Fifteen minutes before the store opens, the staff of the Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply gathers to pray. They open the small box they keep at the front of the store for customers to leave prayer requests. Some days there are 10. Some days, 15. Today the box is empty.

“We’ll just pray for all the unspoken prayers,” says Heather Trost, owner of the Pueblo, Colorado, bookstore. The staff close their eyes. Some of them are wearing buttons that say, May I pray for you? For a moment, the store is quiet.

Trost has an unspoken prayer. Today, she’d like to sell more Bibles.

It’s been a hard year for the Greatest Gift. Running a Christian bookstore can seem like a business of hard years. It’s no secret the whole industry is struggling.

In the last two decades, more than 5,200 evangelical bookstores have gone out of business. Trost knows how easily one hard year—a tough Christmas season, an economic downturn, a personal health issue—can be the last.

The Greatest Gift started in 1949, part of a boom of new commercial activity after World War II. The evangelical book industry flourished in the 1950s, organized by a new group called the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) to serve the growing number of Americans who identified with the Christianity of Billy Graham.

There were about 300 evangelical retail stores in 1950. That grew to about 700 in 1965, about 1,850 in 1975, then more than 3,000 in 1985. By the mid-1990s, there were more than 7,000 such bookstores across the country, and Christian retail was a $3 billion business.

In the midst of those successes, though, there were hints of darker days to come. Walmart and Sam’s Club started selling evangelical books like Left Behind, The Prayer of Jabez, and The Purpose Driven Life. Those became mega-bestsellers, but the big retailers also demanded bigger discounts from publishers, in turn undercutting prices at evangelical bookstores. The big stores also sold fewer titles, so publishers increasingly looked for authors with some celebrity or platform, making it harder for unknown writers to break into the market.

Amazon—then a new internet startup—also started to sell books online in 1995. By 2004, it sold about 20 percent of all books in America, and local booksellers started to feel the pinch. The growth of new evangelical bookstores reached a tipping point in 2007 when more stores closed than opened. The next year, the financial crisis hit, and a wave of stores went out of business.

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Attendance at the CBA’s annual trade show dropped from 15,000 in 1999 to only 5,000 in 2010. The total number of stores dropped to 2,800, and it kept going down. Family Christian, the largest chain of evangelical stores, closed in 2016, shuttering 240 locations. The next largest chain, LifeWay Christian Stores, the retail arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, announced in January 2019 that it would close most of its brick-and-mortar outlets. Two months later, the decision came to close all 170.

Running a ministry as a business

Today, about 1,800 stores like the Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply remain in the country. Earlier this year, some customers idly asked Trost when her store was going out of business. They just assumed it was.

Then there was more bad news for the industry: The trade association itself closed. A new president had taken over the CBA with big plans and money to invest, but in June 2019 he suddenly said it was “beyond fixable” and ended the 69-year-old organization.

Trost was on the CBA board, and she doesn’t know what happened. With a last-ditch effort at industry optimism gone, the despair really hit.

“June, July, and August, those are hard months to get through for every retail store, so that was really scary this year when I got depressed in June,” Trost says. “But we have a stance that we speak life. God’s got us. We don’t have to speak about the bad stuff. God’s got us.”

The evangelical book industry is a business. To survive, it has to make money. To make money, it has to adapt to changing market pressures. The numbers have to work eventually, even when they seem impossible based on years of industry decline.

But the evangelical book industry is also not a business. It’s a ministry. The people involved say they feel called by God to put these books out into the world. With God all things are possible, so they have faith they can make it work—against the odds, despite the market, and undaunted by the numbers.

“I really want to make sure I’m hearing God’s voice and not just looking at the numbers,” Trost says. “Looking at the numbers, we shouldn’t even be here.”

In August, Trost and her husband, Carl, attended the Christian Product Expo in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It’s a new trade show that promoters hope will replace the CBA, but there were only about 800 people there. The first morning, the Trosts heard “industry updates” from a panel of experts on the future of evangelical retail.

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Heather Trost, Christian Bookstore Owner
Image: Stephen Swofford / Courtesy of The Pueblo Chieftain

Heather Trost, Christian Bookstore Owner

Sitting in the back of the hotel conference room, Carl Trost couldn’t think of much that would make him feel optimistic at this point.

