Selling the Gospel in a Mega-Store Package

A FROTHY hot beverage, a romance novel by a popular evangelical author, and some soft Gospel rock playing in the background.

That's part of the fare that will be served up in Birmingham, Ala., when the first Christian superstore for books opens next month.

Complete with overstuffed chairs, study tables, a large book and music section, and coffee bar, ''Disciples'' is the latest look in Christian retailing.

Sort of a ''born-again'' version of the Barnes & Noble bookstore, it also represents yet another facet of the mainstreaming of Christian-owned businesses. Gospel music, for example, has grown from a small niche to a multibillion dollar industry.

The emergence of large media stores is a new marketing strategy by Christian retailers who say they need to become more savvy in attracting customers. The stores also reflect the growing visibility and financial influence of conservative Protestant religions.

''It's part of an exuberant sense of the legitimacy of conservative religion, which has been going on for the second half of the century,'' says Wesley Kort, a professor of religion at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Indeed, a growing number of small businesses, ranging from law firms and car dealerships to health clubs, are promoting their

Inspirational music, books, overstuffed chairs, and a coffee bar are part of the latest look in Christian to draw Christian consumers.

While some criticize this as capitalizing on Christianity for profit, others claim they're simply finding more effective ways of spreading the word of their Prophet.

''Their motivation is to reach more people for Christ,'' says Rev. William Fore, a visiting professor at the Yale University Divinity School. But he adds somewhat sarcastically, ''It seems very logical to me that given their kind of theology - you throw out as big a net as you can, you buy the biggest shortwave stations ... and if you can set up a cappuccino [machine] and add a few things like that, then that's the way to lead people in.''

Books by the billions

The Christian retail industry has grown from a $1 billion business in 1980 to $3 billion in annual sales today, according to the Christian Booksellers Association, the trade group that represents 3,500 stores.

Many Christian retailers are small mom-and-pop operations that sell a limited amount of merchandise and close at 5 p.m. Unless they modernize their facilities and their products, most will be squeezed out of the market, says Bob Streight, president of the Bob Streight Group, a company that has designed many Christian retailing stores. ''We still have some stores caught in a time warp ... that is fairly representative of what was maybe 20 years ago in their focus and layout,'' he says.

Fueling the emergence of the Christian superstore is the mushrooming growth in merchandise - from books to gifts - that has a Christian theme.

On the publishing side, for instance, the number of titles of Christian fiction has multiplied in recent years. Included in this category are Christian romance novels that have become popular for their messages and their lack of objectionable language or sexual situations. The gift, music, and greeting-card part of the industry have also grown and become more sophisticated, offering a wider variety of items.

Customers, of course, are the ones driving the growth. Ten years ago, only a handful of Christian retail stores had annual sales of $1 million; now more than 100 can boast meeting or exceeding that figure, according to the Christian Booksellers Association in Colorado Springs, Colo.

While 33 percent of people who attend church regularly shop in Christian retail stores, an increasing number of nonchurchgoers are buying merchandise as well, Mr. Streight says.

''People are looking toward a Christian store as a provider of wholesome materials,'' he says.

At Disciples, customers will be able to purchase everything from inspirational artwork at $400 a print to CDs featuring Christian rap.

First in a national chain

The Birmingham superstore, the first of a chain opening nationwide, has a definite idea of its target audience.

''Our best customer, and this is true of the industry, is going to be a married woman, age 25 to 40, who purchases for the family,'' says Ronald D. Jackson, president of Disciples. He adds, however, that the store will court the general public.

''We think that with the extended gift and card area that we'll be able to attract people who would not normally shop at a 'religious' bookstore,'' Mr. Jackson says, adding: ''Bookstores are becoming places for singles to meet because singles are looking for decent places to go. This is not going to be a churchy-type place. This is going to be a good place to come and spend an evening.''

'People are looking toward a Christian store as a provider of wholesome materials.'

- Bob Streight, retail store designer

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