Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

The Need for Church Bookstores

As someone relatively familiar with the publishing industry, having just published my twentieth book, I read Philip Yancey’s recent article in Books and Culture with great interest. Titled “Farewell to the Golden Age,” it is an informed and insightful analysis of the end of publishing as we have known it.

Beyond just analyzing the rise of e-books and self-publishing and the demise of bookstores and back catalogs, Yancey explores what has been lost. Here are a few of his points, along with some of my own:

1.        No longer can you walk into a bookstore and browse through multiple titles you didn’t know existed. Instead, if a particular book is of interest, you order it through Amazon without any awareness of either better titles on the subject, other titles on the subject, or just other books in general that would serve your life.

2.        Authors are published and promoted not on the basis of writing skill or excellent content, but whether they front a large enough organization to buy large quantities of the title, have a marketing arm of their own, or the social media presence of the author is substantial. “Forget sample chapters; tell us how many followers you have on Twitter.”

3.        What bookstores still exist are driven, by necessity, to sell what sells. Good and important books that have stood the test of time and need to be introduced to new readers (and new Christians) are not available – and thus unknown – because stores don’t have the ability to keep large catalogs of books. They have to stock the latest bestsellers, whether of high quality or not, and not much more.

4.        Amazon and e-books have killed off most “mom and pop” bookstores, including many seminary bookstores. Ironically, we are now seeing a leveling off of interest in e-books, and a desire for a “browsing” experience from online sellers.

5.        The Christian bookstores that have survived have done it by backing away from their namesake. Only about 30% of their inventory and/or sales comes from books. The rest comes from what I not-so-affectionately refer to as “Jesus Junk” (trinkets and religiously themed home décor).

Yet the need for Christian bookstores that are well-stocked with vetted titles, that will serve new and existing Christians in a day increasingly challenged in terms of a Christian worldview and a mind for God, is staggering. So in light of outdated economic models, what can be done?

The church can get involved. Consider the following:

  • An on-site church bookstore doesn’t have the overhead costs of a regular bookstore, such as rent or utilities. Further, volunteers can take the place of employees, freeing up even more costs.

  • Without the normal overhead, a church bookstore does not have to generate the revenue of a normal bookstore. In fact, since profit isn’t a motive, it’s simply a matter of breaking even in terms of cost-recovery (or if supplemented as a ministry expense, it doesn’t even have to reach that threshold).

  • Without a profit motive, the inventory of the bookstore can be highly selective and entirely qualitative in nature. It’s a ministry, so the books can be chosen accordingly.

There is more, but I think you get the “feel” of the benefits. At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) where I serve, we have a bookstore and coffee shop at all of our sites called “The Grounds.” Each book is carefully screened by me and other pastors/leaders for biblical and theological integrity. We carry titles that you wouldn’t find at most other stores, but we consider them classics (or at least essential reading). We include reference works and study materials that few can afford to carry. It’s open not only on the weekends surrounding services, but throughout the week so that people can come and browse. Costs for each item are comparable to Amazon because we don’t have to carry the margin most stores would. And any and all profits beyond costs go toward our ministries and mission partners.

I know, this would be a large endeavor for many churches. But if I can be so bold, many with quick excuses could offer this ministry if they wanted to. 

And it is a ministry.

When summarizing human devotion to God as involving heart, soul and strength, Jesus added “...and mind to the original wording of Deuteronomy, as if He wanted there to be no doubt that when contemplating the comprehensive nature of commitment and relationship with God that our intellect would not be overlooked. The apostle Paul contended that our very transformation as Christians would be dependent on whether our minds were engaged in an ongoing process of renewal in light of Christ (Romans 12:2-3).

And yes, reading an actual in-your-hands book matters to this.

As Yancey writes,

We still don't know the long-term effects of reading e-books vs. traditional hard copy books. Some studies show that people read slower on dedicated e-readers, and those who use tablets or computers or iPhones have a different reading experience, being constantly distracted by text messages, emails, Facebook, and other interruptions. Nicholas Carr's The ShallowsWhat the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores the changes in brain function that may result. Hyperlinked, multi-tasking readers do not have the same "deep reading" experience, and are less likely to store what they read in long-term memory.

