May 01, 2003 News » Cover Story

Would Jesus buy it? 

Mixing religion and commercial know-how, the Christian products industry thrives

I dont care if it rains or freezes Long as I got my Plastic Jesus Riding on the dashboard of my car Through my trials and tribulations And my travels through the nations With my Plastic Jesus Ill go far Sung by Ernie Marrs (author unknown)

Divine inspiration can come in many forms. For some, it's a mystical vision. For others it's a moving hymn.

But for one of the Americans who collectively spent $4 billion last year on Christian products, it's a glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus figurine. The Christian products industry provides devotees with everything from Bibles to weight loss programs to Testamints breath fresheners, all stamped with a cross on one side and a barcode on the other.

Some critics contend that such trinkets are superficial substitutes for genuine faith, and a commercial exploitation of spiritual desires. But to industry insiders, the point is moot. "Even if it's a magnet on a refrigerator, it's still God's word," said Kellee Littrell, manager of a local Christian store.

Don Pape, Vice President of local Christian book publisher Waterbrook Press, has another explanation: "We're really taking the ancient wisdom of the Bible and of the Christian faith and trying to package it in new ways,"

An industry stronghold

Colorado Springs is home to several organizations at the heart of the Christian products subculture.

At the helm of religious retail is northern Colorado Springs-based Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), the industry's trade association, whose goal is to promote what it calls "Christ-honoring" products. Thousands of member retail stores and resource suppliers, both in the U.S. and abroad, depend on the organization for training, publications and market research.

"Christ-honoring means that the product itself and the way it is marketed and sold would be pleasing to Christ, and that it would reflect his character," explained CBA President Bill Anderson.

You'll find an arsenal of these Christ-honoring products at CBA's industry-wide trade conferences, which are held twice annually around the country. Last summer's show in Anaheim, California, drew 13,000 people from more than 50 countries.

This year's winter convention in Indianapolis highlighted reports of continued strong financial performance across the industry -- an average of eight-percent growth annually from 1997-2001 -- despite a souring economy and threat of war with Iraq. Anderson said he was "pleased that we have more than held our own" during the economic downturn.

In fact, times of trial such as war and recession sometimes help rather than hinder sales for Christian retailers. A Christianity Today survey, for example, found that Bible sales jumped 27 percent in the week following 9-11.

Home to such heavy hitters such as the CBA, Focus on the Family and major Christian book publishers headquartered in here, Colorado Springs has emerged as a stronghold for the industry.

With $82 million in revenues from evangelical print publications and radio broadcasts distributed around the globe last year, Focus on the Family is the largest of these organizations. Its northern Colorado Springs headquarters staffs 1,300 full-time employees and 400 part-timers and attracted 236,000 visitors last year.

The call center is a real highlight on the free tour Focus offers to its visitors daily. This sea of cubicles, filled with headset-equipped workers, mostly young women, is flooded with 4,000 to 7,000 calls every day. Ninety percent of those calls, one guide said during a recent visit, are requests for a book or other Christian resource.

Focus products are also popular overseas. In Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, the government recently chose Focus on the Family as the sole source of abstinence education materials in the country's public schools.

Faith of the nation

Other prominent Colorado Springs-based Christian products purveyors include The Navigators and their publishing subsidiary Navpress, the International Bible Society and Waterbrook Press.

Outlets for Christian merchandise come in two varieties: retail stores and those found in churches or ministries.

Mall stores are similar to Jubilation, located in Chapel Hills Mall in northern Colorado Springs. The central aisle is dominated by a pyramid greeting card display, flanked on one side by a rotating wire rack that dangles Jesus fish and "Real Men Love Jesus" license plate holders. Gold cross pendants, necklaces and Jesus-inscribed rings fill a glass case beneath shelves strewn with stuffed animals that cheer for the Lord. A framed reproduction depicts George Washington on his knees next to his horse, praying.

"That's our biggest seller. It expresses the faith of the nation," said the owner, Mike Grant.

