UPDATE: Tim Challies has just posted an amazing bit on the inner-workings of church marketing. If there are doubters out there about how we are perceived by the Publishing interests, this will sober you up. Required reading.
Some of my long time readers may remember that in a long-forgotten fit of exuberance, I swore off visiting Christian bookstores. I’ll have to confess that I’ve mostly kept that vow, but I’ve strayed enough to keep the economy stimulated. I don’t want those Lifeway employees to be laid off on account of me.
Actually, I live 2 hours from the nearest “real” Christian bookstore, (not counting local operations that I avoid completely) so it doesn’t take a great effort on my part to abstain. I spend my book money at Amazon. My employer lets me spend a little money at Lifeway, so I stopped in today, while I was in Lexington to see my daughter, and took a quick look around. I came out with some music. No books or other trinkets. I thought I would pen a few impressions for those of you who don’t get out much.
One cannot say it enough: The book selection in the average Lifeway is horrendous. (Seminary stores accepted.) There is a large section called “Christian Living,” and 98% of the books found there never needed to be written. The packaging is very nice. The titles are cute. But after that, things get desperately discouraging. Politics. Family Values. Sentimental devotionalism. Nonsense. Bad advice. Mumbling. Many books that seem to have no purpose for their existence. I mean, books that retread the same messages that evangelicals have been writing for a century. Spurgeon at his worst was miles beyond what you find here. Of course, it’s all packaged very nicely, with catchy titles designed to grab the shopper with the idea that something significant lurks between the pages.
What I strongly suspect is that the evangelical book-buyer isn’t really viewed as a reader so much as a labratory chimp whose behavior can be safely predicted when put in the presence of certain words, colors, sounds and sentences.
There is, btw, a “Theology” section in most Lifeways. In some stores it is modest, in others, nearly invisible. I suspect very few stores have anyone on staff with an idea what kinds of books should be found on such a shelf. In one Lifeway I visit in a community of 55,000, one finds less than 30 books in the section, with the majority of those referring to issues of recent interest to Southern Baptist conservative pastors. Of course, there are many Bibles and Bible reference materials in most Lifeways, but almost no theology. Bibles and Christian Living, but a shrinking interest in theology. You can draw your own conclusions. I think it tells a story.
I continue to be amazed at how Christian publishers are getting multiple works out of their best-selling writers. How many Jabez books do we need? Beth Moore’s output of material- and accompanying products- is astonishing. I’m grateful for Beth Moore’s ministry, but I am uncomfortable with the implications of this trend on the ministry of pastoral teaching in local churches. If our pastors aren’t teaching their people, who gave the Christian publishers and parachurch ministries the green light to fill the gap? Thousands of Baptist churches have “Women’s Bible Studies” going that would never be in existence if the pastor were the leader. What’s up with that? I am all for good curriculum, but I don’t want N.T. Wright, John Piper or anyone else replacing the teaching ministry of local church pastors and elders, especially at the instigation of Christian publishers who want to sell products. The issue of accountability is seriously compromised with the proliferation of replacement Bible teachers packaged and sold by Lifeway.
Before we leave Lifeway, I have to tell about an incident I observed. I was standing near the check-out, looking through my wallet for my account number. A man came to the check-out with his material. As the Lifeway employee was checking him out, she said the following: “Do you read John Eldredge? He has a new book for wives……etc.” She plugged an Eldredge book as this guy was checking out. A scripted plug.
OK. I know enough about retail to know what’s going on here. Management has the employees plugging this book. Lifeway is pushing the book, just like the girl at the drive-through asks you if you want the Biggee Fries. It’s coming down from Nashville. (The girl didn’t plug the book with me. I suppose I don’t appear “Wild At Heart.” I’m a little more Dilbert-esque.)
I’m a capitalist, and Lifeway can sell whatever they want however they want to sell it. I’ll just say this: Someone needs to wake-up and realize that Lifeway is pushing the teachers and the teaching that suit their purposes of making money FIRST, and not the purposes of your local church, its people or its leaders. This is what Christian publishers do. Yes, they are great people who want to help churches and Christians, etc., yada, etc. Just remember why that book was being pushed, and all kinds of great books will never be endorsed or even displayed at those stores. They are telling you that you need to read Eldredge. They are telling YOU and your church, “These are the teachers you need to be listening to.” It’s distressing.
Actually, since there was nothing there, my time in Lifeway was short. I traveled over to the local Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a couple of things to be true. First, the religion section is a lot more impressive and eclectic than any Christian bookstore I’ve visited. Lots of books that would never be in a Lifeway. Catholic authors. Liberals. Academics. Second, B&N gets the new books almost immediately, which is very unusual here in Kentucky and really draws me in. For instance, some books that aren’t available till the spring were in B&N today.
So I am scouring the Christianity section and I make an observation. Here in front of me is a shelf with books by Thomas Merton and Brannon Manning. One shelf. And below these two is a shelf and a half of books by General Joyce Meyer. (For all you need to know about General Joyce, go googling. But start here at Trinity Foundation. Go down the page to the articles from the St. Louis paper on Meyer’s empire. Don’t write and tell me I am slandering her. Write the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
I started to look around. Joyce Meyer’s books were everywhere in Barnes and Noble. Two shelves. Two tables. Displays. New books at the front. Even at the check out, looking at me from a display behind the desk. This is weird. Rick Warren has convinced these bookstores that there is money to be made, and General Joyce is cranking out all kinds of titles that look great in B&N. So we’ve gone from a generic evangelical Baptist to an intimidating female word-faith life coach who flashes the bling-bling at every opportunity, and she’s looking at me from every aisle like she wants to hit me.
This is creepy. While Meyer is theologically light years ahead of Joel Osteen, she’s also a classic televangelist multi-mazillionaire scamming tons of people while she purports to be using the money responsibly. (Read the articles. Don’t bark at me.) And she’s taken over Barnes and Noble. I kept looking for her jet in the parking lot.
Now that Rick Warren has revealed the buckets of money to be made, the larger publishing industry will be pushing the Osteens and the Meyers to the top of the pile. Why? They know how to play the game. The titles. The packaging. The rehashed content. The multiple tie-ins to some big event at a stadium. General Joyce has the added bonus of being a cross between Dr. Laura and Lou Gossett, Jr in An Officer And A Gentleman. She’s the pastor most Southern Baptists wish they had, even though their version of God won’t allow her in the ministry.
With so few pastors helping their people sort through this mess, and with Christian television pumping Joyce Meyer into our homes 24/7, it’s no wonder she’s a hit with the “practical Bible teaching” crowd. That success will translate into books, and as fast as she can crank them out, title them and smile for the cover photo, they will be at a Wal-Mart near you. If you love God and your kids, you’ll buy them all.
I’m safely back home now. General Joyce couldn’t stop my escape. But I have my feeling she’s on the march, and no where will be safe. I’m pretty sure some of the women in my church are her admirers. I know she has a following on the OBI staff.
What can I do? Well, I’m thinking of seeing how I look in high heels and a dress. Two can play at this game.