Should we support local Christian bookstores?

Christian blogger Tim Challies asked in a post yesterday if Christians should feel an obligation to support their local Christian bookstores. After a discussion of issues like the relative value of clerk recommendations versus online reviews, he made the crux of his argument:

Speaking personally, I have long since stopped shopping at the nearby Christian bookstore. They almost never have the books I want and even if they did, I would pay quite a bit for them and spend a lot of time driving there and back. And then there’s the fact that so much of what they carry is junk—not just trinkets and toys, but material that is opposed to sound doctrine. The last time I went to a Christian bookstore there was a section for Roman Catholics and a section for people who need their fix of Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn. And I thought, “This is no more Christian than Amazon.” In fact, I think it is actually worse; under the banner of “Christian” things are being sold that claim to be Christian but are deceptively anti-Christian. That may have been the moment I realized that I felt no obligation to support that business.

In the comments section, one reader made a thought-provoking (and rather shocking) analogy. He said that it is better to patronize a store which openly sells both grocery and poison than a “grocery” store which sells poison disguised as groceries!

Is there merit to their points? If we are purchasing items from Springside, directly from artists, or digitally, should we feel guilty about not supporting our local bookstores?


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72 Letters to the Editor

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  1. I can’t say I feel guilty. Most of the time the cost of books are too high and the selection too limited. Still, I go if I’m near it because maybe they have a good sale or in hopes that something will catch my eye. Even then, I’ll probably go online and get it cheaper. Music, it depends…some artist have their CDs pretty high on their websites. I could order them through the store and get it a little cheaper.

    • Artist pricing of CDs on websites vs. on the road is an interesting discussion – worth having some time.

  2. I agree. Our local one (Christian Chain) sells the very things mentioned by the blogger. While Amazon sells the poison too, at least they’re not posing as “Christian.”

  3. Also, I’ve never thought of it in this way, so I’m going to contact the management of the store and let them know how I feel. After all, why should I curse the darkness & not shine the light? Thanks for bringing up the subject, Daniel!

    • You’re welcome! I don’t have any Christian bookstores which I actually consider “local”; there’s a Lifeway about 45 minutes away, but it’s on a conference center campus, so I’d only go there when there’s an event. So it is somewhat of a moot point for me, personally. But I figured it was an interesting question.

    • Might be a good idea to keep in mind that not all believers are alike in belief nor background. If he’s so quick to judge Catholic literature (Brennan Manning?) and Joyce Meyers, I would imagine that the original poster would find some of “your” literature to be “poison” as well, Dan.

      • Not necessarily. Tim Challies is Reformed. He considers certain teachings of the Catholic church (e.g. the infallibility of the Pope, and the authority of church as equal to or greater than scripture) as heresy, and he considers certain Prosperity Gospel and associated teachers to be heresy.

        He believes the reformed position is correct, and that the Arminian position is incorrect. But I believe that he does not call it heresy. Most Calvinists and most Arminians would agree that sincere proponents of the opposite position can be genuine Christians, within the realm of orthodoxy, though each would hold that the other side has an inaccurate understanding of soteriology.

      • Right. Sorry for not being clearer. I was referring to the theology of Dan (not Daniel). Dan is Wesleyan/Armenian.

        My point was that a local Christian business can hardly be expected to sustain if they draw too narrow a focus.

      • On that last point – I understand where you’re coming from. There is guaranteed to be gray area; the question is, “Where do you draw the line?”

      • In my profession, if someone identifies themselves as a Christian, I assume them to be one.

      • What is your profession?

        I’ve heard Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses call themselves Christians, so I’m not quick to assume. But, generally, if someone would affirm the Apostle’s Creed, I would consider them a Christian.

        (I say “generally” because there are some heresies in which adherents would use the same words we’d use, with radically different meanings.)

      • Hey Andrew: I had no plans on giving out any ‘literature’, but rather to encourage them to be more selective in what they put on the shelves. (Which I have done – – and no, I didn’t even ask them to limit it to Wesleyan Armenian :-))

      • I think Dan and I, as well as others on both sides of the debate, would agree that we would welcome well-reasoned perspectives from the other side of the debate sold in our local Christian bookstores.

        Our objection would be (for both of us, I think) more to the Benny Hinns of the world.

      • Just to re-clarify, at least once, Challies lists Armenianism along with open-theism and Catholicism as a “false theology.”

