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New Zealand Christian Bookshop Closures a Sign of the Times

Nearly half of Manna Christian bookstores are shutting down, leaving some without a Christian bookstore in their town and highlighting concerns of misinformation.
New Zealand Christian Bookshop Closures a Sign of the Times
Image: Illustration by Elizabeth Kaye / Source Images: Unsplash / Pexels

For the last 25 years, Colin Marshall has been able to walk a couple of minutes down the road from his church in Auckland, New Zealand, to pick up Christian books and materials from his local Manna Christian bookstore. But come the end of March, that will no longer be the case.

When he first heard the news about the closure, the minister of St. John Presbyterian Church said he felt “sadness” more than anything else. “It’s a reflection of the economic realities out there, I think as much as anything,” he said.

Bible Society New Zealand, which runs 14 Manna Christian bookstores across the country, has announced that it’s shutting down nearly half of its bookstores—three this month and another three in May. It’s also shutting down its offices in Wellington and said its services would be consolidated at its head office in Auckland by the end of March.

The decisions were made “in response to the dynamic challenges the economic climate presents,” and sustaining retail operations at some of the stores has been “financially challenging for some time,” the ministry stated in a press release.

Rachel Afeaki, the World Evangelical Alliance’s South Pacific regional general secretary and board member for the New Zealand Christian Network, said the bookstores’ departure was a reflection of “the times that we live in.” She said the digital age had a “huge impact” on people wanting to read books, as customers find better deals online and increasingly embrace digital formats.

In her own family, she encourages her four young boys to read for 20 minutes a day but said it was quite a “struggle” because they were so accustomed to screens. Even for herself, Afeaki received three books last Christmas to read, but she laughed that she was still trying to get through one. “But it’s easy enough for me to read off my phone, it’s easy enough for me to listen to an audio[book] or a podcast because I’m moving, I’m on the go, I’m driving.”

Stewarding resources well

Manna Christian Stores began in 1972 with a shop in Invercargill in New Zealand’s South Island with a goal to partner with churches and local communities and provide Bible and Christian resources, according to its website. Growing into 14 stores throughout New Zealand, it ran workshops and conferences to train leaders and equip believers, as well as partnering with mission groups to spread the gospel.

Image: Courtesy of Jessie Chiang / Edits by CT

In 2017, it joined with Bible Society New Zealand to form the Bible Society New Zealand Group, with a goal to “place a Bible in every empty hand to reach and fill empty hearts everywhere,” its website stated.

Last December, Bible Society New Zealand’s chief executive Neels Janse van Rensburg told the Otago Daily Times that the bookstore chain hadn’t been profitable for “some years.” He pointed to an increase in building leases in multiple locations after the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as rising paper prices and international freight costs that make selling books in New Zealand costly.

“We have to be good stewards of what we’ve been entrusted with and if we go on down this path, we are not good stewards,” van Rensburg told the newspaper. “We have to make hard decisions of how to save the whole or end up in a position where you have to close the whole.”

The flagship Invercargill store is one of the stores that will be shutting down.

New challenges of disinformation

The reality facing Bible Society New Zealand is one that Christian ministries all over are grappling with, said Auckland-based Jay Mātenga, head of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Witness department.

“[It’s] one of the things we discovered in missions as we moved increasingly to online instead of hardcopy magazines, as the banks decided no longer to accept checks. … It made it more difficult for people to donate,” Mātenga said. “There’s a whole raft of changes that people are having to get used to.”

This also leads to challenges of disinformation, he noted. In the past, brick-and-mortar establishments primarily controlled access to Christian resources and could ensure that its books were written by pastors, theologians, and church leaders they believed to be theologically sound.

“Now, all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas are floating around,” Mātenga said. “Even pastors are having difficulty in trying to help guide people into a much more robust, well-researched truth.”

The internet and its expanse of information has both empowered Christians to do their own research and opened new avenues of learning. But for those lacking training or experience to discern information well, that freedom can also become a challenge.

“Unfortunately, this plays into the whole elitist types of attitudes. … Those with less education particularly in theology would argue, ‘Well, theologians and Christian leaders are just an elitist group.’” He argued a very strong, robust, and often long training process allows theologians to be able to assess what is helpful or unhelpful for Christlike development.

With this reality in mind, it’s important for churches themselves to have well-stocked libraries for their congregation to use, Mātenga said.

Manna stores will still have a digital presence—Bible Society has said it remains “resolute” in its commitment to serving customers and that Manna’s online shop would continue operating to ensure access to its resources and services.

Finding new owners

Bible Society New Zealand was not available for comment for this article, but in its announcement said the decisions were made after “long and prayerful consideration.”

Mātenga believed the closure of Bible Society’s Wellington-based office was due to sound business practices rather than other reasons such as lack of donations. “I mean, Auckland’s [size] is just so large,” he said, citing access to international transport hubs and the availability of staff. He noted these were his observations as an outsider.

Bible Society said it recognized the “profound impact” the closures would have on its staff affected by the changes and the communities it served and said that it would “carry this responsibility with the utmost empathy and understanding.”

While the digital age brought benefits, there were still lots of people who preferred physical books, said Joel Shoaf, pastor of Bay Baptist Church in Napier, a city on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. One of the stores hit by the closures is the Hastings shop, only about a 20-minute drive from his church.

“We’ve ordered many, many, many books from them … so it’s going to be sad not to be able to do that locally,” said Shoaf.

It’s also the only Christian bookstore in the immediate area for the roughly 160,000 people who live in Napier and Hastings. Fellow Napier pastor Rangi Pou, who leads Potter’s House Church, agreed, noting that other bookstores in Napier sold very little Christian material.

Pou said some church groups in the area run shops that generally stock a couple of Bibles and other books donated by the congregation. “But other than that, I don’t know of anywhere else where you can walk in and just buy Christian books.” The next closest Manna store is in Palmerston North, which is nearly a two-and-a-half hour drive from Napier.

Bible Society asked for offers to buy any of the stores, saying that outside involvement could be “crucial” in preserving the “essence of these community spaces.”

Pou said his congregation was not in a financial position to buy the shop, though there were other larger churches in the area that probably did have the capacity.

“But it’s a financial decision,” Pou said. “No one is going to purchase anything that doesn’t make money. It is a business.”

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