By contrast, Arsenal Bookstore is part of the World Prayer Center in northeastern Colorado Springs next to the New Life megachurch. There, products that illustrate the ministry's religious views include the popular Lion of Judah icon and a $200 shofar, a three-foot long ram's horn traditionally sounded during Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year.

The Arsenal Bookstore also carries a number of books about how to not be gay.

Fat of the lamb

From Jesus pencils and action dolls to Bible Quiz Pops, the phenomenon of selling what one local Christian publisher calls "Junk for Jesus" is hardly new.

For centuries, the Catholic Church has used icons as tools for spiritual development. Sister Peg Maloney of the regional Catholic Diocese says that these traditional worship items -- crucifixes, religious statues, prayer cards, rosary beads -- were ultimately mass produced and marketed, forming an entire industry.

Today, Maloney said, "We use a lot of different images of Jesus that probably don't even come close to reflecting the Jewish man of the first century."

The explosion of the Christian products industry in recent decades, however, is largely a result of mass marketing to Protestants. The crossover began about 25 years ago with the introduction of silver Jesus fish -- usually seen on the back of cars -- said Jubilation owner Mike Grant, a 24-year veteran of Christian retailing. Since then, new products have emerged regularly to dominate the market.

About five years ago, "What Would Jesus Do" (WWJD) bracelets burst onto the Christian scene. "Millions of them were sold," Grant said. VeggieTales children's videos, which use computer animated talking vegetables to convey moral and religious messages, are the current rage among the younger set.

The popularity of Christian products is by no means confined to any exclusive religious group, and these items are appearing more and more in secular stores like Wal-Mart and Target. National bookstore chains have adopted entire Christian sections to address the niche market.

Hallmark Cards, a secular corporation, has carefully eyed the business potential in developing religiously-themed products. "We started trying some [religious] cards in our regular line, and they sold very, very well," said Hallmark's Rachel Bolton. "And so then we started thinking, maybe we're on to something here." The company now offers 1,300 religious card designs.

Environmentalists are the latest group to tap into God's marketing potential. What Would Jesus Drive? -- a campaign and call to action against oversized gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs -- was recently unveiled by a coalition of religious and environmental groups that believe "[Jesus] wants us to travel in ways that reduce pollution and consumption of gasoline."

"A total worship experience"

Many view the frivolous side of Christian retail as a harmless indulgence, or at worst an attempt to sanctify conspicuous consumption.

In addition to retail stores, a plethora of Web sites offer everything from "Leap for the Lord" potato sacks to "iWORSHIP," a multimedia adoration kit that includes CDs, DVDs and songbooks offering users "a total worship experience." According to its manufacturer, Integrity Music, the kit will provide "all the resources you'll ever need to bring worship to life."

Bibleman, a plastic action figure, offers a choice for parents seeking an alternative to traditional fighting figurines like G.I. Joe. But Bibleman is no sissy: he comes equipped with the Sword of the Spirit, the Breastplate of Righteousness, and the Helmet of Salvation. His most powerful weapon -- a half-inch tall plastic Bible -- is included in the $12.99 price.

Bibleman Halloween costumes, featuring AA-battery-powered plastic swords, are available in the fall.

Shoppers are sometimes forced to pay a premium for the Christian emphasis. Bible Quiz Pops, for example, have bible-based trivia questions on the wrapper, and cost $35.35 for 101 lollipops at the Christian Expressions Superstore. (By comparison, plain old Tootsie Pops cost just $12 for 100.)

Christian clothing is another growing product category. Designs feature name-brand logos that have been altered to convey a religious message.

A sweater with an Abercrombie & Fitch twist appears to have an identical graphic across the chest, but the doctored words read "Abreadcrumb and Fish: He Still Works Miracles."

"No Fear" has been morphed into "Know Jesus." An orange and black Harley Davidson badge sewed onto a baseball cap announces that the wearer is "Heaven Bound."

An eye-catching silk-screened T-shirt depicts the rugged Marlboro Man questioning his cowboy companion at sunset: "What about your soul, Bob?" The cigarette warning label reads: "Hell is bad for your health. This is one smoking section you want to avoid."