      • Ah…point granted, then. Though Reformed Christians would view the Armianian perspective on salvation as false, most would not call it a heresy / call someone who holds it a heretic. (I certainly wouldn’t.)

      • Exactly right, Daniel. You pegged me correctly. 🙂

      • Cool!

  4. I used to work for a Christian retail store. When I first started, it was a great company to work for, then it became “modernized” and dropped the ministry aspect to become just a retail store specializing in Christian-oriented product.

    I quit working there.

    • Interesting perspective!

    • I saw that one happen too, Kyle. The one I went to (which had bought out a local bookstore) appeared to get that way and it is the same chain. The manager didn’t want to transfer (it was Texas I believe) and was a great manager. They asked him, he said he really didn’t. They asked again and eventually it became apparent they weren’t really asking (or at least weren’t going to accept his ‘no’.” This was about the same time they started having Sunday hours. Now, we could debate on what should be open on Sundays, working the Sabbath, what it means to keep it holy, how even if they avoided morning church hours it could still interfere with church events etc. but basically, when you know that at least a segment of your customer base is going to consider that to be anti-Bible, and that it COULD interfere with someone’s church and activities, it seems to be that was the beginning of the end. Well, the chain is still around, but it didn’t last here. The next closest one is about 45 minutes away. We do have another local one though that used to compete with the one the chain bought out, and there is a newer local one in the same location (at least center, but I think even the same building) where the other one started at one point before moving. :D. Kyle knows what city it is, but that doesn’t matter and for privacy reasons I am not going to mention it.

  5. I don’t feel an obligation to support or boycott my local Family Christian. To me it’s just another buying option. I walk in, roll my eyes at the junk, pick up a Christmas present and walk out. Sometimes it’s cheaper that way.

    • Counting shipping, yes, though Amazon’s free shipping over $25 helps balance that out for someone getting multiple items.

  6. I think it all depends. When I lived in another state I used to go to a Christian bookstore that was big, had a huge selection, and was run by solid, evangelical, born again Christians who tended to screen what they carried. I may not have agreed with every book or CD they carried but it was solid. Sadly, my experience since then has been less than satisfactory. Small selection, hodge podge of religious views, and list prices which are so much higher than the items can be purchased on the internet. In a pinch, maybe, but give me the on-line stores anyday.

    • Sorry, John…I didn’t intentionally copy your first sentence in my comment (below)!

      • 🙂 I hadn’t even noticed!

  7. I think it all depends. When it’s a sincere Mom and Pop type of operation where they go out of the way to find what you need on your behalf, support them…not out of guilt, but out of convenience and value. Sadly, those stores are few and far between.

    As for the chains, I’d probably visit a Lifeway regularly if we had one. The people at the one in Hickory, NC have been helpful the few times I’ve visited there.

    As for Family Chrisitian, I worked at one for several years, but I’ve only been in the store four times since leaving in 2003. They have tons of stock and no customer service.

    The last time I needed a video for a class on a Wednesday night, I decided to give FCS a shot. Two employees were working. Neither offered to help or bothered to greet me when I went in. When I found a video I could use and went to the register to purchase it, the guy SITTING DOWN behind the counter told me I’d have to wait for the other employee, because he was taking his break. I explained the facts of life to him.

    So…they’re worse than they ever were. That was a couple of years ago, and I have no intention of ever going back.

    • There’s nothing like poor customer service to make a customer never return!

      I’ve never experienced a mom-and-pop like you describe, but if I had, I’m sure I would also patronize them consistently.

      • There’s a pretty decent Mom and Pop in Shelby in the mall, and a HUGE store in Spartanburg. You might have to find someone and ask for help in both stores but overall, they both do a good job.

        Up your way, I’ve been in the one in Hendersonville at the mall…not real impressed. They did have a fair selection of Southern Gospel, but some of it appeared to be bootlegged copies. That’s been a couple of years ago. I’m not sure if they’re still there or if the product selection was a fluke of them trusting a bad vendor.

      • I have a habit of avoiding malls, so I didn’t realize Henderson even had one, let alone one with a Christian bookstore!

      • It’s right across the street from the Krispy Kreme, so I’m sure you’d have no problem finding it if you went looking for it! LOL

      • I’ve never been to any Krispy Kreme, either.

  8. Regarding the type of material that is carried, I think stores should be extended a certain amount of slack. Some people object to an NIV version of the bible just as strongly as some people object to a questionable character like Benny Hinn. There are people who for many years, would take offense if the store carried any “Christian rock music.” There will always be items where people object.

