Trends in Christian Publishing

Need therapy? This evening I spent some time looking for trends in Christian publishing, guessing book sales could serve as a good litmus test for shifts in Christian focus amongst the Christian community.

So I located a current list of best sellers according to the Christian Booksellers Association and ran it through a text analyser. The results? The top keywords were “love”, “your”, “languages”, “bible”, “God”, “praying”, “power” and “life”.

Interested that “your outweighed “God”, I took a closer look at the titles. Is it just me, or do they seem predominatly focussed on relationship therapy and overcoming anxiety?”

See for yourself. Just looking at the top 10 it seems 7 would fall into one of those two categories. And there’s many more further down the list with titles like “His Needs, Her Needs”, “The Love Dare” and “The Power of a Praying Wife”.

You know what this reminds me of? Well firstly of Christian Smith’s characterization of American religion as “moralistic therapeutic deism”. But secondly, from sociology and missiology, that folk religion is characterized by focus on fear, power and everyday life. Just like this.

Now don’t get me wrong, as a trainee counsellor and married man I’m all for working of marital relationships and empowering couples. I own some of these books myself. And I’m also all for connecting with culture and where people are at. Folk religion has its place. But I’ve got to start asking questions when things start looking unbalanced. I mean, there’s hardly anything on the bible in that list, or on deeper Christian teachings, or even on essential Christian practices other than prayer. Heiburt talked of the flaw of the excluded middle. Have we fallen into the flaw of the excluded heights? Are we really so different from teen witches chasing after love spells?

18 thoughts on “Trends in Christian Publishing

  1. My son works in a secular bookshop, and he tells me that the best-selling books, both religious and secular, are in the “self-help” genre. Authors who want to make money know this, and they keep the market supplied with such books. And among the best-selling self-help books are books telling you how to write self-help books, which are bought by wannabe authors of self-help books.

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  2. Not surprising. Some of the most popular blogs are on how to be popular blogs. In the above list though I was particularly taken by the ‘how to make marriage work’ emphasis.

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  3. I’m going to assume that last statement was a bit of hyperbole on your part, Matt. I can’t imagine people being interested in improving their relationships is quite on the same level as teen witches looking for love spells.
    Of course, my cheeky side also wants to ask just what is WRONG with love spells if you’re single. But then, the kind of magic I do in that arena is far different and more nuanced than the “love spells” most teens chase after. But I digress. 😉
    Back on a more serious note (but still something of a tangent), I’d be curious what your top list of essential Christian practices would look like.

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  4. Te he, caught me out.
    Christian practices … hmm, I think I’d have to have two lists to separate the “top ten” from the “most essential”. Top ten could easily include consuming of Jesus junk, but I doubt I’d want that in my essentials.
    Just off the cuff, essentials could include:
    – devotion to the apostles teaching
    – community / commitment to one another
    – meal sharing / communion
    – prayer
    – healing / exercising gifts
    – giving / living sacrificially
    – worship
    – witnessing
    – baptism / initiation
    I’m drawing from Acts 2:42-47 here.
    Threading through all of this would be the practice of faith, hope and love. For none of these practices mean anything otherwise.
    Thoughts?

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  5. Caught you out? I think your experiences with New Atheists have affected you more than you realize, Matt. 😉 I just hope the effect is merely in terms of word choices rather than how you actually perceive all inquiries. 😉
    I find your list quite rather unsurprising, though interesting. I think there’s a lot there that could be explored in great detail, which is why it’s a shame that there’s an apparent dearth of books on those subjects.
    I notice that Bible study didn’t explicitly make it on your list, though I’m guessing it’s tied in with “devotion to the apostle’s teaching.” (By the way, is the singular intentional?) But it does raise interesting questions as to why you chose that phrase. Do you consider devotion to the apostle’s (?) teaching to involve more than Bible study then? Or are you saying something there about a specific approach to Bible study?
    I’ll also note that more than one of your listed essentials are quite interconnected. For example, I would think the whole idea of living sacrificially to be quite inseparable from community and commitment to one another.

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  6. Interesting post Matt,
    I think I would have a slightly different list to you, it would include:
    Christ centered living
    Prayer
    Spiritual disciplines ( prayer included of course)
    Healing
    Witnessing- with an emphasis on culture and relevance
    Worship
    Biblical Study books- exegesis and commentary
    Church practice- baptism, communion etc

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  7. Essential Christian practices? How about continuing in the the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers; visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, and keeping oneself unspotted from the world?

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  8. Jarred. Oh, or now you’re ribbing me?!
    I agree there’s a lot more to be explored, and I might actually take you up on that. The reason why I did not mention Bible study explicitly is: (a) there are many ways of reading the Bible and “study” is only one of them, (b) devotion involves acting as well as reflecting, (c) devotion also includes preaching, conversing over, and more, and (d) devotion is actually how the Bible itself phrases it.
    Sorry for the typo and yes, many of these are interconnected.