“If they said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of money. Do you want it? Here’s $250,000 for the people in the back row,’ I guess that would make me feel better,” he quipped.

Then more seriously, he added, “It’s real hard. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”

The panel of experts mostly agreed. There’s no denying times have changed—and there’s no easy solution to save struggling stores.

“It’s been years since a store owner could just put up a sign and have people come in,” said Becky Gorczyca, the executive director of Logos Bookstores, an association of independent evangelical retailers. “You have a couple of choices. You can give up or you can readjust and renew your vision and decide to serve the believers in your community.”

The other experts offered similar advice. Tom Knight, of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, told retailers to focus on the store environment. “Make your store a special place,” he said. “Make your place a place where people want to come for advice, to spend time. Your store is a special refuge.”

Shawn Everson, the chief commercial officer for Ingram Content Group, a book distributor, said Christian bookstores have to accept that Amazon will beat them on price and offer something else: events, community, and curated content.

Industry leaders envision Christian bookstores that are able to keep local customers loyal because they provide a personalized experience.

“Big box stores, they don’t have people out there thinking of specific customers, thinking of ‘Sue,’ curating an experience specifically for her,” said Amelia Nizynski, product director for DaySpring, a Christian gifts and home decor company owned by Hallmark.

This vision for independent Christian stores isn’t that different from what experts were suggesting in 2008, before the worst declines.

No one at the conference said it out loud, but the advice came with a whiff of foreboding. This could work, the experts seemed to tell the evangelical retailers. But it might not. You might be doomed.

Promote thyself

As online sales threaten their bottom lines, booksellers are also being told that an internet presence is crucial for their future. Marketing strategists are encouraging them to record videos on their phones and post them to Facebook, to develop a social media following.

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For a lot of the bookstore owners, the emphasis is new and uncomfortable. On another side of the evangelical book industry, though, it’s just part of the business. Take Christian authors, who are competing for fewer bookstore spots and Amazon rankings with the already-famous: reality stars like Chip and Joanna Gaines, the Duck Dynasty crew, and breakout Instagram influencers like Rachel Hollis.

Elizabeth Newsom is publishing her first novel at 21, a young adult romance called Captive and Crowned. A few days before its release, Newsom wakes up in her dorm room at the University of Texas at Tyler to write before class. She’s already at work on her next title. But first, Newsom gets her prayer journal. She dreams of her future, but puts it down in the present tense: I’m a bestselling author. I am a TED talker. I have inspired one person with my novel.

After class, the young author tackles social media. She spends as much time marketing the book as she does writing. Newsom is on Facebook, Instagram, and she has a blog. Plus, she has about 30,000 followers on Wattpad, a social media site for fiction writers.

Lately, Newsom has been focusing on YouTube, her newest outlet, with a few hundred subscribers. “It took me a while to get up the courage,” she says. “But connecting with people is how I sell books.”

Suzanne Kuhn, who owns the author-services company Brookstone Creative Group, is coaching Newsom on marketing. Kuhn says a lot of Christian authors find self-promotion uncomfortable—too much emphasis on building their celebrity, not enough trust in God. For Kuhn, though, building an online following isn’t any different than advertising a church service or planning a revival.

“It’s not about you. If your motivation is devotion to Christ, you’re not going to feel so icky about the marketing stuff,” she says. “If we understand that it’s about Jesus, then we see platform not as a necessary evil, but as a
necessary resource.”

Elizabeth Newsom,  Christian YA Romance Author
Image: Elizabteh Newsom

Elizabeth Newsom, Christian YA Romance Author

It’s a sign of how the business has changed, though. The Christian romance writers of the past certainly spent time connecting with their audiences. But where Janette Oke and Francine Rivers responded to handwritten letters of readers moved by their stories, Newsom feels like she has to become a minor internet celebrity to launch her career. She’s also footing the bill to publish her first novel.

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“Honestly, I’m okay with losing profits on several books,” says Newsom, who has settled on a marketing major to bolster her writing career. “This is what I’m supposed to do. I have side jobs. My parents are helping. Worst-case scenario, I take out a loan. I’m going to use everything I have and everything I can get to push this vision forward.”

This is the reality of the modern market, as she understands it. When she wakes up tomorrow morning, she will be one day closer to publication and to her prayer: I am a successful novelist.

