Sunday, March 13, 2011

Of Church Bookshops and Literature Tables

A friend of mine alerted me to the fact that Christian Book Distributors felt compelled to put a "theological warning" on Rob Bell's forthcoming book Love Wins. I must confess that I'm not that familiar with the Rev'd Mr. Bell, preferring to get my theology, as I often like to say, from old dead white guys, but Love Wins has generated considerable theological controversy as Bell seems to be friendly toward Universalism -- hence the warning. As my friend pointed out, CBD has not felt compelled to issue such theological warnings while selling other books -- by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Jim Wallis for example -- that are cause for at least as much concern. It would appear that CBD is engaging in a bit of selective orthodoxy.

That's not terribly surprising. Years ago during seminary I briefly worked for a Christian bookstore and it was a depressing experience. I actually felt dirty selling some of the questionable stuff that was carried (in the half of the store that actually carried books and wasn't devoted to Jesus junk) and, if I had to do it over again, would learn bartending as doing so wouldn't feel as compromising (it could also serve as a great counseling practicum, but that's another story). The fact of the matter is that most of "Christian retail" is more retail than Christian with a few happy exceptions (Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service is one, as is Lifeway for the most part, owing to its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention) but many of them sell all sorts of things in pursuit of profits.

I've long been a fan of bookshops run by churches. The Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, where I'm privileged to assist, formerly had an excellent one and it is missed. The First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, has a great one as does the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia, and St. Helena's Episcopal Church in Beaufort, South Carolina; if you live near those areas or find yourself visiting them I would warmly commend them to you (they are strong churches as well). The First Presbyterian Churches of Augusta and Macon, Georgia, used to have great ones; I've not been to to former one in years and understand that the latter has closed. Because they're underwritten by the churches and don't have the overhead of larger, mall-based ventures, such bookshops can exercise more quality control than those run purely as a business. That having been said, it's usually only larger churches that have the resources to operate such ventures.

Because Christian literature is so important, every church should consider providing quality literature (the emphasis is on quality -- the ubiquitous Chick Tracts have probably done more harm than good through the years!) either for sale or for free. While not every church can afford to run a full-blown bookshop, every church can have a table with some literature on it for the edification of its members and visitors. When I have been in charge of parishes, that's one of the first things that I've done and it reaped great results.

The following are a few ideas for this:

Chapel Library: The literature of Mt. Zion Bible Church, a smallish (80 members, about twice what they were roughly ten years ago) essentially (nut not officially) Reformed Baptist church in Pensacola, Florida. They have reprinted quite a few sermons and tracts by greats such as J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, and Robert Murray M'Cheyne. Their literature is free in reasonable quantities, for larger quantities it is provided at cost although, obviously, donations are accepted. I've been receiving their stuff for years and have benefited greatly by it.

The Banner of Truth Trust: This publishing house has done yoeman's work in reprinting classic and new literature from a Reformed and Evangelical perspective since 1957. While their books priced at various levels, they have some short booklets that are immensely practical and inexpensive enough to give away.

P&R Publishing: Formerly also known a Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (I'm not entirely sure of why they shortened it), their books are priced at various levels, but they publish very helpful pamphlets by the Rev'd Dr. Jay E. Adams that, at $25 for a pack of 100, are within the price range of almost all congregations to give away.

Publish Your Own: With modern technology and the ease of desktop publishing, publishing short pamphlets on timely subjects is well within reach of many clergy and churches.

I hope that more churches will begin or expand their literature ministries.

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