I was in an odd mood the other day, and I started thinking about “Christian” Book Stores. There used to be several bookstores in the area that were “Christian” book stores. They sold Bibles, Bible study guides, devotional guides, prayer journals, hymnals and song books, contemporary Christian CDs, Christian DVDs, and all sorts of “Christian” gift items– tee shirts, wall hangings, jewelry, even candles! If it looked, sounded, felt, or even tasted “Christian” you could probably find it there.
Many of these stores are now out of business. And it made me sad at first, but I think it’s worth a little analysis:
- Maybe the most obvious reason why any store or set of stores goes out of business is the law of supply and demand. As more and more Christian book stores popped up, they filled the market with more and more “stuff.” Every store had Bibles and books, but the demand was for “stuff.” Bracelets and CDs, Mother’s Day gifts, Christmas- and Easter-themes decorations…Bibles were relegated to the back of the store on a couple of shelves. And most of the stores ended up with the same “stuff” as the other stores– the same candles and t-shirts and throw-pillows and coffee mugs with the same “Christian” sayings. Other store chains caught on– you could buy the same coffee mug or DVD at Hobby Lobby, or Walmart– at half the price! And, of course, with e-publishing, streaming services and Spotify, etc., books, DVDs and CDs are almost a thing of the past, anyway. Years of buying “stuff” has resulted in families who can’t even give away all their “precious” used art and decorative items from 20 years ago. The demand just isn’t there.
- More subtle is the psychology of the “Christian” Book store patron. Buying mugs and key chains and bracelets at a “Christian” book store is a form of virtue signaling. Buying a t-shirt with a provocative Christian message can make you feel like you’re witnessing for Christ– without actually having to engage in conversation or develop a relationship with anyone! That feels great for awhile, but the reality is that feelings and virtue signals change. It’s not trendy to wear WWJD bracelets anymore– it’s not even trendy to be a “Christian” anymore–much better to be an open-minded, accepting, and loving “Christ follower.” “Christian” has a bad connotation these days– judgmental, narrow-minded, and hateful. People who used to proudly stroll the aisles of Christian book stores are now full of disclaimers about their church affiliations.
- More subtle still is the psychology of the “Christian” Book Store itself. There really is no such thing as a “Christian” book. There are books written by Christians, and about Christians, and for Christians, but a book is an inanimate object. It cannot be a “Christian” or a “Christ Follower,” or a “Believer.” The same is true about any of the other products sold at any store. There are no “Christian” pot holders or hand lotion sets or wall art. A store catering to a “Christian” audience must not expect to be wildly popular in a secular world. We don’t see a trending wave of Buddhist book stores or Muslim book stores, or book stores specializing in Wiccan coffee mugs– though we may see such trends come and go in the future.
What makes me saddest about the disappearance of the “Christian” Book stores is not that there are fewer cool t-shirts to consider buying, or that I have to travel farther to find a bookstore with a great “Christian” Sci-fi section, or a larger selection of devotionals. It is that, on some level, my “Faith” became an idol. I filled my bookshelf with “good” books, while neglecting to read the most important book of all. I spent time browsing aisles of great music, but less time singing from my own heart. I spent money on items that proclaimed my Faith, but spent less time and energy living it out.
There is nothing “wrong” or sinful about “Christian” Book Stores. I am very grateful to live in a country where I can freely shop for Bibles, and even a couple of throw pillows that remind me how much God loves me. I love that I can wear cross necklaces, or listen to wonderful songs about Christ without facing imprisonment or torture. But I want to be careful not to take for granted a culture that makes following Christ easy. I don’t want to worship the “Christian” culture and not the Christ it claims to love.
One of the first items I remember not being able to find in the “Christian” Book Stores was a prayer journal. Oh, they had several leather-bound journals where you could write notes, or ones that had “prayer prompts” written on gilt-edged pages. But I wanted one like the one I had found years before– it had pages with information on various people groups around the world as prayer prompts, and space to list names and even answers to prayer. I have since created my own notebook-style prayer journal that tries to replicate that older one.
And perhaps that is a good thing. “Christian” books promise a lot–journals that prompt us to pray; devotionals that basically do the “worship” for us; even Bibles that speak to us in comfortable language, so we don’t struggle with unfamiliar words. But ease and comfort do not produce growth. “Christian” book stores do not necessarily produce strong Christians, either. Only Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, can do that. Christian Book Stores can be a valuable tool, or an idol.