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Is the Christian lifestyle industry a retail "parallel universe" for the faithful?

By Katie Allison Granju

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  What's the hottest retail logo in America right now? Reebok? Tommy Hilfiger? Polo? Nope, it's the acronym WWJD, slapped on everything from wristbands to T-shirts to refrigerator magnets. According to the Dallas Morning News, the logo WWJD, representing the provocative question "What Would Jesus Do?" and meant to remind Christians to think about their actions, is now borne on millions of gifts and apparel items nationwide. The national retail chain Family Christian Stores, reports selling 225,000 of the WWJD wristbands in the last nine months alone. Here in Knoxville, the WWJD line of merchandise can be purchased, among other places, at Cedar Springs Christian Store, located on North Peters Road. But that's not all you will find at Cedar Springs. An afternoon's shopping inside this lavishly appointed 20,000 square foot Christian-lifestyle superstore and coffeehouse could send you home with everything from a video rental of Radicals—The Unbelievable Story of the Anabaptists to a child's plastic suit of armor with the word "Righteousness" boldly emblazoned across the chest, packaged as a "Christian Character Building Costume."

These items, and Cedar Springs Christian Store itself, are part of what has now been dubbed by retailing experts as the "Christian Lifestyle Industry." Christian sales, encompassing books, gifts, apparel, software, toys, and art are today a $3 billion dollar sales phenomenon, up from $1 billion in 1980. Contemporary Christian music, once a small segment of the recording industry, had $3 billion in sales of its own in 1995 and spawned its first number-one hit on the Billboard 200 this year with Bob Carlisle's religious pop song, "Butterfly Kisses." In addition to the traditionally available school options, Christians now also have their own self-proclaimed alternatives in cable programming, talk radio, restaurants, counseling, print media, and even their own bestseller lists.

A number of developments point to the fact that Knoxville is emerging as a national leader in the Christian-lifestyle industry. Cedar Springs Christian Store has recently been recognized by trade magazine Christian Retailing as the biggest-selling independent Christian-lifestyle store in the United States and one of the top 10 stores overall. The country's longest running Christian radio program, "The Radio Bible Hour" with J. Harold Smith, originates out of Knoxville, and Dave and Claudia Arp, nationally syndicated radio hosts, best-selling authors, and speakers on the topic of Christian marriage enrichment, make their home here. Knoxville Recording Studios serves as a national distributor for several broadcast ministries. Christian Music Connection, a support network for Christian musicians with chapters all over the country, was founded and is headquartered in Knoxville. In addition to these larger Christian enterprises, the city is home to a growing number of local self-identified Christian businesses, such as the Christian Outlet Store, Good Shepherd Christian Store, Redemption Christian Store, and Mustard Seed Cafe, among others.

To many observers, the astonishingly popular "What Would Jesus Do?" merchandise provides an apt metaphor for the many questions surrounding the trend for Christians to opt out of secular consumerism and buy into their own alternatives. What would Jesus do if confronted with department stores that describe themselves as ministries? Would Jesus buy a "Life is Short, Pray Hard" T-shirt and the latest Amy Grant album, or would he spend the same amount of money on meals for the poor? And just what does it mean to call oneself a "Christian" business? Area faithful are pondering these issues and others as Knoxville's Christian business community offers up ever-larger portions of what some are now calling a "Christian Parallel Universe."

In the Beginning...

Curtis McGinnis, the owner and founder of Cedar Springs Christian Store, started his venture as a tiny Christian bookstore on Kingston Pike 21 years ago.

"At that time, we primarily sold Bibles and maybe some books and church supplies," explains McGinnis.

According to Dr. Charles Reynolds, professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, sales of The Bible were indeed for many years the mainstay of religious book and supply stores around the country.

"In the '50s and '60s, most of the major denominations had their own presses and bookstores. Most of these stores subsisted by selling scholarly publications and The Bible, which is, of course, the best- selling book of this century," remarks Reynolds. "In the past, these items were not marketed to the general public but instead to a rather narrow constituency. What we are seeing today is a whole new Christian industry."

