stores given the current climate.    What then does that say, if you walk into a store that has Catholic, Charismatic and Reformed sections?   Shouldn’t the Christian bookstore be a melting pot, where divisions disappear, and books are classified solely on their distinctions as prayer, devotional, family, commentaries, fiction, etc.?

Or I suppose you could segregate some inventory and just call it the “Crossway” section.

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.

Another Side to the “Church Bookstore” Story

A Blogitorial by Paul Wilkinson

Like you, I get the twice weekly e-mail updates from Christian Retailing magazine.   Although it’s often viewed as a somewhat neutral Christian book trade publication, the company wears its corporate roots on its sleeve; constantly providing sales charts for the “Charismatic” and “Health/Exercise” categories in which it has a vested interest, and almost never providing charts for a host of other categories.

Another agenda that CR promotes militantly is the concept of  “Church Bookstores.”   With so many of the larger churches — the ones that can actually support having an in-house bookstore — being Charismatic, the company has much to gain in seeing this type of store flourish.   I think there’s someone in the organization who sees to it that the publication generates a “news” story about such outlets on a weekly basis.   Other people in the organization are assigned to the company’s participation in “Church Bookstore” trade shows and events.

Unfortunately, I think there’s another side to this that none of us ever imagined.

Increasingly, certain denominations of North American Christianity are becoming more theologically segregated, and, if what is said on the internet is any indication, increasingly intolerant of other denominations.

On my personal blog, I ran a piece a few weeks ago entitled “The Top 100 Things That Divide Us.”   I didn’t write the list, and I thought some of the things were rather superficial, but they evidenced the fact that no one church, no one writer, no one pastor, or no one publisher can claim to speak for Christians everywhere.

So if, for example, you attend a King James Only church, you might find your church opening a bookstore not to simply focus on the books that use KJV text, but in order to insure that people purchasing there are protected from other books which might quote other translations.

The bookstore in the church would serve as a screening mechanism.   You and I do this now to some degree in our mainstream Christian bookstores, but we have a much wider range of tolerance for a variety of doctrinal viewpoints.  One pastor told my wife and I that we are “the gatekeepers of the Christian community.”   But as long as someone holds to the major tenets of Christianity, that gate is widely open.   A KJV-Only bookstore wouldn’t even come close.

And then there’s “The New Calvinism.”   I’m sure the “Church Bookstore” conference organizers weren’t thinking of them, but every recent analysis of church trends in the U.S. has mentioned the influence of the “New Calvinists” and their ability to attract a very young demographic.

They already have their online outlets such as Monergism Books, but what if the trend spreads to “Church Bookstores”?     Recently my wife and I visited a Reformed Church that was much more “mega” than what we were accustomed seeing in Canada, and there was already a hint of a “Book Table” that was distinct from the church library in another part of the building.

I doubt that Calvinist Church Bookstores are what the people at Strang, Inc. had in mind when they started promoting the church retail model.

And then there’s the issue of the “Word of Faith” churches, which even some Charismatics don’t agree with.   Many of the authors and musical artists bypass mainstream distribution and it’s easy to see how a retail outlet in a church featuring those books and CDs might not even have room for what is, in other places, a Charismatic bestseller.

Of course there are other Charismatics who emphasize what is termed “soaking music” that classical Pentecostals and even “second wave” Charismatics don’t understand.   That music might be sold in one type of Spirit-filled assembly, but not connect at all with another Spirit-filled congregation.   The lines are finely drawn and even those within particular movements are often confused.

Where does this leave regular Christian bookstores?

The church stores become a self-fulfilling prophecy.    As more Charismatic and Calvinist books are sold through other channels, bookstore owners cut back because of diminished demand.    As bookstore owners cut back,  Pentecostal and Reformed customers feel their doctrine and theology aren’t represented in the bookstore environment, and this just fans the flames of unrest.

This unrest leads to more segregation and the cycle repeats.

Personally, I think the “Church Bookstore” people should have been putting their energy into supporting the stores that exist in the broader marketplace and in the commercial centers of our villages, towns and cities.

Furthermore, I think the future might involve stores that take that even further, mixing Christian and general-market, family-friendly product.   (Check out Bill and Gloria Gaither’s bookstore in Indiana for an example of what I’m discussing; or the trend of the last decade toward family-friendly DVDs in CBA stores.)

Take a moment to mentally picture that possibility as representing one extreme end of a continuum, with existing Christian bookstores in the middle, and church-based retail at the extreme other end.

If the trends are pushing toward the outside edges of the continuum, where does that leave traditional Christian stores in the next five or ten years?