    If the store is selling questionable material that many people who call themselves Christians regularly request (Hinn, T D Jakes, and so forth), I would not call for a boycott. A Christian bookstore is not a place that is going to mirror your personal doctrine, certainly, and it’s likely going to have some items that don’t meet your approval at all.

    On the other hand, if they have a section of the store with Buddhist material, etc., then I’d avoid them.

    A Christian bookstore is in the unique position of providing a service to a multitude of denominations (and various stripes of non-denominations and even the occasional non-believer who wanders in).

    • David has, I think, the best response to topic thus far. Everyone has their varying degrees as to what is outside the bounds of their view of Christianity. I agree with you, Daniel, that the Apostle’s Creed should take care of most discrepancies, but Benny Hinn and his congregation would probably agree with the Apostle’s Creed as well, so would that not make them Christian, as well?

      If one only patronized a store on the grounds that the store only sells items that, individually, one agrees with in their entirety, there would either be millions of stores with just a handful of items in each (which, of course, would lead these stores into a position of financial loss) or there would be the same number of stores that are currently in existence with (exactly) zero customers.

      Obviously, selling products that cross the bounds into another religious belief altogether (Buddhist material, using DBM’s example) THEN, of course, that would place that store in a situation where all Christians could agree that items in the store are outside the bounds of their collective religious beliefs.

      Nicely said, David.

      • A significant problem arises when someone affirms the core truths, yet adds to the Gospel (ref. Gal. 1) – thus denying the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – the sufficiency of Scripture.

      • Agreed, sir. I’m sure they would argue, though, that they are interpreting the scripture differently than many of us mainstream Christians do, and, not, in fact, adding anything to the scriptures.

      • Yes, that is probably the defense they would offer! (Note also my follow-up comment below.)

      • And I’ll just throw this thought in as a bonus: At a previous job, I was required to take customer service calls for Benny Hinn Ministries, among other clients. Based on what I saw in that job, I would not support the ministry even if their doctrine was excellent. Pressuring widows and others of limited financial means to pledge $200 – $1000 that they do not have (in a TV program), and then later using religious-based threats about God’s blessings to pressure them to follow through on that pledge (follow-up letters which I, thankfully, had no role in), meanwhile making unscriptural health-and-wealth promises on God’s behalf which you have no way of ensuring God will keep … issues of orthopraxy are perhaps even bigger than issues of orthodoxy with that ministry.

        In other words, I’d want Benny Hinn appearing in a Christian bookstore about as much as I’d want a politician who made campaign promises and statements he knew to be outright falsehoods in a Congress (even if said politician professed the same views I professed).

      • Very appropriate analogy. Well said.

      • Thanks!

  9. So, a church or movement that does not find creeds scriptural are not Christian?

    • If you’re not a fan of creeds, I’d probably phrase it as questions. E.g., “Do you believe Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary?” or “Do you believe Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead?” If someone would say no to those questions, I would indeed have doubts as to whether their views would fall within orthodox Christianity.

  10. Have you ever looked for the Bible commentary section in the store described? You’ll find it squeezed into the very back corner by the cobwebs. The staff won’t know what you are talking about if you ask for J Vernon McGee, Barnhouse or Boice. Are they on TV????????????????

  11. i call them the [edit; no mane-calling, please!]. the only thing spirital in most cases is the bible. i really detest going. most people wouldn’t know what is good and what is junk. i really only go to one store, and that is a discount store, and that just for the 40% to 50% off the music.

    to name a couple that merchandize (the prayer of jabez) what a joke.

    w w j d another play on the people hearts. just read the bible folks and find a good church with a preacher that knows the word and is not afraid to preach it, do you alot more good then filling your mind with junk that isn’t even bibical.

    case closed

  12. I, too, hold to a tolerant reformed position, but Daniel, to have never been to a Krispy Kreme is just way to narrow for me! LOL

    • Oh, but my dear friend, you have it all backwards. If I was way too narrow, I’d go there all the time! 🙂

  13. Touche’

    • That was just too good to pass up! 🙂

  14. In the “good ole dazys” in northeast Texas, we had a chain called “Joshua Christian Stores.” They truly adhered to the Biblical model, and the many times that I shopped at their Duncanville, TX location, the sales staff were always polite, helpful, and the selection was second to none. Then, something happened (dollar signs?) and they actually said, “We are not a ‘Christian” bookstore, but a bookstore that sells “christian’ books. It was about that time that their name was changed and they became the FCS.

