Free the Christian Book!

Sharing is nice

In a guest editorial for Christian Retailing, Mark Kuyper, President & CEO of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, shares how according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 76% of Americans identify as Christian (50.9% claim to be Protestant). Another study shows 75% of the population reads books. Two-thirds say they read the Bible and "other religious works." Yet, according to Pubtrack Consumer, Christian books are only 4.7% of the market. Kuyper says, "the potential for … growth is staggering…."

His conclusion?

"Going through difficult times encourages us to innovate. Publishers and retailers all over our industry are rethinking how to do their work. Now is the time to actively and creatively develop new ideas and strategies to reach beyond our current customer base…"

Amen. A standing ovation for the thought. So what might these "new ideas and strategies" be? 

This week, I'd like to honor Mark's wonderful suggestion and ask for your ideas and strategies. The ECPA, the Christian Booksellers Association, even Christian Retailing, which according to their slogan, "serves the $4.6 billion Christian products industry" is eager to hear what we think we should do to grow the market for Christian books. So far, these new ideas are pretty scarce (one new suggestion comes from the CBA chairman: downsizing stores). And to be clear, Kuyper's article isn't necessarily agreeing with the original assumption that the Christian book is only intended for Christians. Yet though he does believe that The Purpose-Driven Life sold to more than just Christians, there's no denying that this simplistic Bible study broke out of CBA–the association of Christian book stores–to reach those who didn't need a safe shopping experience or assurance that their values were shared by the store-owner. Those who bought it at warehouse stores or online could have been nonChristians, but according to the data, if one in four American Christians bought the book, all copies would be accounted for. And given the number of churches who ran 40-Days-of-Purpose campaigns, I think that may be pretty close to accurate (Barna says over half the US population attends church at least once a month).

I'm happy Mark's joined me in what I've been saying for a while now: we need a new strategy. The Christian book industry has taken up the challenge too, so where should we start? I'd like to suggest we start at the beginning–at our guiding principles. I believe our problem comes down to this: not enough of us really believe what we say we do. And that's nothing new. How many of us really practice the Great Commission every day? How many of us break the first and second commandment often? But what about the Golden Rule? Most of us at least do to others what we'd like done to us, right?

Not when it comes to Christian book buyers (I mean buyers of Christian books). Would you like others to treat you as an outsider and say what kind of books you should be allowed to read and where you can get them? No! That's why CBA was initially formed in the 50s, when Christian books were being denied shelf space at secular bookstores. But what about today–with the largest segment of the Christian book industry owned by secular houses and Amazon carrying everything as cheap as it can get? Now the tables are turned and some Christian book buyers find their "seeker" books banned in Christian stores, and by association, themselves untolerated. The challenge to think up new ideas and strategies for expanding the customer base is all well and good when we're talking about reaching Christian buyers of Christian books. But everyone else? They're just not who we serve.

Of course, I'm not necessarily saying there's a problem with this. I suppose it might fly: "Sorry, Lord. I tried to do what you asked, as long as it didn't offend my existing customer base. Christian books just don't reach anyone but Christians."

Guilt-trips aside, since tough times are ripe times, I'd like to offer up the first admittedly-simple-minded suggestion for one of these new strategies: stop thinking of books or stores or customers as Christian vs. non. After all, we're all just reaching out of the same gutter. And in place of those categories, think of how your next act will share love and reach someone God misses. Sure it might not be as nice and neatly compartmentalized, and make it harder to thin-slice the market into subcategories. But if we really have a higher organizing principle, let's apply it to deconstructing this idea of insiders and outsiders and replace it with the idea of all of us looking to get out of the same old dirty box.

And maybe, when we're all unworthy-yet-adored, and O-thank-you-God reachable, we'll just happen to find that transcendent books can in fact sell, for the very reason that they also transcend bariers.

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15 thoughts on “Free the Christian Book!”

