Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Selling Faith: Marketing Christian Popular Culture to Christian and Non-Christian Audiences

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Selling Faith: Marketing Christian Popular Culture to Christian and Non-Christian Audiences

Article excerpt

We re living in a post-Christian culture in the U.S., something that's been the case in Europe for a while. We've got a generation of people who think they know what Christianity is, and they don't want any. How do you communicate to people that don't want to listen? To me, probably music and film are the two best ways, but we can't fall back on tried and true methods in a post-Christian culture. The more traditional approaches aren't going to have the same effect.

--Steve Taylor in Newcomb (1998, 52)

Protestant evangelical Christians have often used popular entertainment to promote their religious message. Since the 1740s, evangelists drew crowds and excited emotions. Charles Wesley (1703-1791) adopted new melodies that borrowed from popular opera, English folk melodies, and popular drinking songs to write his hymns (Miller 1993). Later, William Booth (18291912) incorporated brass instruments and big band sounds during revivals in the late 1870s, setting Christian lyrics to popular secular tunes of the time (Ellsworth 1979). Yet, one could argue that today's evangelicals use popular entertainment more than ever before. Today, evangelicals own television stations, publishing houses, and record, clothing, greeting card, and gift companies, all producing goods either for other evangelicals entertainment or for evangelistic purposes. Nancy Ammerman is right when she suggests that "Christian publishing, broadcasting, and selling are, very simply, big business" (1987, 115).

Currently, "Christian bookstores" around the country sell Bibles, devotionals, novels, music (all styles), music videos, T-shirts, children's toys, magazines, and comic books. Many of these bookstores belong to the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), a trade association that provides marketing advice and networking for member stores. Current estimates hold that there are over 7,000 CBA and non-CBA evangelical bookstores in the United States, purchasing their merchandise from over 900 suppliers. McGraw (1995) reports that CBA bookstores sell about $3 billion worth of merchandise per year; 105 stores boasted having more than $1 million in sales in 1995 (McDannell 1995).

The notion that the industry simply sells Bibles and books is misleading. McDannell (1995) points out that print materials declined from 68% of total sales in 1978 to 49% by 1993. Music, on the other hand, rose from 12 to 15%, while non-print merchandise like jewellery, gifts, cards, films, games, toys, crafts, plaques, art, and so on almost doubled from 20 to 36%.

Some of the companies producing goods for evangelicals consumption are quite large. Thomas Nelson in Nashville and Zondervan in Grand Rapids, Michigan were listed on NASDAQ as early as 1983 (Griffin 1984). Thomas Nelson was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1995 and Family Christian Stores, the largest retail chain in the industry, went public in 1998 ("Nelson Listed on the New York Stock Exchange" 1995; "Family Opening to Public Investors" 1998). The profitability of this market has not gone unnoticed by those outside the evangelical subculture. Non-evangelical companies have purchased several evangelical companies over the years. Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) purchased Zondervan for $57 million in 1988, ABC purchased Word Records in 1974 (Darden 1986), and EMI purchased Sparrow Music in 1992 (Smith 1992).

Despite its overall size and activity, the industry is largely a hidden one. Few outside the evangelical subculture are aware of its existence. Yet this industry affects millions of evangelicals. This study addresses the Christian retailing and entertainment industry as one that produces goods and services for the purpose of entertaining Christians, ministering to other Christians, and reaching non-evangelicals through its products. The industry presents unique challenges for those working within it. This is because its members must learn to balance tensions that emerge as a result of the interaction among art, commerce, and faith. …

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