Although the more than 4,000 variations of The Bible now available still make up 14 percent of the Christian retail trade, for the first time, Christian gifts, software, toys, artwork, clothing, and jewelry are outselling Bibles. It is for this reason that, in 1997, the major Christian bookselling trade organization, Christian Booksellers Association, officially changed its name to just "CBA," initials that essentially stand for nothing. Major denominational Christian bookstore chains such as Baptist Bookstores are following suit. Baptist, with 74 stores nationwide, is currently in the process of changing its name to Lifeway Christian Stores. McGinnis and his staff made the decision to change their own store's name from Cedar Springs Christian Bookstore to Cedar Springs Christian Store when they moved to their palatial new location on North Peters Road in 1995. According to Cedar Springs' youthful manager of operations Bill Simmons, who today heads up a staff of 55, the Knoxville store was one of the first in the United States to change to a name more reflective of today's exploding Christian-lifestyle industry.

"We are no longer just a bookstore," explains Simmons. "When people shop here, we want them to find what they expect to find when they shop anywhere. People no longer shop at small boutiques. We retail all kinds of products that promote a Christian lifestyle."

Whose Christian Lifestyle?

Although Christian businesses argue vehemently that they offer products for a wide variety of interests and denominations, many liberal and progressive Christians are left questioning whether the industry should more accurately call itself the conservative Christian-lifestyle industry. A perusal of the bookshelves of any Knoxville Christian store will reveal a plethora of selections with a clear philosophical agenda; traditional gender roles, abstinence-based sex education for teens, and an aversion to alternative family arrangements dominate the subject matter. Right-wing political pundits merit their own section. The industry's own trade magazine, Christian Retailing, is owned by Strang Communications, which also owns Creation House Publishing, offering fundamentalist books and educational products, and New Man Magazine, the "unofficial" voice of the controversial Promise Keepers organization. Here in Knoxville, the Christian Media Center receives its wire service from an organization known as "Evangelical Press," and general manager John Hanna is the former state chairman of the Tennessee Christian Coalition.

Dr. Reynolds is of the opinion that today's Christian-lifestyle industry represents the apotheosis of a national trend in religious life.

"This new Christian industry really represents the peak of a religious revival begun with the Moral Majority and continued up through the Christian Coalition and today's Promise Keepers movement," says Dr. Reynolds.

Rev. John Bluth Gill, pastor at Knoxville's Church of the Savior, a United Church of Christ congregation, agrees that Christian retailers appear to be geared more toward conservative Christians. He says that he isn't aware of many members of his own admittedly liberal congregation seeking out Christian lifestyle products or services.

"I am a Christian, and I just see very little in these stores that speaks to my faith, except maybe The Bible," says Gill. "I think that many progressive Christians are actually struggling to break away from our consumeristic culture, not to buy more heavily into it."

McGinnis argues that the products his store carries reflect values embraced by most Christians.

"We try to stay away from extremes here. It's true that you won't find a book for gay Christians on my shelf, but you also won't find anything by Robert Schuller," explains McGinnis. "Our core products are items that East Tennessee Christians can agree on."

Hanna disputes the notion that Christian businesses and media outlets speak to only one segment of this area's Christian population.

"To label what we do as conservative might not encompass all that we do. For example, I know that we have a number of gay listeners to Love 89 (WYLV-FM). For anyone to tell us that we have a narrow perspective...well, they might be the one with the narrow perspective. We serve a broad spectrum of Christians. All the way from the ultra-conservative to the mainstream."

Recent polls indicate that previously controversial views held by Fundamentalist Christians are now being adopted by increasing numbers of "mainstream" Americans. For example, a survey conducted this year by the Associated Press revealed that one in four Christian Americans expects Jesus to arrive in his or her lifetime.

"The interesting thing about Fundamental Christianity is that it may actually be the new mainstream lifestyle," muses Dr. Reynolds. "At least that's what many fundamentalists now believe themselves."

"Jesus Junk"?

For those shoppers who do seek the Christian retailing industry's version of a Christian lifestyle, the possibilities are vast. Consumers can now purchase the "Christian version" of virtually any item that he or she would be able to find in a secular department, book, record, or discount store. For example, Christians now have their own line of romance novels produced by the Steeple Hill division of secular Harlequin Enterprises. As described by a reviewer for The New York Times, the Steeple Hill romances place love stories in the larger context of characters' relationships with God. Not even married couples have sex in these books. Christian Retailing tracks the industry's own fiction bestseller lists, which favor story lines leaning heavily toward one-world-government conspiracy plots and millennial chaos.