  1. Hi, Mick, You say, “first admittedly-simple-minded suggestion for one of these new strategies: stop thinking of books or stores or customers as Christian vs. non. After all, we’re all just reaching out of the same gutter.” “old dirty box.”
    Well, as I’m sure you know, the nice thing about being a Christian is we’re not in the gutter or an old dirty box anymore. We’re seated with Jesus “in heavenly places,” in a way, the Bible says.
    I realize there are many who like to un-define these things, but I like it here in heavenly places, unworthy as I am, LOL.
    Or worthy only in Christ, anyway. You probably mean that, too, or maybe not, I can’t quite tell. But it sounds good to me.
    You say we should be “reachable.”
    Jesus isn’t unapproachable, nor should Christians be unapproachable. The better the Christian, the more approachable, I would hope. The more they want what you want–to bring others into the Kingdom of God.
    Anyway, you said, “Now the tables are turned and some Christian book buyers find their “seeker” books banned in Christian stores.”
    Banned by the secular owners, you mean? Or by the denominational houses? (Lifeway, for instance.)
    Either way, Jesus said some controversial things, as we know. Some of his followers got up and left after one talk, and he said to his close buddies, “So, are you going to leave me, too?” They didn’t, we recall. They said no, where else could they go? Nowhere.
    Point is, Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, wait, come back, let me explain this better. Let’s un-define this and have a conversation.” He bluntly said what he had to say, regardless. Wow. Tough and sweet. Uncompromising.
    Maybe the seeker books are banned because they un-define and un-explain the things Jesus wants left plain. I don’t know.
    You also said, “And in place of those categories, think of how your next act will share love and reach someone God misses.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by “someone God misses.” I’m sure you know that God loved the world so much, he gave. He gave a huge sacrifice, taking the punishment for sin, in order to pull us out of the gutter. It’s up to us to receive, and see that no one misses God, and maybe that’s what you mean. I can’t tell. But if so, I agree with that.
    And yes, we should be true to ourselves and the way God wants to speak through us. Yes, society is so into facts and science and “the world is too much with us.” But science has its drawbacks and disappointments and we are indeed in seeking times.
    And we have Jesus offering the solution. He said “If I be lifted up, I will draw everyone to myself.”
    (And maybe it’s not fashionable to actually quote the Bible anymore, I don’t know. Maybe conversation is allowed all around it, but not actually quote it, or so it seems.)
    I don’t think that the One we are to lift up is the watered-down, undefined Jesus that we see presented so much today.
    Again, Jesus didn’t call people back to explain things to them and make his commands more palatable.
    Not the real Jesus. But there are many others:
    If we’re not specific, we can end up with other gospels and other jesuses and other spirits that confirm them, 2 Corinthians 11, and in the eternal danger warned for those who bring them, Galatians 1:6-9.
    We are told to earnestly contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, Jude 1:3.
    Please forgive me, Mick, if this is obvious to you and if you’re assuming this is obvious to the readers out here. I’m reading a lot today that makes me think it’s not obvious to that many. I’m speaking to them, out of deepest concern.
    As you say, Mick, we don’t do that well obeying what we do believe. So, let’s be sure of what God does want from us.
    For one thing, with the popularity of the occult in novels and movies, there is a growth in occult groups and practices. Mainly, they are based on powers not from God. And yes, they are fiction. Fiction–_Uncle Tom’s Cabin_–started the Civil War. Fiction is a huge influence. These practices are called “detestable” or “abominations” in Deuteronomy 18. Still, Christians read and write these books. They say they want to draw others into the fold.
    I just wonder how much the end justifies the means.
    Turning to things God hates, for entertainment, in order to lure people into God’s Kingdom? Hmm.
    Jesus also said he would be surprised to find faith on the earth when He returns:
    There are some today who don’t believe he will return. That kind of proves his point.
    There are some who don’t believe he said half of what he said, and some who believe only what he said in the red letters.
    Some who see no relevance today to Ezekiel 37 & 38 or 1948. That kind of proves his point, too.
    There are many who see the Holy Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Bible! Don’t want any silly, spooky Spirit stuff around here. Too sophisticated for that.
    When it’s the Holy Spirit, not Jesus, who actually lives among us doing God’s work. It is because of Jesus, yes, but it’s the Holy Spirit who spreads God’s love around into our hearts, who helps us to understand truth, who helps us to remember what we learn, who gives us faith and power to live right, to witness to others, to receive more answers to prayer because we obey more, a la the promises of God….
    (Unfortunately, *sophisticated* refers to being wise in the ways of the world. But we recall that God uses the simple things to confound the wise. He honors childlike faith, not worldly doubt.)
    We should be writing more about the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Or wooing unbelievers. In fiction or non.
    The solution? Keep Christian and secular categories. Present the truth of Jesus the way he would, but with fresh voices and fresh testimonies. Not with fresh definitions and undefinitions and conversations that go nowhere.
    “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3
    On the other hand, people are hungry for truth. Not everyone is a Saddleback Sam.
    If we bring people into the Kingdom by downplaying the principles to make the church attractive to the world, how much church will we have in the world and how much world will we have in the church?
    Blur the definitions, and again, we’ll have those other gospels, other jesuses, other spirits. Not truth.
    All the redefining and undefining and conversation I’ve read about just reminds me of the old Beef-a-Roni commercial that ended with a child’s voiceover: “Tawk, tawk, tawk. When do we eat?”
    My 2c worth, anyway.
    God bless~
    Margo

