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Should I read that Christian best-seller?

July 31, 2018 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

Today’s Pulse article is adapted from the February 7th, 2017 Pulse.

“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-- with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

One of my favorite things about my time in seminary was the library. I love to read, so you can imagine my delight at finding a place that housed what seemed like every Christian book ever written. There was even a shelf made up entirely of Max Lucado books!

As much as I loved my seminary library, and as passionate as I am about reading good books, I am more cautious than ever when it comes to the average Christian book store, or Christian book distributor. I think the average Christian assumes that there is a correlation between “best-selling” and “theologically precise,” or “spiritually edifying.” Unfortunately, that is not always the case. We would all be wiser to remember that the publishing industry – even the Christian one – is a business whose goal is to make money. And money is made not when theologically precise or spiritually edifying books are promoted, but when a lot of books are sold – no matter what message they contain.

Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, and someone who worked for both Christianity Today and Leadership Journal in an editorial capacity. In his role, he has had a front-row seat to the Evangelical Christian world. In a 2012 blog post, he coined the phrase “Evangelical Industrial Complex” (borrowing from President Eisenhower’s term “military industrial complex”) to talk about the evangelical publishing and conference world. This self-sustaining complex follows a pattern that looks something like this: 

  • A pastor leads a church to megachurch status
  • Publishers offer the megachurch pastor a book deal, knowing that if only a third of the pastor’s own congregation buys a copy, it’s still a profitable deal
  • The book is published based on what the pastor has learned from growing his church, or a ghost writer is hired to transform the pastor’s sermon notes into a book
  • The publisher then has the preacher speak at a publisher-sponsored ministry conference or event, helping the book become a best-seller and making the publisher a lot of money

What is the result? The same pastors and authors headline all the big conferences, and the rest of the evangelical world comes to believe that numerical growth equals spiritual depth and theological precision. And pastors like Joel Osteen put out essentially the same book every year, repackaged under a different title, and sell millions of copies.

There are exceptions, of course – not every best-selling author is a megachurch pastor, and not every speaker at every conference has a book to sell. But rarely do you find books written by your average, faithful pastor shepherding a congregation of 100. And even more rarely will you find a conference or event headlined by such a person. Once you recognize that Christian publishing – and the Christian conference and event circuit – is just as much if not more of a business then it is a ministry, you can be a little more discerning in what you choose to read or who you choose to listen to, and not blindly believe that fame equals godliness.

So let me encourage you: before you buy the latest and greatest book on prayer, or marriage, or knowing God’s will, check out a list of classic Christian books that have stood the test of time. Today’s best-seller will be forgotten in five years, replaced in the Evangelical Industrial Complex by another book by another megachurch pastor sharing a similar message. But there are many truly anointed and faith-transforming books, some that may be decades or even centuries old, that are more worthy of your attention.

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