Updated: Jun 2
by Jeff Crosby, Publisher, InterVarsity Press
The year was 1983. The Mario Brothers arcade game in Japan had not yet morphed into Super Mario Brothers and taken the U.S. market by storm. Swatch released its first watches. Lionel Richie’s song “All Night Long” was ubiquitous on the radio airwaves. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.
It was also the year my wife and I purchased and re-opened a 2,500-square-foot Christian bookstore near Indiana University with the twin mission of serving the churches of the Bloomington community and being an evangelistic outreach to students and faculty on the Big Ten campus just two blocks away.
Just the year before that re-opening, Crossway Books published Philip Yancey’s Open Windows, a collection of essays on a variety of topics including the importance of carefully written and published Christian literature as tools of transformation. In it, Yancey wrote words that guided the way in which we stocked and merchandised our bookstore. They are words that still hold true, in my view, all these years later.
“Reading religious books sometimes reminds me of traveling through a mile-long mountain tunnel. Inside the tunnel, headlights provide the crucial illumination; without them I would drift dangerously toward the tunnel walls,” Yancey wrote. “But as I near the tunnel exit, a bright spot of light appears that soon engulfs my headlights and makes them useless. When I emerge from the tunnel, a ‘check headlights’ sign reminds me that I still have them on. In comparison to the light of day they are so faint that I have lost awareness of them.
“Christian books are normally written from a perspective outside the tunnel. The author’s viewpoint is already so flooded with light that the author forgets the blank darkness inside the tunnel where many of his or her readers are journeying. We forget that, to someone in the middle of the mile-long tunnel, descriptions of blinding light can easily seem unreal.”
As a person who came to the Christian faith as an adult having not been raised in the church, I connected with Yancey’s notion of being in the middle of a mile-long mountain tunnel. I remembered what that darkness felt like.
Our service to area churches included a sizeable church supplies room in the back of the store near the Bible counter and Bible study merchandise from a variety of publishers, including Harold Shaw, InterVarsity Press and NavPress. Our theology section was labeled “Knowing God” (in homage to J.I. Packer’s classic book), alongside biblical commentaries we simply labeled “Reference.”
The front of the store was merchandised with the other part of our mission in mind—the outreach to university students and members of the community who may be inside the mile-long mountain tunnel.
We spoke of the front of the store being a “bridge” from Kirkwood Avenue to “Knowing God.”
With the bridge in mind, we merchandised the front of our store with categories such as “The Lighter Side” (humor/cartoon books), gift books, classic and contemporary fiction (including select Penguin and Signet Classics), C.S. Lewis and other “Inklings” authors, and books of regional interest. We also featured carefully curated greeting cards (about half of which had Scripture, and half did not), gifts and classical music on that “bridge.”
That was 1983, and this is 2020.
What might the “bridge” from your avenue to “Knowing God” be for you and the people of your community you hope to reach with the light of Christ?
Certainly, a part of every Christian retail store’s mission is to equip believers to use resources they buy from you evangelistically with others they are in dialogue with. And perhaps equipping the church is your only mission. If so, it’s a noble calling.
But if you want your store to be welcoming to those not yet committed to the faith, you should consider how to build a “bridge” in your own context. That will be different for you today than it was for me. But the mindset is the same.
If you want your store to be welcoming to those not yet committed to the faith, you should consider how to build a "bridge" in your own context.
In my own work as a publisher and through conversations with Christian retail stores throughout the country, the following books, authors or topics could be considered as “bridges” that lead to engagement with a broader audience who need the message your store exists to proclaim. Use this brief list of ideas simply as a seedbed of thinking on your own about what could be done in your community.
Books that analyze the impact of technology on
individual and family lives, such as Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family (Baker Publishing Group), when merchandised visibly and promoted, can attract a broad audience because they meet such a specific need.
The Prayers of Jane Austen and Jane Austen’s Little
Book About Life, both edited and compiled by Terry Glaspey (Harvest House Publishers), connect to a classic author but are also timely with the film release of a new adaptation of Austen’s Emma.
Books by and about Fred (“Mr.”) Rogers are current bridges, due to the impact of the documentary and the Tom Hanks film. There are a host of titles you can find from your favorite distributor, but Amy Hollingsworth’s The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers (HarperCollins Christian Publishing) and Shea Tuttle’s Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mr. Rogers (Eerdmans) are good places to begin.
The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson (Church Publishing), a prose poem, is an enduring work of literature that should be in every store.
Books that address sensitive and growing family issues such as Alzheimer’s, spouse abuse, anger, divorce and mental health are very different dimensions of the “bridge.” Stores I spoke with have said books addressing these needs often lead to deeper conversations about faith, grace and God’s presence in suffering—but, they warned, staff need to be well-trained.
Brief books such as Don Everts’ Jesus with Dirty Feet: Christianity for the Curious and Skeptical (IVP) were cited as evangelistic in nature—whether directly sold to the curious and skeptical, or given by a friend.
A woman named Margaret was a customer who, seven years after we re-opened our store, walked across the bridge we constructed. She was a person inside the mile-long mountain tunnel. Skeptical. Curious. Full of questions. But week after week for months she came back, asking us about books she should read. We put copies of Arthur Gordon’s A Touch of Wonder, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and other books in her hands during her frequent visits. Ultimately, she asked about the Bible, and we sold her a booklet containing the Gospel of John.
That week, she committed her life to Christ.
Six years later, we sold our bookstore to Margaret, and she continued to run it for seven years, serving area churches and students and members of the community who, like her just a few short years prior, found themselves in the mile-long mountain tunnel.
As we spoke about this subject, Warren Farha, the owner of Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas, told me:
“We must take seriously the conviction of St Justin the Martyr in the second century: That which is true is ours. We must trust in the Lord to make himself known through the ‘splintered lights’ of this world, creating a thirst in the reader for the fullness of truth.”
May each of us—publisher, retailer—be purveyors of “splintered lights,” and may we create that thirst in readers for the fullness of truth, the way Margaret thirsted those many years ago.