  2. Mick, I could be wrong here, but aren’t the secular stores more responsible for keeping the “Christian fiction” selections secured in their “Inspirational” or “Religious” sections of their shelving?
    I think the authors (Christians) have done their parts as to writing the stories which could be placed anywhere in bookstores or warehouse shopping. For example, Tim Downs’ Bug Man novels really can’t be classified as Christian fiction. Robert Liparulo’s thrillers, the same and Steven James’ novels, to name a few.
    I don’t care where the novels are placed, but it occurs to me that the militant anti-God buyers would be unhappy if they picked up a novel and found the gospel inside once they started reading.
    We do have a mission to reach the lost, but as Margo pointed out, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to direct our steps, our vision, our writing, our “appointments”. So the real mission is to be obedient to the call and the empowering and understanding of that call comes from the Holy Spirit.
    Strategy? Listen to the Holy Spirit’s directives. The meeting of man’s minds without the Holy Spirit’s instructions is nothing more than policy which might work for a short season but won’t accomplish anything lasting. JMO.

  3. For discussions of how the church needs to change, I’m completely useless. Sorry. I only have answers for book lovers.
    Secondly, I think we need to focus on problem-solving over ideology. I’m not calling for downplaying Christian principles. And I’m not against discernment.
    I apologize if I come across erring on the side of grace. I get frustrated by the censorship that happens in the name of upholding principles.
    Randy Alcorn’s little book The Grace and Truth Paradox is a modern classic on the biblical principle of grace and truth as essential partners, nullified when split. I wish everyone would read it. My central challenge is to Christians who set themselves up as gatekeepers ensuring grace remains subservient to truth. Knowing grace transforms the principles into loving guidelines. But the people God misses (the ones Jesus came to rescue) don’t have that transforming knowledge, so our strict principles become a barrier.
    I’m not calling for downplaying the principles. I’m calling for allowing truth to affect “seekers” through seeker books in Christian stores. That term is unweildy (we might prefer “spiritually curious” or something else) and any attempt to define those books would get a thousand different answers. So I’m taking a deliberately small focus on a very specific issue that some worthy, benign books get blocked from their intended audience by some Christian bookstores. And I think that’s a shame, especially when we’re looking for ways to grow the market.
    Someone going to mention The Shack or do I have to?

  4. Well, to sum up my thoughts above, I believe ideology *is* part of the problem and the solution. : )
    Some of these benign books are so watered down or evasive or misrepresentative of truth, they present another ideology–another gospel, another jesus, and another spirit to deceive readers to believe in the other gospel and the other jesus.
    That’s probably why they’re blocked, since Christian bookstores feel a responsibility to their readers and ultimately, to God. I know of one that will sell a certain book but hand the buyer a sheet of paper with a disclaimer on it. Good for them.
    For example, page 110 of _The Shack_: the jesus character there says he is the best way to relate to the father character.
    Well, it’s a very subtle difference on the surface. But what the real Jesus says is very different:
    “I am the way and the truth and the life. *No one* comes to the Father except *through me.*” John 14:6.
    That is the very essence of the Gospel.
    Walter Martin of _The Kingdom of the Cults_ states that if you miss who Jesus is, you’ve missed it all.
    Fiction is powerful. _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ started the Civil War. Fiction represents or misrepresents truth. Ideology sells, good and bad. And we’re all held accountable for what we promote to the world.

  5. I understand your wanting to have more grace presented. It’s part of the sweetness and courtesy I have seen here and when I met you at a conference. And we need a balance.
    But again, Jesus told the truth, and didn’t say come back, let me give you grace and an explanation. He let the people who didn’t want the truth…just…leave.