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  9. Sally, yes, not too many differences there. More the way we organise our thoughts than anything substantiative I’d say.
    With spiritual disciplines, things such as lectio divina I’d consider a combo of prayer and devotion to the apostles teaching. Witness as culturally relevant … that’s why I make that important caveat about faith, hope and love. Witnessing is always to be done with gentleness and respect. Christ-centred living, well I wouldn’t list that as a separate practice so much as a descriptor for them all practiced in the spirit of faith, hope and love centred on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Sound fair enough?

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  10. Steve, I’d say I’m covering all that just in different language. Your last one though, keeping oneself unspotted from the world, that raises the whole issue of negative practices, of things we don’t practice as an aspect of practice. I must admit, I have a learning towards emphasizing the former over the latter.

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  11. The different practices I emphasize would be:
    discipleship/carrying on Jesus’ teaching
    mission
    sacraments (communion, baptism, foot washing, etc)
    worship
    community/fellowship (koinonia)
    spiritual disciplines (testing/wrestling Scripture, reconciliation, purity, relationship) Obviously there are some others that I have mentoned already that would fit here no doubt.

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  12. I would add, re-integrating theology back into the lay person discipleship mainstream of the Church as a very important priority for today’s Church.
    Quite important articles appeared recently about this in the March 2010 Christianity Today magazine.
    Surprisingly Graham Tomlin of Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church, where the Alpha Course was born, argues that the church, to its detriment, “has neglected sound theological teaching for the past 200 years”. He continues, “It began when universities began to become secular in the 18th and 19th centuries…Theology was being taught apart from Christian life and separate from the churches, to the impoverishment of both. Seminaries started in reaction to that, to provide Christian alternatives to the secular university. Yet those remain one step removed from real local churches”.
    Tomlin argues for the serious reintroduction of theology into the lay mainstream of local churches not just to raise up the next generation of church worker professionals, but to expose all Christians to the opportunity to the “chance to disagree, debate, and tell stories…experience the reality of God” in relation to their actual day-to-day lived journeys [end bit mine as an interpretation of where he is heading]. In Deep Faith, Christianity Today, March 2010, p.96.
    Yes there is a strong trend toward turning churches into self-help therapeutic centres today. The books referred to above, and their popularity among Christians are quite strong evidence of that.
    That trend is also being reflected through the types of sermons many pastors are now deciding to preach:
    “Many pastors have chucked the [liturgical] calendar, preaching whatever occurs to them, maybe a sermon on sex or something else. They do this to alleviate their own boredom…Abandoning the disciplined way the church marks time…” (Practically Theological, Christianity Today, March 2010, p. 28).
    One reason that so many Christians today are resorting to “alternative therapies” – and by that, I mean those offered by Freudian based psychologies etc – to obtain healing and peace in life, is because the Church isn’t offering them anything better. It is not answering the questions they may have in respect to their meaning in life, giving them adequate spiritual direction, giving them adequate doctrinal and theological `tools’ to use nor the avenues to express their mission in real terms at the cores of where they live out their lives within their local community situations.
    Theology, among other things, is defined as “faith seeking greater understanding” (St Anselm).
    I am certainly not against utilising secular therapies to help people with problems when that is necessary. I do however, believe that if we were tooling Christians doctrinally and theologically from `new birth’ onwards toward maturing them beyond the baby/milk stage during their discipleship formation perhaps then less of them would feel the necessity to resort to “alternative therapies” for better answers to their problems and meaning-making questions in life having not located those answers within the wisdom and knowledge of the faith community of today’s church.
    Like many other Christians I know, I bemoan the lack of theological substance that commonly infects today’s Church.
