By Denton Josey, Page Editor
The child runs down the aisle and falls to the floor clutching a smiling, stuffed cucumber in a purple hat. “But Mom, I don’t have a Larry Boy toy yet, I need a Larry Boy toy!” he wails.
A similar tantrum could be played out almost any day on any toy aisle, but this fit is different and not just because of the cucumber he’s holding. Despite the seeming familiarity of some of the products, everything in this store is different and Christian.
Surrounding are rows of books, music, clothing and Bibles. The salespeople are courteous. They give change back with a smile and say, “God bless you” or “Have a blessed day.” And they sell stuffed vegetables posing as spiritual heroes.
The Christian bookstore is similar to a scaled down model of the mall or Wal-Mart. Inside are toys, books, CD’s, movies, jewelry, interior design items and clothing. At first glance, it seems the only thing that makes this store different is its odd variety. But these bookstores have a faithful following from their devout customers.
According to Patty Snodgrass, sales associate for the Bible Bookstore, of the 12 places in Abilene to buy Christian products, not all are Christian bookstores. Both Wal-Mart and Target sell Christian music and religious books.
Snodgrass said the larger, secular retail stores sell Christian merchandise because of the demand. Annual sales for Christian retail total more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.com.
“There’s money to be made in it. If it wasn’t a bigger market they wouldn’t be using the shelf space for it,” Snodgrass said.
What sets Christian bookstores apart is the depth and variety of selection.
“In our area, people are comfortable with surrounding their whole lives with what’s important to them,” Snodgrass said. “They are happy to have clothing, decorations, things like that to enhance their everyday life.”
The Christian bookstores have made it easy for consumers to have their whole lives surrounded. They market the standard bumper stickers with Christian messages (CSI – Christ Saves Individuals), along with board games (Bibleopoly), dog tags (J.C.I.D.), candles and even Christian Sudoku.
Former youth minister Bob Booth, residence director for Barret Hall, isn’t against Christian merchandise, but he is wary of putting too much stock in the products.
“The number of Christian shirts in your closet doesn’t correlate with your Christ-likeness,” Booth said. He said he wonders if Christians need to wear the message of Jesus on their clothing or on their inside.
“I am wary of our identity being in the Christian things we buy,” Booth said. “I think loving and serving someone is a far better evangelistic tool than making sure your friends see you playing cards with Jesus cards.”
Armor of God
Christian apparel is a popular area among bookstore commodities. From T-shirts aimed at youth that read: “Hottest is modest!” to wallets that announce: “Yes, I am a princess” and then explain: “My father is the King of Kings,” clergy are no longer the only group whose faith can be identified by their clothes.
“There’s so much Christian apparel,” Snodgrass said. “The process of taking worldly themes of advertising and turning them Christian is popular.”
Popular indeed. Why buy a mood ring when a Rainbow Promise Ring is available? Wearing a shirt with “A Breadcrumb and Fish” emblazoned across the chest supports the Gospel instead of Abercrombie and Fitch.
“You can take anything and give it a Christian twist,” Snodgrass said. She adds that her store tries to avoid doing that.
Dr. David Gotcher, chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Work, doesn’t put much stock in such commercialization. “On the surface it might seem to be a good idea; however, it is a process of secularization,” he said. There should be a distinction between secular and sacred, Gotcher said. “If religion crosses over into the secular life, it should be action instead of t-shirts.”
One of the most recent items to hit the market is a new kind of children’s sleepwear. According the their Web site, www.armorofgodpjs.com, Armor of God pajamas are inspired by Ephesians 6, give children security, safety and peace as they sleep in pants, shirts, hats and with a shield pillow representing the armor of God.
Two years as a youth minister made Booth no stranger to Christian merchandise. He said he has even bought items in the past. He sees two sides to ministry-business.
“I think Christian objects can be symbols that draw us nearer to God, they can remind us and focus us back on God,” Booth said.
On the other hand, he doesn’t like Christian merchandise that makes political or evangelistic statements that are exclusive.
“Slapping a ‘Turn or Burn’ bumper sticker on your car does not make you closer to God,” Booth said. “In fact, it might be alienating you from the world he loves.”
Retailers assert their job is to present variety, not decide for the customer what to buy or how much.