  6. Okay, let’s talk ideology. Too often, we don’t give grace equal weight. We give it lip service. If we really believed it, we’d drop anything resembling an exclusionary attitude. Whether it’s inflamatory statements about certain groups, or blocking books that invite strangers into the store, if we don’t lead with grace, how can we expect Jesus to be anything but unattractive to the world? We can defend and excuse all we want, but what do we really have left to defend?
    I see Jesus “downplaying the principles” at times, especially when principles get in the way of gracious truth. The woman at the well should have been condemned, and would have if he hadn’t downplayed the principles to show her grace. Jesus showed us the proper balance and how grace with truth brings freedom. He challenges divisive, fear-based divisions between in and out. The question isn’t did he come back and explain himself; the question is who does he exclude? Anyone?
    I can’t tell someone who their market is or what books to carry to grow their business. I simply want to challenge Christians to live by their higher principle, the principle of love for others, not the principle of defending the walls and quoting scripture to those they deem most worthy of it (or unworthy). Go ahead and claim that “righteousness has no dealing with darkness” but it doesn’t excuse a lack of love. Build baricades to feel safe, but our only “safety” is in balancing the “principles” with grace.
    If our passion for truth doesn’t match our passion for grace, no amount of principle-pounding is able to hide what we’re most passionate about: being right. And if we don’t care, Jesus doesn’t force us. He doesn’t call us back and make us face facts (maybe he knows that’s pointless when folks have already chosen). But he did make his commands more palatable by first destroying barriers to truth by extending grace.
    My point is, the message we’re sending by dividing our books from the world’s revokes grace. And then we stand behind our wall and rebuke them for not having the truth? Absolutely, let’s have clean books to read, but do we excuse ourselves from also carrying books that might reach a skeptical world? Some stores are doing great with this—even in Colorado Springs! Mecca! But some still argue. They say they don’t see how committing to only allowing “clean, safe books” in their stores hurts anyone. And that’s precisely the point. They don’t see it because the hurting stay away. No one’s arguing for shock-value books, at least I’m not (and some are being carried in Christian stores, to be sure). I’m just saying we’ve got to stop assuming believers are the only readers of Christian books.
    And I’m not alone in this. Kuyper’s right: there’s an enormous market out there. But how hard do we think that market should have to fight for the privilege of being shunned and told we don’t carry any books that would speak to them because we’re too good for them?
    That’s certainly not what we want to say, but what if it’s what they’re hearing? What many don’t realize is that it’s happening. Bookstores and publishers get letters. Sales drop in certain accounts when books “accommodate” nonChristians. The well-meaning readers want their space protected from “downplaying the principles,” and they’re loud so they get listened to, regardless of their legalistic belief that they know what God would have everyone read. And the wall is built.
    Sorry. You got me on a roll, so I’ll try to wind down here. I would love living in a time when people climbed the wall to see if the prophesied messiah was really Jesus. Unfortunately, most have already been convinced by the evidence that we’re not willing to share. This post-Christian nation khows how poorly we’ve been sharing. Wall-building and defending has replaced the very thing Jesus came to bring.
    Okay, final bullet, because I hate long comments like this: We’re either devoted to God’s work in reaching and healing and transforming or we aren’t. Those are the only categories that should matter.
    How many people must be rejected by “Jesus” before we realize it’s not Jesus they have a problem with? Didn’t God accommodate us, speak in our language, and send grace through the most unexpected sources to break through our walls so we’d hear and understand? If we bear that spiritual imprint we’re the unworthy recipients of unfathomable grace, and we can’t say others are unworthy of our efforts to show them grace-infused truth. My trouble is, Christians uphold their principles at the expense of expressing love for their neighbor.
    Christians should be ashamed of what we’re saying to the world by eliminating seeker-friendly books from adult bookshelves. That’s my beef. Thanks for some great, challenging dialogue!

  7. By the way, Margo, excellent point about The Shack, particularly that specific part. Finding God in the Shack provides some good theological explanation, by the way.
    The Shack says Jesus is the best way to God, and that’s why God sent him. The book doesn’t say that means he isn’t the ONLY way.
    A point of distinction between an exclusive vs. inclusive concept of God. We read it according to what we bring.

  8. “We read it according to what we bring.” So true. We don’t want to choke the babes with meat when they’ve just realized they want milk. We just need to be sure the milk we present does lead to the meat and not to a different table. I think we’ve found a point of agreement, among many others, actually. : )

  9. Uh, Mick, your post seems to infer God loves Christians and non-Christians the same. True? Wow, need to ponder that for a while. Next thing you’ll be telling me is Jesus would shop in a non-Christian book store, or you think it’s a good thing that Demi Moore is carrying around The Shack under her arm.