It is no wonder Paul wrote to Timothy from his jail cell to bring him his books (II Timothy 4:13). 

How tragic would it be if there had been no books to bring. Or any place to buy them.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“Farewell to the Golden Age: How Publishing Has Changed,” Philip Yancey, Books and Culture, July 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The caricature is so tired it’s wearisome to even bring it up, but it’s so prevalent, we must: 

“If you emphasize evangelism, you must not be doing discipleship.”

This is such a patently ridiculous idea it’s almost not worth spending energy to dismiss. If it were true, then Jesus lied, for He is the one who said that not only were we to do both, but that both must co-exist in the church. The Great Commission makes it clear that we are to do both evangelism and discipleship. Doing one does not automatically negate the other.

Even more, if you aren’t doing evangelism, you won’t have anyone to disciple! And the goal of discipleship, if I understand the New Testament, is to be able to turn around and invest in the evangelistic mission! So without discipleship, there won’t be any evangelism. 

All to say, it’s not an “either-or,” but a “both-and.” And a very important “both-and.”

So why the tension? 

Why the snide dismissals of evangelistically-oriented churches as if it’s inherent that if they are reaching high percentages of unchurched people they must be either a) abandoning orthodoxy, or b) sacrificing discipleship?

It’s simple.

We don’t know what it means to do discipleship.

Most approaches to evangelism involve the “front door” of the church, meaning the weekend services and other large-scale events that members use to invite their friends to attend. As a result, the “front door” is opened widely for those guests, with attention to their needs. The message is not watered down, but the red carpet is rolled out in ways that help them understand and appropriate the message for their lives. 

Sometimes that means a different style of music, a different dress code, an attention to forms of communication that resonate, and more. Essentially, missiology 101.

So what’s the problem?

The countless numbers of churches who have equated the “front door” with discipleship. Rather than seeing an event such as the weekend service as the time when you throw open the doors for guests and outreach, it is seen as the time when the already convinced are targeted and developed. As a result, if “front door” events are used for anything else, discipleship is assumed to have been abandoned.

This thinking is flawed on two essential fronts:

First, large gatherings – even for worship – were seen as “front door” events for the unchurched by the apostles in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians for holding worship services that would make the unchurched think them crazy (I Cor. 14). Going back even further, the large group gatherings of Jesus were almost always evangelistic in orientation.

Second, discipleship in the Bible was almost always enacted in smaller groups and settings, if not one-on-one. The most obvious is Jesus pouring into the 120, and from the 120, the 12. Paul went off for three years for preparation and discipleship before launching into his many missions, and then personally mentored various pastors for their ministry, such as Timothy.

This does not mean there is no place for “personal” evangelism (there is), and no place for mass discipleship (there is). It just means that we shouldn’t confuse a particular approach toward one with the absence of the other.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), which I have had the honor and privilege of leading for over twenty years, the approach is simple: evangelism and discipleship.

Evangelism, at this stage in our church’s life in light of contemporary culture, has its locus on “front door, ” weekend events. Not solely, but primarily. People are trained in personal evangelism, but it is the invitation to a weekend event that is primary in our outreach strategy. This has resulted in an overall growth rate of over 70 percent from the unchurched.

Discipleship is rooted in the Meck Institute, a community-college type of approach to classes and seminars that offers everything from “Bible Basics” all the way to graduate level courses in systematic theology. Small groups, while focused on spans of care, supplement the Institute mightily. This has led to a community of over 10,000 active attenders.

And while long-time believers in attendance on the weekends would say it grows their faith exponentially (largely because the questions of today’s believers increasingly parallel the questions of today’s non-believers), that is not its primary focus. The primary focus is presenting Christ to the world at large, standing on Mars Hill and contending for the faith. It is Christianity 101 or 201. Essentially, the evangelism needed for discipleship; or, one could argue, the discipleship needed for evangelism to take root.

