25 May 2006

The Golden Fleece [1 of 2]

by Frank Turk

h: Christian retail. Did you know this is my favorite subject of them all—including baptism and the inevitable “Iron Man vs. War Machine” blog-battles with iMonk? It’s my favorite because it is so misunderstood by most people, including those who are actually “doing” it, and it leads to so many problematic reactions.

Because, let’s face it: in spite of my half-hearted defense of the industry, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) is a problematic industry at best. Now, why is that?

Let me give a real-life example, and then I’ll be excited to move on to my real beef this morning. The real life example is the WAL*MART Supercenter in Springdale, AR. Let me tell you that there are no facilities busier than this thing, but it is distinguished in the WAL*MART (WMT) chain by one significant detail: it has a fairly-amazing book department.

Seriously: their book department is about the size of an airport bookstore (~1000 sq ft), and it has a LOT of books. Interestingly, it has a long side counter of “inspirational” titles, which run the gamut from Joyce Meyer to Joel Osteen to Rick Warren (which, of course is not much of a spectrum, but I’ll get back to that). They also have a very cheap assortment of Thomas Nelson KJV and NKJV bibles – “cheap” meaning “the binding is complete junk”.

Now, here’s where the example actually starts kicking in: immediately next to the “Inspirational” section is two 8-foot sections with the header card:
Let that sink in for a minute. In the mind of the WMT book buyer(s), LDS and Joyce Meyer and Rick Warren are all the same kind of thing. The big fat irony, of course, is that they are actually the same kind of thing—but as Inego Montoya is famous for saying, “I don’ thin’ thad means wha’ you thin’ thad means.”

What has happened in WMT, of course, is the logical end of trying to supply spiritual truth using retail discernment. What sells “best” is what gets shelf space, and suddenly what you are left with is not content at all but marketing. And in those terms, the LDS gospel and the Joyce Meyer “ministry” and the Joel Osteen “best life” and the Rick Warren “method and message” all turn out to get the front of the shelf.

When your objective is selling the most copies, or snatching the most readers, inexorably you must be turning over the stones to find the next sizable group of people with a common interest to draw them in and frankly pander to their self-assessed needs.

So what does that have to do with CBA? WMT is not the CBA channel—CBA sees WMT as the big bad wolf, far more damaging than the internet channels. But not doctrinally damaging—sales at the register damaging.

Isn’t that ironic? Because WMT can cherry-pick the things from CBA and then get the publishers to cheap-down the bindings, and then create franchises around personalities, CBA sees that as a threat to sales.

What CBA ought to see it as is a threat to doctrine—because I promise you that even in the most personally-ignorant common CBA store, there is a lot of revulsion against selling things like statues of St. Joseph to bury in your yard. In the mind of the WMT buyer, no such revulsion exists.

So the problem with CBA is not that, store by store, there isn’t some nebulous sense that we ought to be teaching “what the Bible teaches”. The problem is that the guidepost CBA uses to measure success is the same guidepost that WMT uses to measure success. It’s the guidepost that gets LDS literature on the shelf next to Rick Warren, and Rick Warren next to Osteen, and Osteen next to Mrs. Meyer.

In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not the guidepost we use here at TeamPyro.

I’ll have more on this as it relates to the new T-Shirt design in a bit.


Timotheos said...

Unfortunately, more people get their theology from Walmart than Paul in our day. Another troubling aspect is that you'll find more people at the average Wal-mart store on any given Sunday than in the average house of worship, as well.

Steve said...

If there's any one topic you can blog on, Frank, it's what's going on in the CBA industry. I believe we can legitimately view the trends in Christian retail today as being a fairly accurate barometer on the state of the church as a whole. By trends, I mean which books are at the top of the bestseller list, the fact the industry is becoming more celebrity driven, etc.

And don't aim all your barbs at WalMart. There are plenty of directions that fingers can point to, including pulpits and pews.

I'd love to see you do some serious blogging on this--not merely ranting over the obvious stuff, but examining the myriad problems both on the retailer's side and the consumer's.

John Hollandsworth said...

To quote the systems analysis axiom:
"Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets." If the Christian media industry is wanting to sell media, then inevitably it must design itself to achieve that result. It has. How would the design be different if the goal was to glorify God?

Seth McBee said...

The discouraging thing for me is that I grew up Southern Baptist and Life Way has people like T.D. Jakes, Osteen and Parsley. I asked my grandfather (who is well respected in the SBC) why so much heresy is allowed in his own backyard...simply put...as he laughed...bottom line dollars...he doesn't agree with it but knows that is exactly what it is. Sad...


Carla Rolfe said...

Do you have any idea how hard it is to repond to this without using any of the lines such as "you killed my father..." or "inconceivable!" ???

See, I told you it was hard.

I look forward to your next installment - you explain this so so well.


Renee said...

After hearing some of the answers given by folks who were interviewed at the CBA Convention (on some of the White Horse Inn programs)...

Can't be surprised really. Most don't even know what the "good news" is, let alone doctrine. All they have left to understand is "cha-ching".

Neil said...

I've been a guest at Carla's house. It's a not well known fact that she has six fingers on one hand.

donsands said...

I sometimes go on line and buy books from Walmart.
The last one was, Becoming Conversant in the Emerging Church, by Don Carson, for $10.
Very beneficial reading.

I think I understand your point, that mammon rules.
It's a shame really.

Fred Butler said...

What is truly amazing is that there are enough Mormons in Springdale AR, to justify having their own little section on the bookself. That is like going to Salt Lake City's Wal Mart and finding a little section that reads, "Reformed."


Steve Sensenig said...

Well, Carla and bugblaster pretty much took any punch lines I was going to come up with... (Bugblaster, "do you always start conversations this way?")

Frank, Steve Camp could probably write about this much better than I could, but it seems that everything you said about CBA and the "cha-ching" factor would apply to CCM, as well.

Unfortunately, any time money is involved, it's likely to lead to this because...well, it's just impossible to be in a situation where you must make money in order to "stay in business" and also stay true to the Gospel at the same time.

This is actually one of my biggest beefs (should that plural be "beeves"?... "boof"?... umm, complaints) with regard to the church in general. Churches/ministries/ what-have-you often believe that it takes money to preach the Gospel, and so they must devise ways to attract people who will then give them money in order to...well, I guess in order to attract more people who will give them money to....you get the picture. Hence, we can't actually preach on what is important because it might turn the money people off and cause them to go to some other church in town and take their money with them, etc.

I'll just stop there, but suffice it to say that I'm a bit unnerved that this is two posts in a row on Pyro that I've agreed with, and I'm wondering what parallel universe I accidentally woke up in today!!! LOL

steve :)