  10. Okay, wow. Lots to ponder here. I even started a whole scratch document of notes as I process my initial reaction.
    But for a post-midnight, not-necessarily-coherent reflection (how’s that for a disclaimer), what I’m struck with is how easily we as Christians (maybe people in general) cling to compartmentalizing everything. We read books that encourage our “spiritual walk” and books that inform our businesses, but we don’t see that our whole lives are submitted to Christ . . . so you can’t segregate them out.
    I tend to agree with you, Mick, that there seems to be some need to loosen our grip on categories and focus on defining how separated from “the world” we are. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, but I think that holding fast to truth and theology can walk hand in hand with getting outside “the box” (to be cliche). The ideas are not mutually exclusive.
    Okay, those are initial thoughts. I’m sure I’ll be back for more (or maybe my own post).
    One more thing, though, and it’s just bugging me. Margo, I totally respect and agree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very influential in the anti-slavery movement. And I agree with your extrapolation that fiction can be very influential in politics and culture. However, I think it’s pretty bold (and a stretch) to claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the Civil War . . .

  11. Christian bookstores have typically chosen to distinguish themselves from mainstream stores not only by the decision to shelve exclusively Christian books, but also by raising a “safe for the whole family” banner above the front door.
    I wonder what would happen if, instead of focusing so much on the arguably contentious “safe for the whole family” claim, the bookstore instead (or also) was intentional on becoming a “safe place to explore the Christian faith,” not just to “confirm what we believe”?
    Of course, this would require a large dollop of that “grace” you talk about above, Mick, because a “safe place to explore” demands an environment of love and non-judgmental attitudes. (And just for clarification, “non-judgmental” is not the same as anchorless secular tolerance. We don’t have to give up what we believe in order to love someone who doesn’t believe as we do.)
    I haven’t thought through all the implications such a change might bring, but I suspect one might be acceptance of a broader mix of books, including those that invite discussion on aspects of the Christian faith but aren’t written specifically for a Christian audience. The Shack seems a natural fit here. But why not Peace Like a River or Gilead? And what about all the books yet-to-be-written by Christians who are keen on telling redemptive stories born out of God’s ultimate truth, but not to an audience that has already experienced that redemption? Would stores like this offer those books a home, and therefore give publishers a reason to publish more of them?
    Maybe these thoughts don’t have enough specificity or substance to add value to the discussion, but I can’t help but be intrigued by the image of Christians and seekers and agnostics and the occasional curious atheist rubbing shoulders as they search bookstore shelves for answers to the questions each is asking about a life of faith.

  12. Does gratitude permeate my being? Is Jesus the root of my writing?
    What if I chose to surround myself by my target audience – whether five or fifty five, whether faithful or unfaithful? What if it makes me uncomfortable and I choose to do it anyway – through Jesus’s strength?
    What if we offered free the Christian book? Salvation is still free, last I heard. Oh yea, but now I’m called to be a slave to Christ.
    What if I offered all glory and all profits to the Lord? The “pay it forward” approach anyone? We all want to experience that, and we all want to be people of change – but what if that meant with “my” author royalties?
    Can I let God be at the reigns? His timing, His words, His message and His audience.
    What if the book ends up only a gift to Him and never gets published, but changes me in the process?
    Am I willing? Are we willing?
    Offered to Him and permeated with Him, He will use His words to reach the world.

  13. It seems like Christian fiction tends to focus on what we don’t have to sell books. We don’t have too much violence, sex, obscene language… I think the CBA should begin focusing on what it does have. Focus on having great story, craft, challenging readers and sucking them into a glorious story world.
    As a writer, I like to look at the CBD catalogue as a consumer. There are very few covers that interest me. Most of them feature the picture of a girl and a guy on the front, or maybe just a girl. Often a girl in Amish garb. Romance is nice, but to read a book, I usually need some other compelling story element to make me take the time. Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series is a good example. There were gladiators and sword play on the cover. So I bought them.
    I read a lot of secular YA. Percy Jackson and the olympians, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, Artemis Fowl, Twilight… All of these are fun, and very fast paced. I’d like to see that style in the CBA. Doesn’t have to be vampires but it does have to move along at a good pace with lots of action and tension.

  14. There seems to be a disconnect between Christian bookstores in the west, mid-west, south, and eastern sections of this country. I don’t consider Ted Dekker, Steven James, Mike Dellosso, or some of Robert Liparulo’s adult books “safe for the whole family”. I wouldn’t put Redeeming Love in that category either. There are a few women’s ficiton/romance novels which wouldn’t be appropriate for young teen women and there are some that have no mention at all of the Gospel or Jesus in them, and all of these novels are on the shelves of local Christian bookstores along with The Shack, Blue Like Jazz, and any number of other “spiritually speculative” books. No warning labels attached, no distinguishing labels at all.
    I was asked to make a shelf-talker for my own novel which stipulated it was for “mature” readers. No problem. It’s a book for adults.
    Maybe that’s why I’m missing part of the point here. I was thinking more along the lines of the segregations afforded Christian novels in secular bookstores.

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