Parents seeking Biblical playthings for their children will find a huge variety from which to choose. Cedar Springs carries the board game "Bibleopoly" and the "Bibleman" action videos, starring the '70's Eight Is Enough teen idol Willie Aames. Perhaps the hottest selling item in any Christian-lifestyle store these days is the Veggie Tales series of Biblically-based videos, books, toys, games, and accessories. With titles like, Rack, Shack & Benny, and Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space, the Veggie Tales videos are a remarkable sales success, currently holding seven of the top 20 spots on the national list of best-selling Christian videos. Cedar Springs plans to host a premiere party at a local movie theatre when the next Veggie Tales video is released.

"Veggie Tales are a phenomenon," agrees Simmons, "They have been at the forefront of offering quality in Christian videos equaling that of, say, Disney videos. For years, Christian videos simply didn't have the quality to compete. Now we do."

Knoxville's Rev. John Bluth Gill voices the opinion of some religious leaders who are bothered by the way retailers are using Christian symbols to sell products.

"I don't like to see Jesus up there alongside Nike," says Gill. "It seems strange to say that you can identify someone's faith identity by what sort of T-shirt they are wearing. "

Steve DeGeorge, a Bible College graduate and headmaster at Knoxville's fastest-growing nondenominational Christian school, Christian Academy of Knoxville, says that he has heard some of these Christian-identified retail items referred to as "Jesus junk."

"I do think that God is very concerned with our lifestyle, but whether we need to purchase certain items to live a Christian lifestyle is a question worth thinking about," says DeGeorge. "There certainly hasn't been a time in history when Christians have more products being marketed to them. I enjoy being able to purchase a greeting card with a Bible verse on it, but on the other hand, I could just write my own Bible verse in a note to someone."

In addition to many explicitly Christian products, the new lifestyle stores carry items which, while not overtly religious in nature, do not contradict the vision of family values that Christian-lifestyle stores are trying to promote. Other available products are actually the religious version of an otherwise secular item.

"We do carry some products in our store such as Dr. Seuss books that aren't actually Christian," explains Simmons. "Many of the prints that we sell aren't any different than the ones you might find at West Town Mall, but ours will have a Bible verse inscribed on them."

Spreading the Gospel through Music and Media

The single most popular Christian product today is undoubtedly contemporary Christian music, a label spanning a genre ranging from the adult-listening sounds of Amy Grant to the "Jesus Freak" thrash of dc Talk. In fact, dc Talk's 1996 album sold 86,000 copies in its first week of release, beating out same-period sales by Neil Young and Beck, among others. The album has since gone platinum, along with several other Christian releases in the past few years. The recording industry virtually ignored Christian contemporary music until 1995 when the record sales tracking service, SoundScan, extended its coverage to Christian stores, exposing more than $700 million in record and concert receipts, a sales figure that has increased exponentially since that time. The number and variety of Christian artists has also expanded in recent years. As with other types of Christian retail products, the music marketplace now provides a Christian alternative for every taste, including one band that describes itself as "Christafarian" and playing "Christian reggae."

John Platillero of Knoxville is the president and founder of the national Christian Music Connection (CMC). Platillero, with an MBA and a degree in electrical engineering, says that he both felt a calling and saw a need when he started CMC six years ago in the basement of his Farragut home. Platillero began by helping Christian musicians network with one another for fellowship and support and started keeping track of which area clubs and coffeehouses were open to booking Christian acts. Soon he was receiving phone calls from all over the United States from musicians who wanted to start a CMC chapter in their own city. Today, CMC hosts a Knoxville-based Web site with links to 500 Christian acts around the world. The site has received 18,000 hits in the past year.

CMC is the nonprofit arm of what Platillero does, but he generates an income by booking and promoting all types of Christian artists in Knoxville venues.

"We book at churches, all the way up to the Civic Coliseum and Thompson-Boling Arena," says Platillero. "We also host an annual Christian music festival here in Knoxville that draws 4,000 people."

Recent Knoxville shows have included everything from the Christian ska act, The Supertones, performing for several hundred teenagers at West Knoxville's Fellowship Evangelical Free Church to a Steven Curtis Chapman show at Thompson-Boling Arena that brought in 8,000 fans. Platillero expects upwards of 7,000 attendees at a December 5 concert at the Civic Coliseum featuring the gospel act The Gaithers. According to Platillero, Knoxville provides fertile ground for Christian music.

"We have a large and active Christian community here," explains Platillero. "Also, our location makes us a great stopping place for national acts traveling from one large city to the next."

Still, Platillero says that it is only in the past few years that Knoxvillians have grown more open to the idea of contemporary Christian music, as opposed to more traditional types of religious performance. Traditionally, many conservative Christians have objected to both the lyrical content and the sound of popular music. DeGeorge says that he remembers a time when many Christians objected to Latin musical rhythms because the music originated from countries with a "pagan religious heritage."

