Trinkets or truth?

                    How bumper stickers, stuffed animals, and
                    retail kitsch are squeezing the books out of
                    Christian bookstores

                    By Lynn Vincent
                    © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 WORLD Magazine.

                    Within a cash register tape's width of the front door, the
                    merchandising begins. Scripture verses dress up ceramic
                    flowers and figurines. Fruit-of-the-Spirit logos make
                    "Christian" candles of standard purple ones. Tiny
                    red-and-white life preservers announce that "Jesus Saves."
                    Bookmarks, bracelets, and assorted bric-a-brac ask
                    shoppers, "What Would Jesus Do?"

                    Were He to walk into Berean Christian Store in San Diego,
                    what would Jesus do?

                    It's a tough question. And it's not only Berean that provokes
                    it. Once primarily purveyors of Bibles and books
                    expounding Christian thought, many stores operating in the
                    $3 billion Christian retailing industry increasingly push
                    "product." Store owners and industry insiders defend that
                    trend as smart business that supports a valid ministry. But
                    critics say the peddling of Christian trinkets trivializes the
                    name of God, and dilutes the market for literature than
                    honors Him.

                    For nearly a decade, book and Bible sales have held steady
                    at about 38 percent of Christian retailers' total sales volume.
                    But the proportion of items like jewelry, collectibles, greeting
                    cards, clothing, and art has been rising since 1993. Back
                    then, such products accounted for less than one-third of total
                    sales volume in Christian stores, according to CBA, the
                    international trade organization for Christian retailers, whose
                    annual convention takes place this week in New Orleans. By
                    1997, though, such items made up nearly half of retailers'
                    total annual sales volume.

                    The trend shows no sign of slowing down. The product mix
                    has changed so radically that some organizations have even
                    changed their names. Family Christian Stores, the nation's
                    largest Christian retailer, used to be called Family Christian
                    Bookstores. And CBA was once the Christian Booksellers
                    Association. In 1996, the group jettisoned the pigeonhole
                    term "booksellers" and chose the more flexible handle
                    "CBA," since many of its 3,500 member retail stores began
                    selling more gifts and apparel than books.

                    Some retailers don't like the gift and apparel trend. John
                    Cully is concerned that Christian stores' increasing emphasis
                    on non-book products is misdirected. "It's not the coffee
                    cup or the praying hands or the picture of Jesus on the wall
                    that changes lives," said Mr. Cully, who owns Evangelical
                    Bible Bookstore, a 30-year-old family business. "It is
                    God-honoring literature that changes people's thinking.
                    We've seen many people shift their theological positions
                    because of good literature."

                    Evangelical Bible Bookstore sits in an older, rougher part of
                    San Diego a couple of freeways south of Berean Christian
                    Store's prime retail location. Mr. Cully, a tall and imposing
                    gentleman with a trim white beard and wire-rimmed glasses,
                    built every shelf in the store in his own garage. But his
                    business is no mom-and-pop shop. His store is known
                    worldwide (he regularly receives orders from as far away as
                    Bucharest and South Africa) as a reliable supplier of Puritan
                    and other Reformed works; his satellite store is located at
                    Westminster Seminary.

                    Mr. Cully, a CBA member, regularly agitates for change
                    among Christian retailers. Last September, he sent what he
                    calls "my latest letter" to CBA president Bill Anderson. In it,
                    he complained that Christian retailers were selling products,
                    books in particular, which were popular, but wouldn't pass
                    biblical muster. "As I look around our industry I see much
                    room for improvement ... " he wrote. "I hope it is only an
                    educational problem, and not a concern for the bottom line."

                    Though he doesn't sell any in his own store, Mr. Cully
                    doesn't see gift and apparel sales as all bad. "Some of it is
                    very tasteful and good, but it ought to be in the back of the

                    Whether it's on a back shelf or not, Brian Chapell believes
                    Christian paraphernalia frequently subverts Scripture by
                    trivializing God's name. "The Old Testament practice of not
                    even fully writing out the name of God in honor of His
                    holiness reflects poorly on glow-in-the-dark crosses and
                    smiley-face key rings with 'God loves you' slogans," said
                    Mr. Chapell, director of Covenant Theological Seminary in
                    St. Louis. "Whatever represents God without reverence
                    profanes His name."

                    He may have a point. The plethora of Christian giftware now
                    on the market has attracted ugly monikers like "Christian
                    kitsch," "holy hardware," and, most regrettably, "Jesus junk."
                    Major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlanta
                    Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Post all have
                    used those terms in recent years in stories on Christian
                    retailing. Mr. Chapell believes that selling knickknacks is
                    detrimental to the cause of Christ if it ultimately erodes
                    reverence for God's name.

                    Baylor University marketing professor Marjorie Cooper
                    agrees. "I think that, to some extent, we're trying to peddle a
                    popularized God in sound-bite mentality so that He's
                    palatable for the masses. But God has never presented
                    Himself that way-this is our idea." Mrs. Cooper also is
                    concerned that unavoidable business considerations may
                    result in doctrinal compromise for Christian retailers.