    I much prefer Lifeway, and living in the Dallas area, there are numerous ones within driving distance.

  15. We have two “Christian” books stores in my city. DMB mentioned one of them in a previous post. I check them out once in a while.

    In a neighboring town, there is a “Christian Outlet”. Not sure why they use the term “outlet”, because their prices are just like all the other retail outlets.

    Here are a few hypothetical questions:

    One thing that really bothers me is that one of these stores has a huge selection of CDs, but the majority of them are bootlegs. Is it my obligation to point this out to them?

    I also ask the question. Just what is a “Christian” book store? Is it so named because of the products carried in the store? Is it because of the owners? The sales staff?

    • Good questions. I would guess the one store in your area chose the name “outlet,” because they sell more than just books.

      The name describes the products carried, but not necessarily the people who run the store…just as “Gospel group” describes the lyrical content of the songs, not the fundamental character of the people singing it.

  16. Duh!! Of course we should!! But it isn’t because of an obligation. I enjoy browsing the books and especially the music and seeing some things I wouldn’t normally look for find. Also I have seen some lost people walk in there and pick up a book and read a line or two. But you never know, something may spark an interest and lead to a relationship with Jesus Christ. And I know what store you’re talking about Daniel. Fortunately all Christian bookstores aren’t the same. I prefer lifeway. Everything in there may not be “totally sound doctrine” but there’s nothing to lead someone down the wrong course. And one more point- Christians shouldn’t boycott a christian bookstore for not doing everything right while shopping at places that do much more wrong. That’s all

    • On that final point – so what do you think of the poison analogy?

  17. Well many stores don’t admit to selling poison. Look at the biggest store in america that a guy named sam built. The commercials seem like a nice family environment with a big smiLey face on the front but there’s filth all throughout.

    • Are you even understanding the metaphor, or are you trying to take the metaphor literally? Poison is being used in the metaphor in place of heresy, and groceries in place of truth. Sam’s Club makes no pretense at being specifically Christian.

  18. My favorite store is lifeway. I don’t think they sell anything they believe to be wrong. I know all of the people who work at the one nearby. One thing I’ve learned is that each employee has his or her favorite books and authors and ones the avoid. And the don’t all agree. But I believe lifeway sells a variety of books that agree on the essentials of the christian faith but suits many approaches of learning and thought.

  19. Understand perfectly. But I like the metapor of eating fish better. Eat the meat and spit out the bones

    • OK. Your comment had just seemed as though you weren’t even understanding the point that author was trying to make.

      (Oh, and on your metaphor: If you swallow a bone by mistake, or from thinking it’s good, it could kill you.)

  20. Thanks Daniel,
    Good point. But for Christian entertainment and reading and music its nice to have somewhere to go that has about 99% quality Christian material.

    • Likewise, good point and granted. My overall impression of the Lifeway stores is rather higher than many other stores I’ve set foot in.

  21. I have a rather high opinion of Lifeway too as you can tell. Part of their reason for having good trustworthy products is because its owned by a well known and respected denomination. The Southern Baptist Convention. Family Christian Store is slowly but steadily becoming a melting pot of beliefs

    • Yes, the SBC connection keeps it from being run with a sole focus on the bottom line. I have no familiarity with FCS.

  22. Wow. Family Christian Store has been out a lot longer than lifeway. Its sad that other Christian stores are following in their footsteps

  23. I have enjoyed the chat Daniel. Very interesting topic. Keep up the good work 🙂

  24. I know firsthand when on staff at a Church, there is usually a 25% automatic discount at most Christian bookstores, including Lifeway and Family Christian. I do agree with Tim in that the “Christian bookstore” has become a sort of hotbed for making the Gospel “too” commercial. And a hotbed for differing denominations. But I can read Wesley with as much joy as I read Calvin.

    But anyways, with that discount (ours is with Lifeway), I will pop in every now and then to peruse the store. Very rarely will I buy, unless it’s a brand new book or piece of music. Otherwise, I stick with Amazon in my purchases.

    But it’s not much different than buying from your favorite southern gospel group. Some of the songs are great and filled with great theology. Some songs are filled with theological junk that falls short of hitting the mark. Ultimately, it’s the same with the bookstore. That’s kinda the way I see it at least.