"To me, music is a gift from God, and our natural response to rhythms is a gift from God," says DeGeorge. "I am happy that young people today can enjoy popular music with lyrical content that glorifies God."

Platillero attributes the change in local Christian musical tastes in large part to the growth of Christian broadcast media in Knoxville, which has allowed more people to become exposed to new artists.

"Before WYLV-Love 89 came on the scene, we would have trouble booking medium-sized acts here. Larger national acts might come and local bands would play, but the touring Christian bands that might attract between 1,000 and 3,000 fans probably wouldn't stop here," explains Platillero. "Now they do."

Love 89 is Knoxville's top-rated Christian radio station, providing mainstream contemporary musical programming. Owned by Foothills Broadcasting, the station operates as a nonprofit enterprise and bills itself as commercial-free, although business "sponsors" are credited frequently on the air. Individual monetary pledges are also solicited and noted during airtime. The station is piped into a wide variety of Christian businesses throughout the community and enjoys a loyal following of local listeners. Love 89 is housed in the same Magnolia Avenue office building that shelters commercial Christian talk radio station WRJZ-Joy 62. Tennessee Media Association owns both WRJZ and WMEN, a station specializing in Christian motivational programming. Other businesses operating at this East Knoxville site include the city's Christian newspaper, Discovery, a monthly publication with distribution at 130 locations and a readership of 20,000, and Knoxville Recording Studios, a distributor of radio ministry programs. Together, these enterprises comprise what is known as the Christian Media Center.

According to general manager Hanna, the "scene for Christendom" was quite different when he first moved back to Knoxville from Charleston, South Carolina in 1986.

"At that time, contemporary Christian music had not become a genre. Amy Grant was basically out there by herself, and here in Knoxville, Cedar Springs was still a small mom-and-pop operation," explains Hanna. He goes on to note that self-identified Christian businesses are now so prevalent in Knoxville that the Christian Business Council was formed last June in order to bring local Christian business people together. Hanna estimates that the Council already has 60 members.

"Potential members must be recommended by another member," explains Hanna. "Members must also pledge to operate their business by Biblical principles and must agree to settle any disputes through Christian mediation before turning to the court system."

Real Alternatives or False Profits?

Hanna contends that the growth in Christian alternatives to mainstream products and services has emerged as the result of Christians feeling persecuted by mainstream media and business. He argues that many affinity groups in the United States, such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews, have chosen to create their own business communities in response to prejudice or to support one another. However, he says that as the majority culture in the United States, there is a somewhat different dynamic among Christians who are now choosing to trade with other Christians.

"This industry was created by consumers who were tired of seeing issues of faith being treated with malice or apathy. This growth really represents a revival...a movement of God. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can control this any more than we can control the wind," says Hanna.

According to Dr. Reynolds, Christian retailing may be a new manifestation of the tendency for some conservative Christians to segregate themselves from society at large. He points out that during the Civil Rights movement, a number of nondenominational "Christian schools" were created all over the country in order to sidestep public school integration, although most of these schools are themselves integrated today.

"One of the basic characteristics of fundamentalists has been to create boundaries between their world and the secular world," explains Reynolds.

The recent Disney boycott by the Southern Baptist Convention was but one well-publicized manifestation of the growing Christian discontent described by Hanna: an aversion experienced by many religious Americans when confronted with secular products, services, and entertainment that they feel to be in violation of their personal moral code. But with today's ready availability of so many ostensibly Christian alternatives, concerned religious consumers may believe that they can relax and enjoy shopping again. The reality, however, is that the national boom in Christian sales has prompted larger, secular corporate entities to snap up most of the better-known Christian record labels and publishing concerns. Other secular companies have created their own Christian product divisions for gifts and apparel in order to break into the religious marketplace. The vast majority of Christian buyers are almost certainly not aware that the dc Talk CD they may buy at their local Christian-lifestyle store was actually put out by EMI, which now owns the band's Christian label, Forefront Records.

"We can't escape the secular world completely," agrees Simmons. "Pretty much all the music on our shelves is now owned by non-Christian companies. In fact, one of Rupert Murdoch's divisions is now selling Bibles. I don't think that our shoppers are aware of this, but I don't think they know who owns Nabisco when they shop at Kroger either."

Platillero says that Christians who claim to care about the source of items they purchase "have a lot of homework to do."