“It can just overload, like everything else we do in America,” Snodgrass said. “Do we need 72 designs of Icthus-fish for your car? Do you need 72 types of gum in our country? I don’t know, but if I’m the bubble gum store I’ve got to have all of them.”
Snodgrass said the reason her customers buy Christian products is because that is what they are about. She said it fits into their lives and families.
Business = Ministry
Equipping customers with Christian products that fit into their lives and families is what Christian retail is all about. Based on sales, the company doing the best equipping is Family Christian Bookstores, the nation’s foremost Christian retailer. The franchise has 299 stores in 37 states and employs 5,000.
In 2003, President and CEO Dave Browne informed customers on the store’s Web site that after much prayer and consideration, Family Christian decided to open its doors on Sundays in order to better meet the needs of their clientele.
Second to Family Christian is LifeWay Christian Bookstores, which has more than 125 stores nationwide and attracts 14 million viewers to their website. LifeWay also sees its business as an opportunity for ministry.
LifeWay’s vision statement says: “As God works through us . We will help people and churches know Jesus Christ and seek his Kingdom by providing biblical solutions that spiritually transform individuals and culture.”
LifeWay operates as a non-for-profit store, with all profit going to support the mission work of Baptist missionaries. Amy Isbell, assistant manager for LifeWay in Abilene, said, “Since we’re a non-profit, it adds to the enjoyment of making it a ministry tool in helping our customers know the Lord better. It takes the pressure off.”
Still, some of the items sold seem odd to Isbell. “We have gift items I think are really crazy,” Isbell said. “But who knows, a customer may be looking for a gift item and find what they are looking for.”
Whether the customer wants golf balls with John 3:16 on them or candles featuring the “scent of Jesus” as gift items or for themselves, they can find them with the help of a Christian bookstore.
“We’re going to merchandise to what people are going to buy,” Isbell said.
Whether selling Gospel-related items is appropriate or not is something the Christian bookstores and their patrons are deciding. In the meantime, the secular world has noticed the niche market and acted on it.
Taking on Retail Giants
Doors closed for 271 Christian retailers in 2003 due to larger chains selling the same merchandise at cheaper prices, Newsweek reported.
Retail giants like Wal-Mart, Target and Barnes and Noble have noticed that people are buying Christian merchandise. In turn, many Christian bookstores have joined the Christian Bookseller Association in hopes of survival.
The CBA serves the interests of nearly 2,300 Christian stores in America and more than 1,000 stores internationally in 50 countries. The CBA’s vision is to “be the leading force in bringing the Christian retail channel together and be a champion for its growth and success,” according to their Web site.
The growth and success of Christian retail is moving away from simply books only and towards whatever has the best potential to sell. Gotcher said he knows why the unusual products are sold. “It’s to make money. The bottom line is it will sell.” He is leery that the secularization will ultimately “secularize, trivialize and commercialize Christianity.”
Snodgrass said she is more concerned with the danger in judging the people who sell Christian merchandise. “Somebody may be cashing in on Christianity; our job isn’t to judge,” Snodgrass said. “I don’t think rhinestone cross earrings takes advantage of anybody – they can buy it or not.”
Batman vs. Bibleman
Christian retail has a tendency to take anything the secular market makes and provide buyers with a Christian counterpart, Snodgrass said. She likens it to the commercialization of Batman, whose image is on bed sheets, pajamas, action figures, etc.
For parents who don’t want to deal with non-Christian action figures, Christian retail offers Bibleman, a human transformed by the word of God.
Snodgrass said some items might serve as subtle witnessing tools for many teens hoping to introduce their friends to Jesus. “A lot of teenagers like to have that silent witness, however obscurely,” she said.
Gotcher isn’t as certain about the obscure witness that comes through commercial items. He said he suspects “a lot of this stuff” doesn’t have the impact the patronage thinks it does. “Ultimately, it will secularize, trivialize and commercialize Christianity.”
Like all potentially good things, Booth said, you can lose sight and “become so obsessed with Christian merchandise you miss God in it.”
But, he said, if Christian merchandise produces character change and spiritual formation, then it is good.
The bottom line for the business side of Christian merchandise is it sells, and there is still an audience hungry for Christian morals taught by talking cucumbers and tomatoes. Whether they buy Veggie Tales at Family Christian or pick up the latest Christian rock CD at Best Buy, it seems for now the choice is up to the consumer.