20 October 2010

Should every Church have a Bookstore?

by Frank Turk

A gem from 2005 since I am someplace over the Atlantic Ocean as you read this. Enjoy.

Should every church have a bookstore? Should every church be supporting a bookstore run by its members?

Before I answer that, I am about to use a lot of retail words -- like "overhead" and "transactions" and "wholesale buys". I use those words rather than fluffy spiritual words because we are talking about practical matters and not matters of doctrine. So forgive me for being a crass retail wonk.

Having said that, you ask an interesting question. I think the simple answer is "no", but is that answer really very simple? For example, how can a small church of 50 people support an actual "bookstore"? Frankly, it can't. It can't generate enough transactions to make wholesale buys. You need a base of about 2500 bodies to generate enough transactions to cover your costs -- even if your costs are part of the church's overhead. But what about a church of 3000 – should it open up a bookstore? Would it be “books” or “books and CDs” or “l’il Barnes & Noble complete with cafĂ© pomo outreach”? The simple “no” covers a lot of cases that really have different reasons behind “no”.

But the problem -- which I see as a very real need and a very real problem for the contemporary church -- is that most little churches deperately need a local bookstore to assist in discipleship. A bi-vocational pastor desperately needs a place where he can have a partner in ministry which is bigger than his flock of 10 who are meeting in his dining room in order to give people what they need to grow up as ministers of the Gospel.

In that, we have the problem I mentioned in my intro to this little jam session: the CBA/ECPA channel takes itself too seriously and also to lightly. It is too serious when it tries to make every activity a spiritually-enriching activity. For example, loss prevention and inventory accounting are, in the best case, good for one's retail practice. However, anyone who can do either one of those without feeling the need to employ vicious idioms of frustration and rage is qualified for canonization. Everything one does is not necessarily a step toward sanctification®, or an act of worship™. But at the same time, one of the things that ECPA/CBA refuses to do (and therefore takes itself too lightly) is establish a working confession of faith which defines what the "C" is in their funky names. You know: we shouldn't accept false prophets, deniers of the Trinity, or blasphemers as viable authors in "Christian" bookstores. But there are whole publishing houses (and TV channels) devoted to this sort of thing, and their goods are right on the shelf today at Family, and LifeWay (sorry SBC), and Berean, and Mardels. And, to be totally transparent, my store, too. We bat about 95%, but I admit we aren’t perfect.

So CBA/ECPA ought to be more concerned with what it is doing to and for the local church. Instead, it is worried that it isn't pan-denominationally friendly and it isn't selling enough neo-Marcionist literature to baptists and presbyterians.

If the world was a perfect place, my opinion is that Christian bookstores would be run by people who are under the accountability of their own elders with a somewhat-ecumenical ideal in mind. That word “ecumenical” is going to come up a few more times in this exchange, so I’m going to flesh it out here.

“Ecumenical”, as I am using it, does not mean “blindly taking everyone’s word for it that they are Christians”. For example, wherever you come down on the AA/FV issue, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the baptism of the author of a given book. Since she comes up later in this list of questions, for example, Joyce Meyer may actually be a Christian. I say good on her for following Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all her books – or any of her books – are worth reading from the perspective of spreading faith in Jesus Christ or maturing one’s faith in Jesus Christ. She’s a Christian? Fine. Is she growing up disciples in Christ? The answer to that question is what’s at stake in the CBA/ECPA industry.

“Ecumenical”, then, actually does mean “unity in TRUTH”. That means first we seek TRUTH, and in our admiration of the Gospel and its truth we find unity in those things indicative of that truth. Like grace -- when was the last time you read a book or heard a sermon about grace in which you found out that it is through grace one becomes a fantastic husband? That is, not only by giving grace, but by experiencing the grace of God and living inside the gratitude of a sinner who not only got off light, but got love in place of justice? Do you have to be a Methodist to read that – or a Lutheran? How about a Baptist – can a Baptist read that and not call out the hounds? Could it be that we have this truth in common with Presbyterians as well?

See: the upside of “church” bookstores is that they almost certainly (and there are exceptions) are being timoneered by pastors and elders. But the downside is that these bookstores tend to be denominationally narrow – about 5 microns more narrow than the most conservative overseer of the assembly. So in that, questions like, “why do Presbyterians baptize babies” or “why do Baptists use grape juice” or “what should I think of the Koran” or “I’ve always been taught that I got saved when I made a decision and walked down the aisle, but I accidentally read Romans 9 and it says that God wants to save, and in fact decides to save, without any regard for who I am or what I have done; what’s up with that”, or “I’m 13 and I really like my youth pastor; should I dedicate my life to ‘the ministry’ before I even know anything about girls” never get asked or never get answered in most church bookstores.

