Adapting to a fast-changing world
Sad news, sad but not unexpected. After nearly 70 years of serving the Christians and their churches of our region the Southport Christian book centre is having to close. We can thank God for its invaluable ministry over the decades. At the heart of their mission statement is the awareness of the importance of Christian books as “essential in our spiritual journey to help us in our walk with our Lord and Saviour.” I first came across their ministry way back in 1974 when as part of my ordination training I was on placement at a church in St Helens. The couple I was staying with were responsible for their church’s very active bookstall suppled by the Southport book shop some 20 miles away. One evening they were visited by the redoubtable Geoff Ellis, the owner of the shop, with a fresh supply of books on a sale or return basis. However, he just didn’t just drop off the parcel and drive back home. Instead he stayed and advised how each book could help particular types of people, which situations each publication could best help. His passion and commitment to Christian literature made a big impact at the outset of my ministry. And so for the next 40 years I was an enthusiastic advocate for Christian books. At regular occasions I would push a certain title, even making a bulk purchase, most recently some 120 copies of Tom Wright’s Lent book. I don’t think there is any substitute for Christian literature; it is part and parcel of our discipleship. Even so-called ‘light reading’ can have a lasting effect; witness the influence over the years of the 1962 classic “the Cross and the Switchblade” by David Wilkerson. We are called to think with the mind of Christ and so there is a definite place for the more intellectual titles. C S Lewis has a special place here, including his children’s masterpiece “the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe.” Most recently Tom Wright (or for the heavier titles, N T Wright) has cornered the market for thoughtful, more scholarly reading. I’ve just finished his superb biography of the apostle Paul (if you read nothing else, read this title) while I continue to wade through his two-volume magisterium “Paul and the faithfulness of God,” which occupies some 9cms on my IKEA bookcase. So what Christian book are you reading at the moment? You could even adopt one for your Lenten discipline, starting next Wednesday. Sadly you will not be able for much longer to browse the Christian bookshop at Southport and ask for their suggestions. Incidentally, Waterstones simply does not fit the bill with their Mind, Body and Spirit section. The closure of the Southport bookshop will leave a hole in the market, but sadly it’s now a much smaller hole than it used to occupy. It’s not just Amazon – although online shopping has to be a huge factor. All this is part and parcel of the death of our town centres, for an important but unrecognised part of the ministry of the bookshop was to have a geographical Christian presence. Again from its mission statement: “We see our work as a ministry on the high street, a place where people can come and browse, enjoy the atmosphere and escape the hustle and bustle of the town centre.” To this end the bookshop diversified into an excellent cake and coffee shop ministry – but clearly this was not sufficient to balance the books. But there are other factors at work as well. It’s just that there are fewer Christians about and our reading habits have changed. I have no evidence for this but I suspect that Christians today do not read as we used to some 70 years ago when Keith Oulton-Lee with support from his father Richard founded the bookshop. My guess is that we read less and what we do read is less challenging. Moreover we read – as you are probably doing at this very moment - more on our tablets and smart phones and less from our bookcase, even if mine does hold 720 cms of reading material. As always the challenge for ministry is when to confront and when to ride the trends in our society. What may have worked for one generation does not mean that it will work for the next. The danger is that our ministries are designed to meet the needs of a previous era – and we wonder why we fail.
Churches as well as individual disciples, are not good at making strategic shifts. Often the Holy Spirit has to start afresh – witness the growth of the house churches in the 1970’s morphing into the new church movement of today. Above all we need the Holy Spirit’s wisdom to know when to persevere against the odds and when to move on, even if it means leaving behind what we have come to cherish. As disciples of Christ we refuse to occupy a niche market – our commission is to go into all the world. So we thank God for the ministry of the Christian bookshops throughout the land, for their commitment to sharing the Gospel and encouraging discipleship. Thank you Cuan and others like you who have invested so much in the ministry of Christian literature. May the Lord affirm you in all you do and have done in his name.