Christian retailing: Buyer beware

20 Jul

Xn retailThousands of Christians gathered out West this week, making decisions that could affect millions of believers, with the potential both to strengthen their faith and to ruin it.

I’m not talking about the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which met in Anaheim, Calif.

Instead I’m referring to the International Christian Retail Show, which drew thousands of religious retailers to Denver for a kind of commercial pilgrimage. The convention is “the largest annual gathering in the world of anyone and everyone involved in the creation and distribution of Christian products,” according to CBA, the world’s foremost trade association for Christian stores and the event organizer.

Every year retailers roam among displays of more than 235 publishers, music producers, church-supply distributors, jewelry designers, clothing manufacturers and game makers, looking for new merchandise to feed their customers’ faith. Last year’s convention in Orlando, Fla., attracted almost 7,500 people, representing more than 1,700 stores, from small, independent shops to large chains owned by denominations or multinational corporations.

shoes_focusedslipon_200

These shoes are made for walkin' with Jesus: A "witness wear" sample

Christian retail is big business. Sales of Christian products by CBA suppliers totaled $4.63 billion in 2006, and one-third of all Americans made at least one purchase in a Christian bookstore during 2005, according to a Baylor University survey.

But I have never met anyone who works in a Christian store mainly for the money. People who work at local stores say they want to help customers find a book, a CD or something that might provide fresh insight or offer personal help. They use words like “ministry” and talk about “making a difference.” Years ago an independent store owner told me his business was “just another wrench in God’s toolbox.”

Like any human endeavor that holds heavenly ambitions, however, Christian retailing comes with its own special, sometimes subtle dangers, besides the temptations that usually follow the money. Selling a Bible is not like selling a novel, much less a hot dog. Advertising slogans become theological statements, for better or worse.

Jim Street, pastor of North River Church, a small congregation in the Atlanta suburbs, and a former psychology professor at Milligan College, is sensitive to the issue of marketing among Christians. A dozen years ago, he and Milligan theology professor Phil Kenneson co-wrote a book with the self-explanatory title of Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing. Their target was not marketing per se but the problems that come when the church, the mystical body of Christ, is treated like a commodity.

This isn’t an abstract concern to Street. More than 100 other congregations are located within five miles of his church building, he told me in a phone conversation this week, and he’s watched several families depart for churches that offer more goods and services.

“The issue … is not our commitment to one another and to Christ, but ‘what are my needs and desires and which of these buildings can I go to have them met?’” he explained. “I understand the pressures. As the economy gets worse, the temptation to marketing will increase.”

He thinks selling religious merchandise to Christians carries similar risks.

“The fundamental problem with marketing the church and the business surrounding the church is the elevation of the consumer,” he said. “Selling Christian products puts the consumer at the center of attention. We try to understand him and then shape products to meet his needs. There has to be some amount of consumption to be production, but we’ve elevated the consumer to be a kind of idol in and of himself. The consumer is very much in the driver’s seat.”

That may not be a problem when selling cars, but it can be if someone is trying to walk with God. It’s always been easy enough to let social trends, politics, economics, or just the passing “vanity fair” distort Christian messages (and not just Christian ones). Add the power of modern retail marketing and we can end up with merchandise that creates a house of mirrors more than a window into heaven.

“The story of God is about God, and the Bible is about the works of God,” Street said. “We’re participants in the story of God. But marketing looks at consumers and says we have to shape this to fit what we think they need. Marketing wants to make the consumer into a god. That turns the whole biblical narrative on its head.”

Let the buyer beware. Amen.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 July 2009.

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One Response to “Christian retailing: Buyer beware”

  1. John Sichting July 20, 2009 at 11:58 am #

    “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings”…especially when those feet are wearing Jesus sneakers from Witness Wear!!!
    A newly discovered verse in the Sinaiticus codex (see Jim’s previous post) indicates that the fishermen dropped their nets and followed because there were free T-shirts.

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