    “The Gospel deserves to be studied, not just to inspire me for the moment or to cheer me up…We need a thoughtful Christianity” (Palmer), but also one which frees and challenges Christians to think, reflect biblically, to be confident and clear in what they believe, and to own the responsibility for what they do as discipleship praxis.
    Too often when we do train disciples in “theology”, it is not to free them to be able to think for themselves, but merely as clones to the status quo way of thinking i.e. to be almost like doctrinally pre-programmed robots only allowed say what is politically-religiously correct and doctrinally uniform. In other words, dogma programming, not freedom to reflect, question and critique, develop individually and to grow up formationally.
    The stifling of freedom to theologise, to flourish as the spiritually reflective Christians, as part of the curriculum of discipleship has led inevitably I think too many Christians today turning to nourishments from outside the feeding resources of the Church. Hence, I would argue not relying on, not having confidence in, the traditional sources of healing within the Church, but turning more and more to secularised and or quasi religious self-help therapies and therapists: most of whom tend to not acknowledge God adequately or at all as part of the answer, but inevitably seeing how one interprets and utilises one’s self in total as the sole answer to one’s dealing with problems, meaning-making etc.
    So what I am basically arguing here is that perhaps the substantially growing market in self-help books, particularly those marketed to Christians through Christian bookstores today is in some part fed by the dismally inadequate lack of theological-training substance within churches at the lay-community level of their congregations today.
    If people cannot turn to the Church for relevant, intelligently devised, and practical and clear help in seeking answers to their deeper questions about the meaning of life should it be no surprise that they then turn to Oprah, Dr Phil and other therapists with a similar spiritual-veneer slanting as a viable alternative source for answers?
    Sheep, without a good shepherd to nurture, feed and teach them with the right food for their growth and healthy sustenance will inevitably roam toward the domains of wolves.
    In no way am I slamming writers of all self help books here as something evil. There is a legitimate role for them in the overall picture of things therapeutic.
    However, I suspect we would need far less of their works if the Church would only do the feeding and nurturing role it was first called to do in training them adequately theologically as disciples from the beginning in the “practice of all that [Jesus] commanded” (Mt 28:19). That “all” would include helping them to reflect, pray, articulate, question, investigate and theologise freely without oppression about life’s greater questions to do with meaning-making and sense-making to do with their own place and role as disciples and as the people of God within the greater exigencies of the world as they day-to-day journey through life. It includes inviting them to ask hard questions without unduly censoring them for “political/religious” correctness, and genuinely partnering with them to locate adequate theological explanations as people of faith seeking greater understanding of where God fits into the picture, and what God is saying to the “now” of their life situations as potential answers to those questions.
    I also suspect that Christians are turning to self-help therapies more and more because the theodicies employed by their pastor to answer their hard questions about suffering, loss and grief do not offer adequate explanations or viable solutions for them.
    So my overall argument would be that there would be less of a need for the currently massive preponderance of self-help books on the literature market now if from the beginning of someone’s coming into faith, instead of indoctrinating them into fixed-rigid formulas of faith, we encourage and help them to do what I said in my second last paragraph in the hope that they be freed and encouraged to grapple with and journey through their big questions of meaning-making within pastorally supportive partnerships with their leaders and wider faith community at large. Good theology often develops from within the context of healthily honest relationships, as Christians struggle together to find “where God is in it” in terms of “faith seeking greater understanding” about life’s basic and complex issues in life and mission.
    (By the way, rewarded myself with a flex day today due to my birthday – 56 – which is why I was able to write so much in this post. I believe Church needs to return to teaching the catechetical basics after many years of neglect, which in part explains a bias toward that in what I often write. I also believe Christians should be allowed by their churches to freely critique and question as part of their healthy theological formation as disciples).

