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The “System” of Evangelical Publishing

February 23, 2012

Recently Skye Jethani absolutely knocked it out of the park in a two-part series entitled The Evangelical Industrial Complex and the Rise of the Celebrity Pastor. It’s one of the most poignant reads we here at 3DM have read in the last year. Here’s an excerpt from Part 2, but make sure to read the whole thing by clicking here and interact with the comment field.

Are the publishers evil for focusing on sales potential more than quality? Of course not. They’re businesses that have to sustain themselves. They are simply reacting to the realities of the market. But sometimes they fail to see how they also shape the market by their decisions. And am I saying all megachurch pastors’ books are subpar? Not at all. Some of them are my friends and I’ve deeply appreciated their writings (Dave Gibbons and Tim Keller immediately come to mind.) But we mustn’t be naive–the system is rigged to favor a writer/speaker’s market platform rather than his/her content, maturity, or message.

Yes there are exceptions, but they generally prove the rule. And we’ve all been to ministry conferences where we’ve scratched our heads wondering why that yahoo is on the platform…oh yeah, he’s got a big church and a book to sell, just like the guy before him, and the one before him. It’s a system that rewards sizzle whether or not there’s any steak.

Consider the scale of the evangelical industrial complex that survives by perpetuating this system. The Christian Booksellers Association, representing 1,700 Christian stores, sells $4.63 billion worth of merchandise a year. And that doesn’t count retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Some estimate the total evangelical market to be over $7 billion a year. Evangelicalism is a very, very large business.

And this massive market has grown in conjunction with the rise of megachurches since the 1970s; they rely upon and perpetuate each other. Megachurch leaders offer publishers pre-existing customer bases (their own congregations), and publishers make megachurch pastors into celebrities to perpetuate and expand their bottom lines. As a result, evangelicalism is not a meritocracy where talent, gifting, character, or wisdom result in a broadening influence. It is an aristocracy where simply having a platform entitles you to ever-increasing influence regardless of your talent, gifting, character, or wisdom.

I think there might be some push back on some points, but he’s really hitting on something here, right? Thoughts?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. John Davis permalink
    February 23, 2012 9:45 pm

    Wow! I am anxious to read the rest. An aristocracy, by any name is still an aristocracy, and it would seem that an aristocracy is part of a feudal culture.

  2. Tim permalink
    February 23, 2012 10:25 pm

    I live in northern NJ, a few minutes from Manhattan. I have been privileged to lead church planters all over the US who have planted reproducing discipleship movements within Hindu and Muslim people groups who live here in huge numbers. These planters are frequently vastly talented and long term faithful, yet TOTALLY unknown. Furthermore, I know several pastors who are the North Jersey incarnation of the 50 year old Montana pastor mentioned in the article. Without leaders like them, the evangelical community in this area would be less than the 2-3 % it is currently. People have no idea of the true greatness of some of these people precisely because they serve in the evangelical wasteland of northern NJ. My point is to say that the article points out something that is real. None of the people who serve in the ways I mentioned above feel anything in common with the 7 billion dollar business mentioned in the article because none of these super pastors ever come here! I could go on, but should stop.

  3. February 24, 2012 1:32 am

    I’ve seen the argument more than a few times; evangelical Christianity is a mirror of the culture, rather than counter cultural. I get Skye’s point that the publishing industry of evangelicalism is a business. I get his point that it rewards star power and celebrity, though I would not say what those folks write about is a mere tickling of the ears. Sure, there are plenty of terrible books being sold in Christian bookstores because the author has some pull and star power. There are also quite a few books written with something great to say. And then you have the normal fluff, the passable material that sells books due to star power or something, but certainly not for writing ability. All those are fine points.

    However, what about our responsibility as the consumers of this material? Why rail against how the system works, rather than searching out good books. Why is it our nature to be critical of the system, a system that is highly unlikely to change at all, rather than to simply not conform to it? We can stop shopping at Christian book stores, which in my area tend to have a lot of “souvenirs” with a Christian twist, bad books, and “insert-item-here” with a bible verse on it. I suppose I am starting to wonder what the point of the criticism is. Is it distracting us from more important things? As an Introvert (an INTJ no less) I can spend quite a bit of time critiquing a process, system, movement without actually doing a thing about it. I’m comfortable in critical thought. Writing blog posts to tear down what I see wrong would be terribly easy. But, that’s not going to do anything to further the cause of Christ.

    Like your clever twist on the WW2 propaganda poster says; “Keep Calm and Disciple On.”

  4. Dave K permalink
    February 24, 2012 7:02 am

    A good article – thanks 3dm for publishing it. Agree with comments on Mega-church etc.

    He goes onto to say that we should only read “dead people”. He has a point – but part of our call in “this generation” is to bring the Gospel of Jesus into the current day context – just saying Jesus is Lord and therefore Ceaser isn’t doesn’t cut it on my high street in Kampala. When it comes to context I need help! Keller, Bishop Tom Wright (though not a mega church bloke) etc have really helped me look at Jesus message into our post-modern (especially western) context. There aren’t too many dead writers that can help me in this regard.

    Just reading dead people isn’t the only answer? Or is it?

  5. February 24, 2012 8:39 am

    Dave K, that’s a really good point about contextualising the good news of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this area is an exception to the ‘only read dead people’ rule, which I do like as an idea. I might try it – I read plenty of Christian books, most of them written by people who are definitely alive!

  6. February 24, 2012 2:37 pm

    You’ve identified a tension that is inevitable when the question of authority in the church is up for grabs. Who has authority to speak? What are the criteria? Is large church attendance the only way to value/measure authority? As an entrepreneurial servant (yes I sell resources and books) it’s a tension we live in. The way I resolve the tension is aligning what we sell with our boards core vision, mission and strategic plan. Then it’s not about me. At the same time, the church needs to call it as it is when we come across a snake oil salesman masquerading as a church leader. But as long as American Christians are in love with success rather than faithfulness this won’t change.

  7. tim bergren permalink
    February 24, 2012 10:32 pm

    Two failures in Evangelical publishing: “Weak content backed by strong packaging/marketing” AND “Strong content suffering under weak packaging/marketing” Both are unfortunate AND are far too common.

  8. Todd Elliott permalink
    February 25, 2012 9:40 pm

    I really like Skye Jethani. His book The Divine Commodity was the first that I’d read that was quite articulate in criticizing the state of the evangelical church. He dared to state that the emperor has no clothes. This post follows in much the same admirable fashion. I applaud him.

  9. March 27, 2012 8:06 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Here’s to all the little guys out there laboring faithfully in the harvest field that only God and a handful of the flock see.

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