So rather than take shots at outreach-oriented churches for their lack of discipleship, delve deeper and see if what is really at hand is a different approach to discipleship. One that might just be more biblical,

…and more effective.

James Emery White

 

Sources

For more on how outreach can weave with discipleship, see James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker, 2014) as well as Rethinking the Church (Baker, 2007).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

There is a new cultural apologetic that is fast becoming the go-to argument to ensure affirmation and approval of previously immoral activities.  And it is an argument taken straight from the Bible:

Love.

Without a doubt, love is the ultimate ethic.  We are told that the greatest commandment is to love (Deuteronomy 6), and when asked, Jesus agreed it was the greatest of all commandments (Mark 12). 

By now we are all familiar with how homosexuality and gay marriage shifted the entire cultural debate by making it about the affirmation of loving relationships.  Two blogs ago I detailed the argument made by pedophiles in favor of pedophilia, namely that it was a “loving” act.

Now enter assisted suicide.

Consider the following headline from National Public Radio:  “How a Woman’s Plan to Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve.”  Now, before we go any further, what is the obvious slant?  Her assisted suicide was all about her concern for others, and the feelings of others.  It was all about,

…love.

The woman featured in the story was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  She decided to end her life before it took hold  - a “collective experience that [she and her husband] and the people they loved all went through together.”  A memorial service, of sorts, was held on the front end.

“It was just so obvious that this is about as good as it gets for a human exit,” her daughter said.  “She was surrounded by everyone who loved her, they were telling her how and why they loved her.  This was not a bad way to go.”

Two days later her mother went into a bathroom and drank a drug overdose.

Speaking of her mother’s death, her daughter added, “It made it less like a grieving process and less like a sort of horrible thing that had happened, and more like something that made sense and felt right and actually had some joy to it in its own way.”

Let’s bracket off death for a moment, though suffice it to say it should never be sanitized in such a way as being anything less than the evil it is.  It is horrible.  Alzheimer's is horrible.  The fall of humanity and all of creation is horrible. 

And, of course, life is not ours to take.  Not through the murder of others, or the murder of ourselves.  All life is sacred, and we are not the Lord of life – not even our own.

Let’s also bracket off the joy that can come from serving someone, to the end, who has Alzheimer's.  I’ve seen this, up close and personal.  My father-in-law cared for my wife’s mother to the end through the ravages of this disease, and horrific and trying as it was, there was more beauty in his love and care for her than anything I have ever witnessed.  And now, some time after she has passed, if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t trade a day of it.

But let’s do talk about love.

The problem with using the idea of love to affirm homoerotic behavior, to redefine marriage and family, to justify pedophilia or assisted suicide is that it isn’t really “love” that we’re talking about.

At least, not the biblical idea of love.

The Christian idea of love is not simply an emotional state or feeling.  It is the turning of a heart away from self and toward another in a way that is filled with empathy and affection, grace and truth, selflessness and sacrifice. 

But that’s not all.  Any and all such horizontal extensions of love flow from its vertical moorings, which is love for God.  That love is described plainly in the great “Shema” passage of the Old Testament (called that because the opening line, “Hear,” is the Hebrew word “shema”).

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4, NIV)

As mentioned above, Jesus used that very text to affirm the greatest commandment for human life.  When asked which is the greatest commandment, this was the reply:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31, NIV)

Love for others is rooted in love for God.  We love God with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength, and from that, our neighbor.  But if we “love” our neighbor in a way that is antithetical to a love for God and His commands, then it is no love we show.  Such love is mere sentimentality, adrift from truth, driven by the uncertain and often deceptive waves of emotion.  In the end, it is simply whatever we “feel.”

So applaud the new cultural apologetic in that it is talking about love.

But then add to the conversation by defining it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“How a Woman’s Plan to Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve,” Alix Spiegel, National Public Radio, June 23, 2014, read online.

