The Need for Church Bookstores (2019)
Dr. James Emery White
- 2019 Jan 28
*Editor’s Note: With the recent news of LifeWay closing even more of the last line of brick-and-mortar Christian bookstores, the Church & Culture team thought it worthwhile to share this blog from 2014.
As someone relatively familiar with the publishing industry, having just published my 20th book, I read Philip Yancey’s article in Books and Culture with great interest. Titled “Farewell to the Golden Age,” it is an informed and insightful analysis of the end of publishing as we have known it.
Beyond just analyzing the rise of eBooks and self-publishing, as well as the demise of bookstores and back catalogs, Yancey explores what has been lost. Here are a few of his points, along with some of my own:
- No longer can you walk into a bookstore and browse through multiple titles you didn’t know existed. Instead, if a particular book is of interest, you order it through Amazon without any awareness of better titles on the subject, other titles on the subject, or just other books in general that would serve your life.
- Authors are published and promoted not on the basis of writing skill or excellent content, but whether they front a large enough organization to buy large quantities of the title, have a marketing arm of their own, or the social media presence of the author is substantial. “Forget sample chapters; tell us how many followers you have on Twitter.”
- The bookstores that still exist are driven, by necessity, to sell what sells. Good and important books that have stood the test of time and need to be introduced to new readers (and new Christians), are not available. They are unknown, now, because stores don’t have the ability to keep large catalogs of books. They have to stock the latest bestsellers – regardless of quality – and not much else.
- Amazon and eBooks have killed off most “mom and pop” bookstores, including many seminary bookstores. Ironically, we are now seeing a leveling off of interest in eBooks and a desire for a “browsing” experience from online sellers.
- The Christian bookstores that have survived have done so by backing away from their namesake. Only about 30% of their inventory and/or sales come from books. The rest comes from what I not-so-affectionately refer to as “Jesus junk” (trinkets and religiously themed home décor).
Yet the need for Christian bookstores that are well stocked with vetted titles to serve new and existing Christians is staggering, especially in a day increasingly challenged in terms of a Christian worldview and a mind for God.
So in light of outdated economic models, what can be done?
The church can get involved.
Consider the following:
- An onsite church bookstore doesn’t have the overhead costs of a regular bookstore, such as rent or utilities. Further, volunteers can take the place of employees, freeing up even more costs.
- Without the normal overhead, a church bookstore does not have to generate the revenue of a normal bookstore. In fact, since profit isn’t a motive, it’s simply a matter of breaking even in terms of cost-recovery (Or, if supplemented as a ministry expense, it doesn’t even have to reach that threshold.).
- Without a profit motive, the inventory of the bookstore can be highly selective and entirely qualitative in nature. It’s a ministry, so the books can be chosen accordingly.
There is more, but I think you get the feel of the benefits. At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), where I serve as senior pastor, we have a bookstore and café at all of our campuses called “The Grounds.” Each book is carefully screened by me and other pastors/leaders for biblical and theological integrity. We carry titles that you won’t find at most other stores, but we consider them classics (or at least essential reading). We include reference works and study materials that few can afford to carry. The Grounds at our North Charlotte Campus is open not only on the weekends surrounding services, but throughout the week so that people can come and browse. Costs for each item are comparable to Amazon because we don’t have to carry the margin most stores would. And any and all profits beyond costs go toward our ministries and mission partners.
I know this would be a large endeavor for many churches. But if I can be so bold, many with quick excuses could offer this ministry if they wanted to.
And it is a ministry.
When summarizing human devotion to God as involving heart, soul and strength, Jesus added “... and mind” to the original wording of Deuteronomy (Mark 12:29-30). It is as if He wanted there to be no doubt that when contemplating the comprehensive nature of commitment and relationship with God, that our intellect should not be overlooked. The apostle Paul contended that our very transformation as Christians would be dependent on whether our minds were engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ (Romans 12:2-3).
And yes, reading an actual in-your-hands book matters to this.
As Yancey writes,
We still don’t know the long-term effects of reading eBooks vs. traditional hard copy books. Some studies show that people read slower on dedicated e-readers, and those who use tablets or computers or iPhones have a different reading experience, being constantly distracted by text messages, emails, Facebook, and other interruptions. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores the changes in brain function that may result. Hyperlinked, multi-tasking readers do not have the same “deep reading” experience, and are less likely to store what they read in long-term memory.
It is no wonder Paul wrote to Timothy from his jail cell asking him to bring him his books (II Timothy 4:13).
How tragic would it be if there had been no books to bring?
Or any place to buy them.
James Emery White
Philip Yancey, “Farewell to the Golden Age: How Publishing Has Changed,” Books and Culture, July 2014, read online.
David Roach, “LifeWay to Reduce ‘Brick-and-Mortar Channel,’” Baptist Press, January 16, 2019, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.