For a number of years, I’ve worked in Christian retail. It’s been my job to connect people with the right Bible or the right book or the right gift in exchange for money. When I first started in the shop (Bible Society NSW Bookshop) all we sold were Bibles. If someone asked me if we carried a book, I would ask them if it was a Bible. If they said no, I could quickly tell them we didn’t stock it because we only stocked Bibles. No need for complicated computer searches back then!
A few years ago, the shop branched into Christian literature and music. Suddenly it was a whole new world. I actually had to know things like titles! And authors! I never had that problem before. New stock meant new problems. What books do you stock? Do you stock everything and hope for the best? Do you only stock books you agree with? Do you stock books that are good, even if they don’t sell?
Some people argue that you should only stock books that are theologically accurate. That the only books on the shelves should be written by conservative evangelical authors that teach on doctrinally accurate subjects. There’s a problem right there. Who decides what is theologically accurate? I definitely have a point of view on the issue, but others disagree with me. Others who share the same faith as me and disagree with me only on minor issues. Yet where do you draw the line between a major and minor issue? And its definitely not taking into account that the shop I work in is a non denominational store. We service Christians from all denominations – Catholics to Protestants to Pentecostals. If we make a stand on one position, we would end up alienating a section of our clientele. And if we alienate them, they’re not going to be getting Bibles from us and that’s what we want most of all.
I recently heard a Christian speaker, who I deeply respect, put forward the argument that a pastor should only stock theologically accurate books in their Church bookstall. Books that point only to the truths of the faith and no where else. I whole heartedly agree. It is the role of the pastor to shepherd his congregation. To point them unerringly towards God. To not place anything in their way that may cause them to stumble or doubt. But is the role of the Christian bookshop the same as the Church bookstall? The Christian retailer has a much broader customer base from a large spectrum of denominational beliefs. This same speaker that I mentioned earlier later went on to say that he mostly read books by people he disagreed with in order to sharpen his theological skills. Someone needs to be able to supply those books! If you want to know what’s going on in the world of Christian thought, someone needs to be able to supply those books. At some point you have to trust that your customers will be discerning, hold what they read against the truth of the Bible and make up their own mind.
So what should Christian retailers sell? I recently read a book called Rapture Ready. One chapter has the author meeting with a Christian retailer in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Chuck Wallington is the owner of Christian Supply, the largest Christian bookstore in America (and therefore, probably the world). Wallington’s philosophy of what to stock is simple – “He will carry any book that he thinks his customers will read as long as it does not deny four basics about Jesus: his virgin birth, his death on the cross, his atonement for humanity’s sins, and his resurrection and eventual return.” (Rapture Ready, pg 103). I like this approach. It acknowledges that store exists to sell books. If they don’t sell books then they cease to exist. Having good books that don’t sell won’t get you far.
Secondly, it upholds that some things are essential for a book to be Christian. It’s one thing to be stocking a book that promotes charismatic gifts. It’s another to stock a book that says Jesus didn’t exist. However, I’m not 100% sold on his four basics (which really look like five to me…). Is the virgin birth a make or break doctrine? What would you add or subtract? I earnestly want to hear what people have to say. It may even become policy at the Bible Society NSW Bookshop!
Christian retail is a key ministry. In some respects it is a gatekeeper of Christian theology, especially amongst lay people. If we don’t stock it, people don’t read it. And if we do stock it, people might just get their hands on it. Ultimately, I think we want to be stocking books that point people to God and convince them of how much he loves them.
Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.