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  13. Andrew, my Happily-Birthdayed husband, may be having the day off work, but I’m not, so my post is oh-so-much-the-briefer. I am almost finished reading “Eat This Book” by Eugene Peterson (famed for his brainchild, The Message Bible, and a host of other equally eminent publications). I can’t recommend it highly enough! If Christ-followers ate (holistically studied/lived and loved by) the Logos and the Rhema Word, not just the letter of the law or the cherry-picked “uppers” people (and this world) would not experience the catastrophic “downers” by which we all are affected. I love the way he warns “caveat lector” (Reader Beware!). A genuine encounter with The Word requires authentic core-of-being and outwardly actioned response.
    The danger I see is that people can easily rely on self-help publications instead of walking and talking with God (aided by and intrinsically adhesed to the Scriptures). Sure, some publications are excellent and explain or translate what is in the Scriptures for our everyday life application, but not all of them do, so we need wisdom and discernment as much as the desire for a change-for-the-better that such literature offers.

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  14. One of the main reasons that “self-spirituality has become the hallmark of our age” (Peterson, Christ Plays In 10,000 Places, p.243) is because it has been strongly supported by some very popular revivalist preachers during the latter C20th. They have preached “the spirituality of Me…a spirituality of self-centering, self-sufficiency, and self-development”. Peterson refers to them as “the progeny of Narcissus [who] keep showing up in our communities of created and saved souls [who] are so glaringly out-of-place in the context of the biblical revelation that one would think that they would be noticed immediately and banned absolutely. [However] more often they are welcomed and embellished, given roles of leadership and turned into [preacher] celebrities.” (ibid p. 243).
    Such preachers have marketed Christianity as a type of self-help package, written countless self-help books and products from which they have made $US Millions for them-SELVES in the name of Holy Spirit empowered Christianity. Church members have been turned into little else but a major consumer market for the Corporate Preacher-CEO’s self-help goods. And more often than not those self-help goods promise on just about everything, but deliver absolutely nothing but false hopes and disappointments.
    “Holy living is not a self-project…The Christian life is not a self-project…We are a people of God and cannot live holy lives, resurrection lives, as individuals. ..We are not a self-defined community; we are a God-defined community. The love that God pours out for and in us creates a community in which that love is reproduced in our love for one another…We are a people of God and cannot live the Christian life by ourselves” (Peterson, ibid p.244-245).
    Most unfortunately though, it seems that so many of us don’t believe that, which is why we turn so naively to the preachers and prophets of self-help self-actualism spirituality and eagerly grasp at those straws offered by them in prerence to the answers to our questions or needs offered by a more orthodox Christianity.
    Part of it can be explained by the inadequate baseline discipleship approach by churches, which I spoke about in my last post.
    But this can also be partially explained by what Ian Stackouse (The Gospel-Driven Church, 2004, p.220-247) calls “The Lost Art of the Cure of Souls”.
    To cut to the chase, most self-help strategies tend to be based upon corporate strategies, which are designed to entice either increased productivity (by employees) or consumption of products leading to a bottom line of biger profits for the corporation and it’s CEO heading up it. e.g. Benny Hinn is a multi-millionaire from the highly productive movement of his self-help, religious products.
    Stackhouse argues that there has been a discernable shift from the theology of ministry towards the praxis of ministry, to the extent that the practice of ministry has become a theology of ministry…This absence of a theology is precisely why the evangelical-charismatic church has [fallen] prey to the various techniques [e.g. self-help, consumerist market sales] and strategies emananting from the world of management. Without a common philosophy of ministry, church leadership is tanatamount to the running of a successful and efficient organisation” (p.225). And “the focus is almost entriely upon the practical concerns of church management” as a business- and not where it should be – in properly pastorally caring for a community of faith comprised of individuals with highly diverse needs, gifts, views, personalities and at different stages of maturity within their personal and communitarian faith journeys.
    The fact is also that, although some pastors would theologically subscribe to the idea that pastoral care is the responsibility of the whole royal priesthood of believers, whether ordained or not, they don’t exactly build the types of people structures which practically support it within their congregational corporations for “management efficiency reasons”.
    And now to my not so subtly put point. Perhaps their would be far less resorting of the sheep to finding self-help remedies from outside the more orthodox pastoral caring of the church, if the latter took royal priesthood of all believers seriously and actually trained them vocationally enough to pastorally care for one another like Jesus commisioned them to do so in the first place (Mt 28:19).
    If they were trained by their leaders competently so more of this could go on: “pastoral care consists of all the ways a community of faith, under pastoral leadership, intentionally sponsors the awakening, shaping, rectifying, healing, and ongoing growth in vocation of Christian persons and community, under the pressure and power of the in-breaking kingdom of God”, by giving them both the adequate theological and practical resources and freedom to do…Just Maybe there’d be less of a tendency For The Sheep to Wander off toward less orthodox and possibly alternative self-help therapies and answers to their questions on offer by the wider [secular and other religious] bookwriting community.

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  15. Andrew, well the irony is I am studying Christian counselling and in the course there’s been a major emphasis throughout on integrating Christian theology and counselling theory, faithful discipleship with ethical practice. Which leads me to affirm that even where therapy is helpful, theological work is still required if you want to call the therapy Christian in any meaningful way.
    Which is precisely my problem with many of the therapeutic books listed above, particularly given their dominance. It’s their lack of integration, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other. For instance, as much as I have loved the “Five Love Languages” book, I’ve always thought its Christian distinctiveness was pretty thin. That would be fine and dandy if there were more theologically substantiative books in this list, but unfortunately they seem to be thin on the ground too.
    I gather we’d both agree that Alan Hirsch’s ‘action-reflection’ style of discipleship training is well worth exploring. Unfortunately I think we’re into a catch-22 situation now. You said, “If they were trained by their leaders competently …” but what happens when there are no longer adequate number of teachers capable of teaching competently? Blind lead the blind. I think we need to be prepared to go beyond. “Be the change you wish to see” kinda stuff.

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  16. I guess it starts with us putting our own hands up as Christians who have had solid theological and social sciences training (ie. counselling, social work, community) at the degree-d level, worked in those areas for some time at integrating both into our reflection and practice, to come up with developing effective ways to train others. The Forge, Master’s Workshop (1970’s-180’s), Small Boat Big Sea, Hopestreet type forum, training weekends, project development/training/action/reflection/practical outworking implementation/accountability stuff is a good start. Your monthly Q&A debate forums another because they allow for questioning, critique, theological debate, hopefully reflection and missional outworkings.

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  17. Well, in my case it depends what you mean by theological training. I’ve been discipled by some heavyweights but none of it was formal. I can pass on what I’ve learned but my influence is small compared to the mass marketers of this world.

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