Being under submission but being free to demonstrate the discussion about very hard subjects like these is one of the benefits of being a bookstore outside of the 4 walls or polity of a church. Think about it: what if, rather than mutter in darkness about “those crazy Baptists” or “those liberal Methodists” or “those muttering continualists” there was a place where these questions of denominational abstraction could be learned about with a stern eye focused on the Gospel. Personally, I think it would lead more people to being Baptist, but of course I am well known for having a disastrous hermeneutic. My point is that while a church bookstore can serve a particular purpose well, it is not (in my view) the best possible purpose for Christian retail and publishing.

You know, I have tossed around a good bit of tough talk about this industry as I have blogged lo these 6 years, and through these questions at my blog, but let me say something: I see Christian retail as a very God-honoring thing and a very spiritually-beautiful thing – when it has all its ducks in a row. But that is so rare, so obscure today that it’s like finding a Hershey’s Kiss made of gold in a urinal in Grand Central Station in NYC. At a glance, you’re sure it’s prank meant to get you to put your hand into something vile; if you stare at it long enough and you realize that it’s real, you can’t figure out how to touch it without looking giddy or disturbed; and if you don’t grab it, somebody else with less sanctification than you is bound to grab it and waste it on sterno and summer sausage. This thing we are talking about is one of the great lay ministerial opportunities in the history of the church, but so many people have no idea how to get the kiss without touching the porceline that we just wind up with a lot of people trying to wash their hands quickly and forget that they ever saw the confounded thing to begin with.

So, no, I don’t think that every church should have a bookstore in a one-to-one kind of correspondence, but yes: I think every church should “have” a bookstore that they can rely on and do turn to in order to be more than a bunker full of people who never experience or fellowship with the rest of God’s people, intellectually or spiritually.


Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...

There was a lot of good stuff in this article: a lot of food for thought.

You really have a way with language, including a certain...knack...for imagery.

Stefan Ewing said...

And God keep you safe in your travels.

Thomas Louw said...

Love your imagery as always.
I think bookstores at church has more ups than downs. We have a congregation of about 160 to 200. So is it impossible to have a church book store?
Someone had a plan. They approached a book store ran by another church.
This church has 300-350 members, but they are maybe the only bookstore in South Africa where you can buy almost any book of good theological quality. This being the case has transformed this small bookstore into a sizable store supplying all of the reformed inclined in South Africa with good quality stuff and at a much cheaper price.
We have an arrangement with them, which allows us to have a book table with the latest and best of the oldies. Hendrik goes to them every other week and replace the ones that are not selling and pay the dues.
So if you small church find a store and make an arrangement. Or maybe network with a few churches.

Do some site seeing.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say...one of the most apt, yet discomfiting, analogies I've ever seen.

And it really is quite difficult for small churches to do much(especially when they're financially struggling as it is), but I have been in several small churches that have a modest library and pointers to good websites(Banner of Truth, etc) to buy books on.

I think pastors and leaders need to be strongly encouraging study and book-buying, at the very least, if a library or book store is not able to be maintained.

Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

A major facet of my ministry is finding good books, then ordering them by the case. I'll give an example, I recently read T. David Gordon's "Why Johnny Can't Preach" which utterly wrecked my ability to listen to the majority of sermons on any sermon-website, and also made my sermons feel less than polished; I felt it would be good to get to our aspiring preachers. After a bit of searching, I found that I could get the $11.99 book for $5 a piece if I ordered a case.

I've done this with six different books, and find that while it is a time consuming and expensive endeavor, it provides for solid teaching at low prices on a book that I know is orthodox. And, if someone wants to pay for a book, they are pleasantly surprised that it cost peanuts. Last example: Ray Comfort's "God has a wonderful plan for your life; the myth of the modern message" are $1 apiece; one Sunday School teacher went out and bought one for every member of his class.

Next up? John MacArthur's ESV SB @ $20 apiece come Christmas...

Jerry said...

The "little church" needs good ministry partners, but why do they need to be local?

I find that Amazon (especially with a Prime membership), Monergism, WTS, and even sometimes CBD are able to supply what I need quickly.

