Michael Spencer at iMonk clicked off a lengthy post about his walk through a LifeWay Bookstore. His actually beat me to the topic today, because I intended to write about my walk through a Berean Bookstore. My experience was similar to Spencer's.
I'm not above spending my money at Christian bookstores. I own many non-theology titles. I often quote from them (mostly from Jerry Cook's A Few Things I've Learned Since I Knew It All). I see nothing wrong with Christian bookstores in general, particularly since they are essential to pastors all over the world; a pastor's office is never official without at least meeting the 400 books-on-the-shelf-they-might-have-time-read-in-40-years quota (although they apparently have plenty of time to keep an active blog).
I've been spending money at Berean and Family Christian bookstores all my life. I was with my father in the mid-70s at a Berean's after the church gave him a gift so he could purchase his first collection of Matthew Henry Commentaries there. I've collected enough Bibles, commentaries, and other non-theology books at those bookstores to start my own storefront, not to mention the large chunk of change spent in my early years on "positive message" CDs otherwise known as Contemporary Christian Music.
Any criticism of Christian bookstores on my part is at least a little bit hypocritical. I confess that upfront. However, it's startling to walk through one today. The emphasis on the type of everyday-life literature and knick-knacks in a typical Christian bookstore does not reflect my faith nor how I walk in faith.
The first thing I noticed at Berean's was a large display of Joyce Meyer's new book, "Approval Addiction," on which the cover proclaims to help readers to "overcome your need to please everyone." I was not aware there was a crisis of approval addicts in the church. I wasn't even aware this was a church issue. I can only imagine this was written to that one lady in every church who brings macaroni salad to every church social; she knows no one likes it, but she's afraid to offend that one person who grimaced their way through a compliment that one time in 1965.
Once you get beyond Meyer's enormous displays, you have to wade through the gift section of the store. There is no trinket so trite that you can't wear your faith on your shirtsleeve -- literally. What does one say to explain their Christian fashion? "Maybe you don't know my faith by my love or my good works, so allow me to put this message in your face with my crass t-shirt and adorning furbelow."
[Sidenote: Some of the greatest offensives of aggressive driving have been commited by people driving cars with that fish on the back. These are usually the same people you can identify by the middle finger they offer if you drive in approximation of the speed limit.]
Past the gift section is the large selection of Christian CDs. Roger Ebert once complained there were too many films being made. I think we add Christian CDs to that selection. While I'm thankful we've moved away from the secularization of Christian music -- think about the "crossover" artists of the 80s -- not every band with a Christian message deserves to be recorded. If you're ministering to your local community, is that not enough? Do you really have music that transcends and deserves to be delivered to a mass audience? I'm personally in favor of the worship music, but even that has its limits on my patience. Do we really need to constantly re-record popular modern worship songs over and over and over again? Was the original recording by the artist who wrote the song not enough?
The book collection was impressive by its volume and number of topics. You can learn how to keep your money the Christian way, raise your children the Christian way, and even cook the Christian way. As one gentleman asked me while standing next to me in another Christian bookstore a few years ago, "Can't you Christians do anything by yourselves?" As Michael Spencer pointed it, there is a vast shortage of books on theology. You won't learn much from browsing the theology section. You're much better off surfing the Internet and ordering a specificed title from an Internet wholesaler.
I was stunned to find a software section -- and only one piece had anything to do with Bible study. I am still unsure what the other software titles did. Maybe there's some special Church accounting software I'm not aware of. I'll give some liberties there due to my lack of knowledge.
The whole store is a monument to demographics, segmentation, niche values, and marketing -- with the implication of God's seal of approval. As much money as I spend there, I'm losing confidence this is a wise practice to support these kinds of blatantly for-profit "ministries" that are probably better managed by secular retailers.