In the book department, Christian retailers have long since branched out from Bibles and hymnbooks. Novels, bible-based self-help books and children's literature have flooded the market.

The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is the quintessential example. These Tom-Clancy-meets-the-Apocalypse novels are based on the conviction that Christ's Second Coming could happen at any moment.

So far, 36 million copies have been sold in 21 different languages, and the latest four books have all topped The New York Times bestseller list. LaHaye, a retired preacher, just landed a $42 million deal with Bantam books for a new Christian fiction series.

The title Left Behind refers to the "Rapture," an interpretation of Biblical prophecy (1 Thess. 4:16-17 and Rev. 3:10) where Christ's chosen people will instantly vanish from the earth and be transported to heaven on the day of the Second Coming. Cars will careen off the road and airplanes will drop into the ocean as their pilots are snatched up into the firmament. The unlucky heathens, however, will be "left behind" to experience the unpleasant End Time events described in scriptural writings. This explains the meaning of the bumper sticker: "WARNING: In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned," and it's satirical counterpart, "In case of Rapture, can I have your car?"

The "Left Behind Board Game" is based on LaHaye's Apocalypse novel series. Promotional literature explains that in the game, "correct answers during the pre-rapture section earn redemption tokens, which are of great value once post-rapture play begins."

The Bible's Way to Weight Loss has a more earthly focus. The books, videos and workbooks don't spell out your average diet plan. The package assures clients that this is "a life-changing program with biblical integrity."

If you're having trouble meeting your fitness goals, you might also try the inspirational Praise Walk or Praise Workout with Kim Alexis, available on CD or cassette.

Tuning in to Jesus

Another entire marketing opportunity has been realized in contemporary Christian music, which caters to listeners of all tastes, even those who prefer gangsta rap or electronica over more traditional hymns.

Last year, Christian music posted a strong 13.5 percent growth in sales, while the music industry as a whole suffered a 3 percent decline, according to the Christian Music Trade Association. Christian music now ranks as the sixth most popular category -- behind rock, pop, rap, R&B and country, and ahead of jazz, classical, soundtracks and New Age.

Colorado Springs alone currently has five FM and two AM Christian radio stations.

Tim Taber, President of Christian concert promotion company Transparent Productions, says his business caters to people who are looking for an alternative to the negativity and profanity common to mainstream music.

Last summer, Transparent Productions put on "Fish Fest," a Christian rock music festival in Southern California, the largest event of its type. Taber described Fish Fest as "a little more soccer-momish" than other music festivals. "So in that facet, you know, it's not like a bunch of dirty punk rock kids with tattoos walking around."

Despite its lack of appeal to the traditional rock concert set, the festival did well for the first year, Taber said. Almost 11,000 people showed up.

Prophet or profit?

Selling hope can be a sticky issue, and raises questions over whether such products serve as legitimate tools for spiritual growth or are just a new marketing ploy that exploits Americans' religious desires. Christian retailers rarely agree about the true spiritual value of the products they sell.

Kellee Littrell, for one, is confident that Christian products provide a valid source of hope and inspiration to many Americans.

"Our society is very, very hungry for spirituality," she said. "People come to our store because they know they're going to get a good product that will encourage them, and not bring them down -- that will also bring them closer to God."

Littrell calls it the "garbage in/garbage out" philosophy. Cash registers buzzing in the background, she asks, "If you take garbage into your life, what's going to come out of your life?"

The 31-year-old manages the North Academy branch of Family Christian Stores, one of more than 340 in the U.S., making it the largest for-profit Christian products retail chain. She described the company as a "business and ministry in balance."

For Patrick Walter, manager of Connections Bookstore, the goal is simple: "We want to strengthen Christians and we want to make new believers."

Maybe that's because he's seen it happen. A saleswomen at Connections, he recounted, likes to recommend "Letters from a Skeptic," a spiritual guidance book, because of the way it influenced her. The sales routine is always the same: she opens up the book, points to a particular paragraph and declares, "This is when I gave my life to Christ, page 37."