Additionally, if I need something NOW, it is probably available on the Kindle.

The great benefit of this approach is that I don't need to sift through all of the T.D. Jakes, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen stuff to get what I need.

David Rudd said...

we have a "book exchange". any one can bring books into the church office. once they've been "approved", we put them on the shelf and anyone can take them. over the past three years, we've built up a sizeable library with many outstanding resources.

no fiction.

and no one feels badly if their donation doesn't make it to the shelf.

Unknown said...

I've worked in publishing, Christian bookstores, and now sell used books on the Internet. My take is that many believers have placed reading on a very low priority. If it wasn't from a ministry belief in trying to bless others, I wouldn't even bother selling Christian books.

Rob Bailey said...

Online bookstore run by the local church. Hyperlink to the best seller for that particular book.

Nash Equilibrium said...

What's wrong with Amazon?

Unknown said...

To coat-tail on strategem:

The only reason bookstores that actually have books that smell like new books exist is so people like me can a) thumb through the pages before I buy it online (Amazon, Westminster, Monergism, etc.) b) get a cup of coffee so I can act like I am multitasking and c) look at what kind of garbage publications the bookstore employees are recommending as a "customer service."

FX Turk said...

Q: Why Local?

Because the church is primarily local. There's absolutely no way to hold any entity which is not locaol to any kind of accountability.

Q: why not Amazon?

As a wholesale source? Because it's not got wholesale prices.

As a place to send people to to buy books? Because they will sell anything. Amazon has no discernment -- except for how to sell anything.

John said...

Wanting to be helpful...

Please note misspelled tag "Bookstiores"

Rob said...

Makes me think about the situation of the last church we attended: large church with a few hundred folks, and parked at the back of the church was a big book table featuring plenty of good titles, including some by the teaching elders (books occasionally mentioned from the pulpit) for sale after the service.

I never felt right about this, and also noticed that most of the titles (including those by the elders) could be purchased at Amazon or CBD, so I was never sure if that book table had a place there or not.

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...

Frank, your 5-year-old post has rebuked me of a prejudice. I had the idea that church-run bookstores are somehow (ipso facto) too "commercial," but your post has corrected me of that error.

Although that's not to say that a church bookstore couldn't become a "den of robbers," if it were profiting off the marketing of trinkets and books promoting a false gospel.

(My own church is preparing to open a bookstore beside our library. The original plan was to replace the library with the bookstore [which I had qualms about], but thankfully, that plan was squashed.)

GW said...

Luke 19:45-46 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

I grew up in a small country church and I have never understood why anything is sold at church. Every activity offered for my kids seems to have a hefty price tag on it. We are told, “We are going to study this at Sunday School and the books only cost $20”. Or, “We are going to have a retreat and the cost is only $250.”

Most of our youth activities back in the day were “we are going to have a fellowship after church Sunday night, bring a 2-liter (back then called a 64 oz) or some cookies.”

The church bookstores I have seen have a pretty good markup on their materials. I don’t understand why the church library idea went out of favor. … no wait yes I do, the church “leadership team” needs their cut.

Sorry for the soapbox speech.

Nash Equilibrium said...

It would seem to me that the "local-ness" of a bookstore shouldn't matter too much as far as content, if the pastor of the local church gives guidance to members of his congregation on which books to buy, and which not to. Put another way, I don't see how there could ever be a local bookstore that is so trustworthy that church members could be sent there without qualification. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

The wholesale objection to Amazon stands unchallenged, since I didn't think a local bookstore would give wholesale rates to retail buyers, since they are in the business to make a markup.

FX Turk said...


When I read your last comment, and I'm hearing this:

"The church shouldn't read any books the pastor has not read himself."

That seems myopic at best.

Have I mistaken what you are saying? If so, how?

FX Turk said...


I think there's a difference between asking adults to pay for the resurces they are going to need for the discipleship they are going to receive and selling candles and bumper stickers.

Do you think there's a difference?

David Wayne said...

Aye and amen on this Frank. We are one of those small churches that can't afford to do a full on "bookstore" but we do have a book table where we sell 6-8 books. I know you said that it seems myopic to only have books that the pastor has read, but can I try a different spin on this. I know that most of my folks are going to the local Christian bookstore and they are eating up Joyce Meyer and others of her ilk. So, I have those 6-8 books on hand that I have vetted, and yes I do so unapologetically with a fairly heavy hand (actually with our elders permission that is), just because I know these are the kinds of books that are spot on doctrinally and the kind of books you won't find at your local Christian bookstore or B&N or Borders. So I would grant that it is myopic for the pastor to think that people should only read what he is reading, but I also feel like most of our folks reading habits are pretty atrocious so I'll use my little book table to try to sneak some good doctrine in on them.