  25. Interesting discussion. Our family hasn’t used a Christian bookstore for quite a while now because they’re:

    a) Too far away for convenience;

    b) Too expensive, generally;

    c) Their Southern Gospel selection is usually rather limited; 🙂

    d) Too “junky”, as in their products. One cannot walk into the “local” Christian bookstore without being bombarded by sights we’d rather not see (immodesty) – and the stores usually carry resources we’d consider detrimental to one’s Christian beliefs.

    But, on the bright side, I would have never purchased my first Cathedrals CD if it hadn’t have been for the “local” Christian bookstore! 🙂

    -Taylor for TGF

    • I imagine it’s especially limited in Minnesota!

      • Yes it is…

  26. As a former employee of Lifeway, I have great respect for the organization. One thing people may not know about them is that they sometimes issue reader advisories for certain books and authors, and they don’t stock certain authors at all unless you ask for a special order. I wish they were more consistent, but I appreciate that I won’t find Hinn or Osteen material on their shelves.

    We also have locally-owned establishment called the Bible Book Store that’s been around for decades. They’re very ecumenical in their stock, but per my neighbor who was a 20-year employee (who grew up Catholic, dabbled with charismatic belief, and matured into more-or-less Baptist doctrine), it offered many opportunities to witness and have serious discussion with the folks seeking those materials.

    Sure, there are reasons to shun any place. For example, poor service is unacceptable regardless of what the store sells. I also wouldn’t support a store that actively promotes error…but the act of simply selling offering like rosaries doesn’t exactly add up to promotion in my book. Neither store in my area has what I would call a substantial southern gospel presence, so I usually order that online in MP3 format, but, as horrible as that is, it’s not a reason to actively shun them!

    I personally encourage people to support their local Christian businesses for the following reasons:
    A) they are on the front lines of dealing with people who need help. You can’t imagine the number of people who are hurting and need Christian compassion and a listening ear. Likewise, there’s many out there who know so little about the Christ who died for them or how to learn more of Him. The fields are indeed white to harvest.
    B) there is some wonderful Christian fellowship available through both the employees and the other customers…I remember many instances of being blessed by customers with a good word to say, not to mention some very interesting theological debates and impromptu Bible studies.
    C) there are items there you won’t find anywhere else and probably won’t think of getting online…offbeat gift items, music samplers, new study tools, etc.
    D) the fact that you can sit and read through material before you buy them is a massive benefit; I used to direct people to the browsing chairs quite often for them to sit and read for a while. It gave the opportunity for them to relax and ask questions at their leisure, and if they found some particular piece of info they were looking for, they wouldn’t have to buy the book to find it!

    There are other reasons, but those are the ones that I remember best. And they need your support in these trying economic times.

    • The biggest thing I miss about working in Christian retail is being able to locate an item for someone that no one else knew how to find. I liked being that person who located what they wanted and got it for them.

      I still do it now when someone asks via the internet, but it’s not the same as handing it to them in person.

      Perhaps someday I’ll get back into the business, but brick and mortar Mom-and Pop operations are a dying trend.

    • Scott, I’d agree that lack of Southern Gospel selection isn’t a reason to boycott a Christian bookstore. 🙂 That said, it does hurt the store’s chances for my business, since, after all, when I’m on Amazon or purchasing some good SG music, it’s entirely possible that I’d notice a book I’d been looking for and add it to my cart. That wouldn’t be to intentionally cut the store out, but to get a good sale while it’s on sale or while I’m thinking about it.

      • What music I don’t get from concerts, I get on Amazon (not always best with Homecoming cuts, sadly), Christianbook, Springside, or straight from a label (as a radio host, I tend to hear a lot that way). It’s often very difficult to find the artists I like at the brick and mortars.

        But that also brings up another area where the local mom ‘n pop has it over the corporate presence. As an example, where I live, Michael Combs is incredibly popular. But you won’t find his music at Lifeway unless you special-order one of the very few CDs they have access to…which was very aggravating to me as both a customer and an employee. However, the local store, by virtue of being local, can sense this demand and therefore keeps his music in-stock. And because they’re more flexible in terms of vendors, the available selection is greater. They got a lot of recommendations from me on this issue.

        Furthermore, the locally-baseds tore also tended to stock local artists’ material on consignment, making it possible for popular local acts to get exposure and a few sales. And it means you don’t have to find them at a nearby concert to hear their latest project.

        And that brings up another benefit of the local store: advertising. While we tend to resist the constant demand for our attention by ads, it’s helpful to find out what’s going on in the Christian community at-large in terms of local concerts, conferences, and revivals.