Cutting the losses

Over her summer break, Newsom was also at the expo in Murfreesboro, trying to line up independent Christian stores to carry her YA release. Even just a year ago, Newsom could have imagined her books available at a national chain like LifeWay, which had 23 stores in Texas, where she lives. But those are gone now, or holding closeout sales, leaving authors like her to seek other outlets to sell books.

LifeWay’s books have also ended up in independent stores: hundreds have signed up to carry Bible studies in special LifeWay branded sections. That’s just the beginning of what has to be a new era for LifeWay, a reinvention.

“My greatest fear is we would not accept the reality of this new age,” says Ben Mandrell, the new CEO and president of the Southern Baptist publisher, hired after the decision to close the brick-and-mortar stores.

“We’ve always been good at celebrating the past. There’s something very godly about laying down stacks of stones and remembering what happened back there, but the real goal of LifeWay has to be forward-thinking. We have to live in the future.”

Mandrell left a church he and his wife planted in Denver because he felt called to take this job. He now leaves his Nashville home at 4:30 a.m. wearing workout clothes and heading to the company’s headquarters. He puts on his Spotify playlist of worship music. First up is Steven Curtis Chapman, singing, “My Redeemer is faithful and true.”

Before he took the helm, LifeWay’s stores lost nearly $50 million in five years. The publisher tried a bunch of different plans to turn the losses around, at one point running 40 different tests, experimenting with technology, marketing initiatives, and customer engagement strategies. Nothing seemed to work. The stores just kept losing money.

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According to an official company report, the board became concerned that if trends continued, not a single store would be profitable. The losses could grow so large that they would threaten to bankrupt the entire company. The report said a chain of any size was not sustainable in the modern market. A follow-up question has not yet been answered: If a chain of evangelical retailers can’t make it, will any Christian
bookstores survive?

Mandrell can’t worry about the entire industry. He’s focusing on LifeWay. LifeWay produces well over 100 brands of products, and he thinks the company might be doing too much. In the car listening to worship music, he talks to God: What is it you’ve uniquely wired this ministry to do? Where are we involved in things where other people are better than us and you don’t need us to be doing those things?

He pulls up to the LifeWay building at 5 a.m., a new location the company moved to two years ago. “The 700-plus employees in this building, they know we have to change,” he says. “They feel the burden to become innovative and that’s exciting. The world is changing and we have to change with it.”

Ben Mandrell, President and CEO of  LifeWay Christian Resources
Image: Lifeway Christian Resources

Ben Mandrell, President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources

After he’s done in the LifeWay gym, Mandrell goes to his office. This morning, he spends the first 90 minutes looking at different products LifeWay has created: first a teen devotional, then a study Bible. It’s LifeWay’s Ancient Faith Study Bible, with notes and commentary from the first 400 years of church history. He thinks about how he would have loved this back when he was preaching every week. He doesn’t know what all the changes at LifeWay will look like, but he wants to sell more Bibles like these.

More than 1,000 miles west in Pueblo, Heather Trost is praying that same prayer at the Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply Store.

“The Bible is where everything else in the store comes from,” she says. “If people don’t have the Word of God as their literal daily bread, then we’re doing it wrong, and I think that’s how things get out of whack in our personal lives, in our homes, and in our country.”

A woman walks in the door looking for a Bible. Her daughter is getting married and the couple has decided, instead of a guest book, to have a family Bible. People will highlight important passages and write notes in the margins to encourage the couple when they read
Scripture together.

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Trost sells her a New Living Translation Filament Bible. It has a single column of text, with generous margins for the wedding guests. The Bible pairs with a smartphone app, which provides scholarly notes, interactive maps, and study questions to connect the Bible to daily life.

The woman leaves happy, and Trost’s prayer is answered. It’s the kind of personalized interaction experts believe could keep shoppers coming back to Christian stores.

But the numbers tell a different story. Bibles account for just 15 percent of Trost’s sales today, not enough to make ends meet, especially when competing with Walmart, Costco, Amazon, and now smartphone apps.

“It’s interesting who God calls into this,” she says. “It’s people who are like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work, but I’m going to do it.’ You get comfortable with letting the Holy Spirit take over.”

She knows tomorrow might still be hard, but today she can say, “God’s got us,” and that’s what it means to be in the business of stubborn faith.

Daniel Silliman is news editor of Christianity Today.

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