Not everyone is so optimistic.

"I don't think the products affect their faith," said Mike Grant, owner of Jubilation. "Becoming a better Christian is just between you and God. I don't think a piggy bank that says 'Jesus loves you' is going to make you a better Christian."

"This store is business," he said flatly about his 1,250 square foot storefront, which sells primarily gifts, jewelry and home decorations. "If I want to do something in ministry, I'll do it around the church."

Freedom of religion

Jesus erasers and religious Yo-Yos did not exist when Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth, so it's hard to say how He would judge the Christian products industry. However, in several sections of the Gospel, Jesus' teachings drew a clear line that separated commerce and spirituality.

"No man can serve two masters ...You cannot serve God and mammon (wealth)," Jesus says in Matthew 6:24. The best known example of Jesus' contempt for greed and lucre is found in John 2:13-23, the story of the cleansing of the temple. As the story goes, the Christian lord grew angry when he found people selling animals and changing money in the holy grounds in Jerusalem. He scattered their coins and flipped over the tables set up to do business, then yelled at the merchants, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"

A strict reading of these passages might be interpreted as a condemnation of the pursuit of wealth and profit, but the question remains -- would Jesus condemn the overlap of business and religion in Christian products as he did with the moneychangers in the temple?

For Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church, the answer is no.

"There's no conflict at all in biblical principle with the idea of buying and selling, unless you're selling things to people for their eternal life."

Haggard, a self-described "freedom of religion man," has a pro-business philosophy based on the belief that capitalism helps introduce Christianity in new parts of the world. A large, efficient Christian products industry, he says, has empowered Christians to produce and distribute religious materials to prospective converts.

"The gospel always has traveled through trade routes," Haggard explained. Historically, the Church has grown rapidly in non-Christian countries after commerce traffic picks up. This tendency "is one of the reasons why Osama bin Laden so despises the free trade from the West. It's because with free trade comes Christians."

"It's a soul thirst"

Matt Heard, Senior Pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel, is more wary of Christian products' potential impact. However, he's not surprised that marketers take advantage of what he calls "peoples' hunger for the transcendent."

"It's a soul thirst," Heard said. "Everyone's got it. That's usually how people spend their lives, searching for what's going to quench the thirst. And a lot of time, marketers, some innocently, some not so innocently, capitalize on that."

Pastor Heard's gripe with the Christian products industry lies primarily in the "trinkety" merchandise. He worries that people might "buy a religious trinket thinking they're buying God."

"There are tremendous tools and there are awful trinkets found in a lot of Christian bookstores," he said. "Sadly, a lot of people walk into Christian bookstores and they gravitate toward the trinkets side of the merchandise."

Ultimately, says Heard, it's up to the consumer to distinguish the valuable resources in a Christian store from the insincere moneymakers. "All followers of Jesus should be discerning about the impulses they have to purchase things, if they're wanting to purchase things to fill voids that only God can fill."

According to Sister Peg Maloney of the Catholic Diocese, advertising messages can sometimes be confusing -- and not just when it comes to selling Jesus. Marketers try to pander to the heartfelt needs of society, she noted, and spiritual fulfillment is merely the latest in a long series of collective desires to be usurped.

"In the '50 s and '60s, the advertisers would say, if you just use Comet, you'll have a happy home, and all this kind of stuff. And then in the '60s, it was sort of like the sexual revolution: If you wear this deodorant or drive this car, you're going to get the man or woman of your dreams."

In the '80s and '90s, Maloney continued, marketers targeted "the 'me generation'... [where] if you want to be the independent, authentic person that you are, then you wear Nikes and you climb this mountain."

"Now, we've gotten to a place where we really are advertising for spirituality," shesaid.

"We have perfume called Eternity and Joy, we have cars called Infinity, we have relationships with our Toyotas, and we use priests and nuns in habits to advertise computers and modems and printers."

The result, says Maloney, is a marketing system that exploits people's desire for spiritual fulfillment, both inside and outside the Christian products industry.

"There's a lot of religious language being used to sell things a lot less meaningful than God"


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