"If you are a Christian and you are worried about where stuff is coming from, you have to dig until you find out," says Platillero. "You can't rely on the store to put signs on every shelf advising you that this particular ceramic figurine of Jesus was produced by Taiwanese Christians."

According to Hanna, Christian consumers aren't necessarily opposed to buying Christian products from a secular company. He points out that many Christians are employed within the mainstream business world and thus may be influencing their employers' products even though the company itself doesn't take an explicit stance on issues of religion.

"For example," says Hanna, "if you took a survey, you would find many active Christians working in leadership positions within the local nonreligious media."

Marketing or Ministry?

Although few would argue that a sense of buyer discontent with secular products and services is driving some of the sales punch in the Christian lifestyle industry, it is also clear that corporate America has seized upon the Christian consumer as a vast and newly revealed marketplace, ripe for the selling. Christian Retailing devotes significant space in each issue to how to best attract and sell to today's Christian consumer.

Recent articles have highlighted such tactics as using the coming millennium as a tool to peddle books with titles like Fifty Remarkable Events Pointing Toward the End, while another suggested marketing to Generation X by using a "rough, cut-and-paste approach" to advertising, similar to the look of band flyers. An alternate proposed strategy for attracting buyers included setting up a drop-off point for toys for needy children inside the children's products section of your store.

Christian business people argue that marketing is a necessary ingredient to any successful enterprise, and they do not believe that sales strategies such as these, or the resulting profits, detract from the fact that what they are providing is, in fact, a Christian ministry. Hugh Hewitt, host of the PBS series Searching for God in America, argues in his upcoming book The Embarrassed Believer: Defending Faith in the Age of Mockerya that Christian retailers and artists are actually one of today's primary sources of religious witness to non-Christians.

Rev. Gill is skeptical of this view that the retailing of consumer products represents a meaningful path for Christian evangelism.

"I have to ask whether selling a particular Jesus product is actually going to convert anybody," says Gill. "I just doubt that it will, generally speaking."

Gill goes on to suggest that calling oneself a Christian business or product in an area such as Knoxville, which is so heavily dominated by Christian culture, can't help but boost the bottom line.

"I don't see calling yourself a Christian business as a particularly daring thing to do around here," opines Gill. "I also have to ask in what sense selling T-shirts is a ministry."

Gill further believes that businesses which label themselves as Christian have a responsibility to answer questions about the profits they make and how they are used. Gill cites the well-known story of Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple as an example of Christ's teachings on business.

"The simplest way to explain my concerns is to say that I feel suspicious of anything done in the name of Christ that generates large personal profit," explains Gill. "To peddle the name of Christ on many consumer products that are essentially useless in order to make money seems immoral. Jesus was pretty much constantly telling people to give all their money away, and he said that it would be very difficult for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom of God. I do say that with a sense of humbleness, however, because I do receive a salary as a minister which is certainly larger than that which some others in this community must live on."

McGinnis disagrees with Rev. Gill. He considers his work as a purveyor of Christian-lifestyle products to be a purposeful way to spread the Christian message.

"We are a ministry," states an unapologetic McGinnis. "And we have to be profitable in order to grow our ministry. The more profit we make, the more Christian-lifestyle products we can put in the hands of East Tennesseans."

Hanna says that Christian media has grown weary of being questioned by about the money being made in this growth industry.

"Do we ask these sorts of questions about the profits of Ted Turner? The management and making of money is a principle expounded upon by Jesus himself in the story of the talents. This tells me that the resources given by God should be multiplied. I begrudge no Christian the right to make money," says Hanna.

Platillero believes that ultimately, any business which proclaims itself or its products to be Christian has a responsibility to struggle with this issue.

"To call what you do a ministry and then to walk away with $50,000 or something in personal profits in the name of Jesus...well, I would have some problems with that," says Platillero. "To me, a ministry equals service. In the Christian music industry, I am hearing the word ministry used less and less the more popular the music gets. For example, Amy Grant doesn't refer to her music as a ministry, although she is involved in many causes in her personal life where she ministers to others."

Platillero adds that although he is certain that the Christian-lifestyle industry in general is a hugely profitable venture, he cannot say which Knoxville-area Christian ventures are making a killing.

"Now if you really want to see a lot of money changing hands in the name of ministry, think about how much gets put into local collection plates all over town each Sunday morning. Some of these churches have some very big buildings that they have to pay for," says Platillero. "Is this a bad thing? That's a question that every Christian must answer for himself."

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