White Elephant in the room [2]

You can follow the whole "interview" with these links:
[Q1] Q2 Q3 Q4 Q5 Q6 Q7 Q8 Q9 Q10

As we continue this little series, I was re-reading yesterday's post and I wanted to make a clarification really for the sake of conscience. Yesterday, I said this:
To answer your question more narrowly, I think the greatest single damaging "event" which intersects both ECPA/CBA and the local church is the explosion of media ministries, beginning with the grand-daddy of media minsitries: the Billy Graham Crusades. Hal Lindsey is a small fish in a dirty pond compared to the damage I think has come about in the exercise of the local church mission due to media-based ministries which have convinced people they don’t need to "go to church" in order to "be a Christian".
And in thinking about how that statment reads, it is possible that some people might read that to say, "Billy Graham and his ministry is of the devil." That's not at all what I mean by that. Do I have some problems with some of Dr. Graham's most recent views on ecumenicism and the interpretation of the Gospel? Sure I do. But for decades -- nearly half a century -- Billy Graham was frankly the public face of American Protestant Christianity, and as an ambassador he represented us well enough that to dismiss his life-long work is callous and somewhat stupid.

My statement from yesterday, in its context, should be understood this way: the local church has work it ought to be doing, and when it cedes that work to any other organization it has done something wrong. The trend to do this started when people -- with good intentions, and for what we can only interpret as Gospel-minded labor -- started making evangelism a stadium event rather than a personal event.

The ripple effects of this, I think, are wide-reaching, and it goes directly to iMonks Q2 which he posted on his blog yesterday.

Thanks. Back to the questions.

3. 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 café 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 iMonk’s list, 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, Michael, we’re going to toss around a good bit of tough talk about this industry as we walk through these questions of yours, 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.