Stefan Ewing said...


I hear your concerns.

As far as activities and resources are concerned, there is a financial cost involved to the church. If members are generous enough in their giving, then perhaps these things can be provided free of charge; otherwise, the cost must be footed.

Some churches, though, overcome this by providing a means for those without the funds to participate in these activities—by having a fund that can pay for those who don't have the means to pay themselves.

Regarding the whole question of the selling of books, I didn't see it at first, but now I think I do. If a church is teaching sound doctrine and discipleship, then the kinds of books that its members need to read are typically not going to be jumping off the shelves at the local Christian bookstore, let alone the neighbourhood secular chain outlet; nor are they going to be featured on Christian TV book interviews, etc.; nor are the members necessarily going to seek them out at Amazon or the online Christian retailers.

So if there is a place that is distributing books (selling or lending them or giving them away) that teach sound doctrine and discipleship and that is associated with or has the "imprimatur" of the church, then that can help to encourage members to improve their reading habits and grow in their relationship to God, rather than having them go off and purchase the latest thing from the health-'n'-wealth crowd.

Now all that being said, there is the risk of error or greed creeping in, as with any human institution. There will need to be discernment and elder oversight exercised with regard to the bookstore—what it is selling and how its business is being conducted—and accountability and transparent reporting coming back the other way.

And if books are being sold but not at cost, the question is where is the margin (such as it is) going? What if the money is going into general offerings, a benevolent fund, discipleship training, missions, or paying for resources for those who can't afford them?

So, in sum, while there are a thousand non-biblical ways for church to sell books, there is a biblical way as well.

Nash Equilibrium said...


Definitely I was not saying that.

I am saying that when asked about a book by a member of the flock, a local pastor ought to know how to research a book well enough, using the internet, to give some rough advice to the church member about any major praises or watch-outs regarding that book. That's what I am saying.

I know you may now say "there are simply too many books; that's not practical," but the pastor's choices are 1) let the local bookstore owner do the screening of books, 2) leave church members to their own discernment alone when choosing books, or 3) give the best advice you can on a book or choice of a book on a particular subject.

I have nothing against local Christian bookstores, but it seems to me that aside from the wholesale buy issue, the spiritual guidance responsibilities of the pastor remain unchanged whether it is a local store or an online or remote store.

Stefan Ewing said...

...And I totally agree with you about church libraries. They are a very important resource, and thank God we're keeping ours.

After all, there's a limit to how many books one can afford to buy (in my case, none), versus how many may be profitable in a person's Christian walk.

(Thank God for Christian Classics Ethereal Library, as well.)

Tom Chantry said...

I appreciate what you're saying, but I think I have another perspective.

I live in a city (like many others outside the Bible Belt) which is not blessed with a large evangelical presence. We have one Christian bookstore in town. By that I mean that while there are a number of Christian music/tee-shirt/assorted-kitsch shops in which one might unearth a book if one digs deep enough, we have one commercial shop which actually makes an effort to sell books. That shop actually pretty well fits your definition of "narrow." That's not all bad - but it's still narrow, and it isn't quite us. So where will our people ever encounter the books which might genuinely help them advance in their understanding and walk?

You can say the internet is out there, but the as an erstwhile retailer you probably understand that the internet works great for people who are actively searching for something to purchase - it's not so great at drawing in customers.

That's where the small church book store (at our church of less than 100 I'm talking about four racks, about approximately 80 linear feet of display space) can have a roll. It's a chance to give people something to look at, some sense of what's out there. If it's done well, those selections will change somewhat over time so that there is new material to peruse.

Two things about this model:

1. Nobody's ever going to make money on it. Essentially you pass things on at cost, or even at a small loss. The church has to be willing to accept that as a ministry cost.

2. Nobody's ever going to build a strong Christian research library out of it, but someone might discover the value of Christian literature from it and become one of those people that peruse the Christian book sites on the web.

Like you intimated in your post - we don't live in an ideal world, and some parts of it are less ideal than others.

David Regier said...