                    A visit last week to Family Christian Stores may illustrate her
                    concern. Aisle after aisle featured theologically robust
                    content: Works by Augustine and Spurgeon sat alongside
                    the writings of contemporary authors like J.I. Packer and
                    Billy Graham. But a trip through a section labeled
                    "Spirit-filled Living" turned up weasels in the woodpile: at
                    least six titles by "word of faith" preachers Benny Hinn and
                    Kenneth Copeland.

                    Mr. Copeland, a proponent of the "prosperity gospel,"
                    which claims that God wants every believer to be materially
                    affluent, wrote that "God cannot do anything for you apart or
                    separate from faith," for "faith is God's source of power."
                    Mr. Hinn's Good Morning, Holy Spirit is still on the shelf
                    nearly a decade after Bible scholars, including Hank
                    Hanegraaff, debunked it. Mrs. Cooper wonders how
                    Christian retailers, most of whom say they're in business to
                    reach believers and non-believers for Christ, feel about
                    "selling books that propagate error."

                    CBA president Bill Anderson answers flat out: "If there are
                    books and products that run cross-grain with Scripture, we
                    shouldn't be selling them." But retailers do face challenges,
                    he says, in trying to keep up with new titles coming out.
                    "Most retailers I know are committed to pleasing the Lord,
                    and running a business that is honoring to Christ. None I
                    know would intentionally carry a title that runs counter to

                    "Christian retail is a ministry in the arena of business," Mr.
                    Anderson told WORLD. "The resources we sell should help
                    a person understand the Bible better, apply it to life, and live
                    life more effectively."

                    Family Christian Stores president and CEO Les Dietzman
                    says his company's point of view is "to serve the total
                    Christian church, but not to compromise on the most
                    fundamental doctrinal issues, like the deity of Christ or the
                    inspiration of Scripture. We will not carry products just
                    because they sell." He has, he says, booted doctrinally
                    deficient books off his stores' shelves in the past, and he
                    echoes Mr. Anderson's contention that Christian
                    retailing-even in the form of ceramic teapots and smiley-face
                    key chains-is a legitimate ministry.

                    "Our method is retail, but our message is Jesus Christ," said
                    Mr. Dietzman, whom friends describe as a genuinely humble
                    man, and grandfatherly, but with a wide competitive streak.
                    "We supply materials that can literally change people's lives,
                    and I think that's a tremendous ministry."

                    Bibles definitely change lives. Books, too, sometimes. But
                    can Scripture neckties also spark transformation? Mr.
                    Dietzman thinks so. His customers, he says, buy and use gift
                    and apparel items to reach out in Christian friendship, to
                    encourage those who are hurting and to witness to
                    non-believers. Sometimes, he says, a well-placed Christian
                    product leads to conversations with people who have
                    questions about spiritual matters.

                    "We might tend to look at some of the gift and apparel items
                    as sort of lighter fare," Mr. Anderson explained. "But
                    sometimes it's a young Christian who buys a lapel pin to
                    wear because he knows he's supposed to share his faith, but
                    doesn't yet know how. That lapel pin leads to a witnessing
                    situation where tough questions come up. Those questions,
                    in turn, send the young believer back to his books or his
                    Bible where he can become more equipped to answer
                    questions the next time."

                    CBA literature contends that the opposite-pole movement of
                    secular society and Christian conviction "makes the
                    Christian's desire to build a bridge to ... neighbors and
                    co-workers increasingly difficult. Christians today are more
                    aware of their need to be able to articulate their faith....
                    They're coming into CBA stores to buy products that help
                    them do that." According to the 1997 CBA Customer
                    Profile and Satisfaction Survey, 43 percent of customers at
                    the group's member stores come in to purchase Christian
                    products as gifts.

                    Mr. Anderson admits there is a tension in Christian retailing
                    between ministry and commerce. But it's no more a
                    balancing act, he says, than for other believers who are
                    struggling to please God in their work. "For [Christian
                    retailers], the issue is, are we maintaining perspective on why
                    we do what we do, and whose work it is we're doing? Are
                    we keeping our motives pure, and is our message truly one
                    that is biblically accurate?"

                    Brian Chapell believes it is, in the end, this heart-motive that
                    should concern every Christian retailer: "I understand that
                    Christian marketers feel that they must at times tolerate the
                    sale of merchandise they consider questionable in order to
                    be able to stay in business and make available materials of
                    greater merit," said Mr. Chapell. "I respect deeply those
                    who weigh these matters as carefully as Paul did when he
                    allowed Timothy's circumcision in order to be able to
                    present the gospel. Those who do not weigh such matters,
                    however, are in danger of selling out the riches of eternity for
                    the treasures of this world."
                    © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 WORLD Magazine.