“Religious leaders unite to condemn assisted dying law,” John Bingham, The Telegraph, July 15, 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Vision for the Arts

*Editors Note: Before he left on his summer study break, the director of the Arts team at Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), Kristina Gray, asked Dr. White if he would tape a message for a gathering of artists they were planning later that summer. Unscripted and in a single take, he shared from his heart in a way that ended up deeply moving the arts community at Meck. We thought you would enjoy reading the transcript of what Dr. White recorded.

Kristina asked me to bring a word to you, as part of the arts team, and left it wide open for whatever I wanted to say. But really to encourage you and let you know how much I appreciate you and…so…that was an easy assignment.

You know, back even before Meck got started one of the aspects of the founding vision was that  it would be a community of artists and that the arts would be celebrated, would be put forward, would be used.

There was an old, old, old song called “Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?” and there is a sense where the church used to be the patron of the arts. All the way through the Middle Ages and such.

And then somewhere along the line we kind of got screwed up and we began to give the arts back to the world. And the church got stripped of it and it became just four walls and a Bible.

Well, four walls and a Bible is fine but we lost all of the arts: we lost dance, we lost music, we lost painting, we lost the aesthetics that are done with lighting and sound. We lost the arts – it’s like we gave it away.

And yet the arts are arguably (in terms of film, video and all that) the strongest way to convey a message to our world today. More so now than ever.

In my book, The Rise of the Nones, I talk about how there’s a shift (and I’m not alone in this) in our culture back to the Medieval in some ways. In the Medieval era people were spiritually illiterate, paganism abounded, they were biblically illiterate; and because of that, there needed to be new ways to reach them.

And so what you find in the great cathedrals throughout Europe is extensive use of stained glass. And when you see the stained glass it tells the story – sometimes all the way from creation through the end of time. Because that was the only way people could “get it.” And I’ve argued that I think that the arts today is the stained glass of the church.

You tell the story in a way that people who are spiritually and biblically illiterate “get it.” Through video, through a song, through light, through dance, through drama, through…well the arts are almost limitless.

That’s how it’s gonna happen.

And I tell you, you sneak past the defenses of the heart a lot quicker and easier than I ever will. And the other thing that you do is that even if that’s not the task at hand for that particular day or service, by the time you get through doing what you do collectively, I’ve often likened it to moving the ball all the way down the field to the 2 yard line. And then when I get the ball at the 2 yard line almost any idiot can score from there.

And so you’re the ones that moved it down the field that far. And I so appreciate you.

And I’ll tell you something else that I love about our team: I travel a lot and I see a lot of artists, a lot of named artists, and it can be disillusioning. And I’ve been in a lot of churches and seen what the artist community is like; and I’m so proud of our team. So proud of how Kristina has led and others have led but here’s what I love:

We have always valued character over talent.

Now, I would put our talent against anybody. But that’s not what matters most to us. And so when I can be sitting there in a service or rehearsal, and I see somebody at a camera or somebody singing a song or somebody in a sound booth and I know they walk with Christ;

…and I know they have a character of humility;

…and I know they’ve got a towel draped over their arm;

…and I know they gave up time from work or whatever to be there;

…and I know that when they’re singing those words or doing whatever it is that they’re doing that it’s sincere and authentic;

…and when I see somebody doing drums;

…and I know that they’re drumming for Jesus;

…I mean, I know it;

Oh my gosh.

That’s what really makes something anointed. That’s when I think that God gives it a special dose of His presence. I think it’s one of the reasons we’re growing so fast and changing so many lives. It’s why you can walk out of every baptism service and you can see all those people being baptized and you can feel like that’s the fruit of your labor.

Because it is.

It’s the fruit of all of our labor and nobody’s more important than somebody else. I mean the person who’s fixing the sound or on the camera or doing the lights or putting up the chairs are just as important as the person singing the solo or doing the guitar rip.

And the other thing I love about you is that you know that too. It really is a team. It’s community.

So…I’m proud of you. I’m so glad we’re doing this together. So glad for the creativity and the freedom we’re all giving each other. And so glad that God is honoring it by changing so many lives.

So that’s all I really have to say. But I for one, am really proud of you. So thanks for letting me talk.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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