Somehow I managed to live in a community with a great Reformed-leaning Christian bookstore with a no-trinkets policy. They also have good classical homeschool ed resources.

(It's Confirmo Booksellers in Murrieta, CA, if I'm allowed to give them a plug)

We also have a Berean in case I need to pick up a copy of The Shack and a wind chime.

Rachael Starke said...

This is probably a little tangential, but I wonder if this question is putting the cart before the sheep.

IOW, might an important first question for pastors be "Given that this thing I'm preaching from is a book, not a videogame or Facebook, how can I get my congregation to actually read? Read The Book, read other books that explain the book, rinse, repeat."

Maybe another way to put it is, should every church have a book store, or are other methods of book distribution more effective?

And by distribution, I mean, distribution in conjunction with elder visitation and catechizing of households (to ensure books are being actually read and not used as props in kid games),

and now I'm waaaay off in the tangent weeds. Sorry. :)

Rachael Starke said...

Also, note to self, based on vivid yet effective metaphors contained in the last two days posts:

No reading just before mealtimes, or consider rereading as effective diet technique.

Aaron said...

@Michael: (1)People in general read less,not just believers. (2)Reformed circles place a heavy emphasis on daily Scripture reading to yourself and to family, which will naturally limit extra reading. (3) Technology has changed how and what we read. For example, I read this blog everyday. That eats up part of my reading time that five years ago, I didn't spend time doing. (4) Technology has made audio sermons available, so more people spend time listening than reading.

Aaron said...

@Frank: I agree with your other points, but wholesale prices? Please. For the most part, I can get whatever I want on the internet cheaper than you can sell it to me at a local bookstore.

@Chantry: I think you've got it right.

@Regier: Personally, I like the trinkets. I just don't like the all the bad literature.

@Rachael: I agree with you, which is why I have this personal dislike of Awana.

Trinian said...

A local Christian bookstore that sells more than angel trinkets and books about how God wants me to have all my treasures in this life? I would be struck dumb by blissful astonished joy for at least three hours if I found such a creature in this area.
Actually, I would think someone online might keep track of these sorts of unicorn-esque bookstores. Does anyone know of something like an "Angie's List for bookstores that have at least heard of Jonathan Edwards"?

donsands said...

A good, and mature, Christian friend of mine just asked me yesterday, "Do you think Joyce Myers is a Christian?"

I said: "I don't know. But I know I don't trust her at all."

"She believes Jesus died and went to hell, and was born again in hell, and that is way out there", I said.

John said, "Can a person believe this, and then still be a Christian?"

I don't think so, but I'm not sure.

It was weird that you mentioned Joyce in your post. Gave me something to think about.

Good overall post as well, as usual.

have a blessed evening in our Savior's grace and peace.

GW said...

I do see a difference between books and Jesus Junk. I am not against paying for what I use, but I don’t understand why you can’t do a simple Bible study without a book sometime. I not against ponying up the cash, but beyond the collection plate, shouldn’t church be basically free? Are there visitors who come and see they can’t really afford to go to church there?

I agree with what you wrote to me, but I don’t like the idea that I need a scholarship to go to church.
I live in an affluent area, but it’s all we can do to make ends meet. It’s worth the effort because my kids go to great public schools that are comparable to private schools. Compared to two income families where the wife works to pay for all the “extras” (not the case with all two income families) we can’t keep up. My kids have been offered scholarships for church activities. This misses the point, we should not be charging money to preach the gospel.

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...


I totally hear you.

I can't justify the expense of all this stuff, either. Since I came to faith in Christ a few years ago, I have bought two Bibles, but most of the other Christian books I've read were gifts, freebies, downloads, or library books—or books I already owned. I'm also paying tuition for the Bible school my church runs, but to be fair, it's nominal, especially when spread over a three-month term.

It would be good to see these kinds of resources and programs funded out of the general budget or according to the means of members—or (as you suggested) designed in such a way that they do not require fees.

Anyhow, getting back to books, at least there are more and more free resources out there (online, granted), like all of Piper's books (desiringgod.org), or ccel.org (DO check the latter out, if you haven't already)—and Bible study tools like e-Sword. Depending on where you live, the local public library—or university or seminary library—may also be an unexpectedly good resource.

Finally, kudos to you for sending your children to a public school. Public education gets such a bad rap, but we never look at it the other way: your kids can be salt and light in a place that needs it.

FX Turk said...


Should church be "free"?

I think church should actually cost you _all_. You know: come and die.