Trinkets or truth?
How bumper stickers, stuffed animals, and
retail kitsch are squeezing the books out of
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
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
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
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.