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Soap, figurines, candles keep books company in Christian stores

Mon, 15 Dec 2003 - 6:24 PM CST

Those who haven't visited a Christian bookstore in a while might be surprised at some of the merchandise lining the shelves. Along with the customary Bibles, theologically sound books and inspirational music, shoppers are apt to find scented soaps, sports-themed clocks, gourmet tea and ceramic ducks.

Such gift products now account for 19.2 percent of the sales volume in CBA (formerly Christian Booksellers Association) stores, compared to 14 percent a decade ago. Apparel and other products, such as greeting cards and stationery, that don't fall under book or music categories comprise another 9.1 percent of CBA sales.

The rationale for selling goods besides literature and music is self-preservation, according to Rhonda Sholar, a gift industry consultant in Orange City, Florida. "If a customer is looking for a candle and sees no candle in the Christian store, she'll go to Wal-Mart," she says. "Why give Wal-Mart a sale you could have had?"

Christian stores have expanded their merchandise because secular competitors horned in on their main product: books. Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble and other national chains began stocking such titles as the "Left Behind" series and "The Prayer of Jabez," often at a discount price, when they hit the top of national best-seller lists. Last year, $1.1 billion of the $4.2 billion worth of Christian product sales happened through general retailers, according to CBA, which represents 2,443 retailers.

Nancy Guthrie, spokesperson for the Colorado Springs-based CBA, says the push to broaden product lines began about a decade ago. Because of the increased variety, CBA began using just the acronym in 1996 and dropped its former title.

"The ma and pa store has pushed lines of gift products because they've had to diversify to generate sufficient revenue," says Arlyn R. Pember, national director of Gospel Publishing House, which sells books, curriculum and "Today's Pentecostal Evangel" to churches.

Industry observers say gifts are popular because they fill a niche. "Christian stores are about meeting the needs of their customers," says Guthrie, 41. "Christians like things besides products that have a Bible verse, cross or a dove on them," Sholar says.

While Christian companies are manufacturing Scripture-laden wares from packaged mints to golf balls, many secular companies selling novelty items routinely mix the profound with the profane in an effort to earn profits. En route, it's a short trip crossing the line from humorous to blasphemous. Movie stars such as Pamela Anderson and Ben Affleck wear "Jesus is my Homeboy" T-shirts. A company called Blue Q sells "Wash Away Your Sins" soap for "liars, cheaters and wrongdoers." It claims to be a "miraculous product proven to wash away sin after sin, reducing guilt by 98.9 percent or more." One irreverent online sales site has a nail-throwing "Ninja Messiah" action figure of Jesus Christ sold alongside a host of other religious leaders ranging from the Dalai Lama to Buddha. A company that produces bobble heads of Anna Nicole Smith and Ozzy Osbourne also has a line of Jesus bobble heads, including one playing football.

In a culture increasingly hostile to religion, such merchandise doesn't advance the cause of biblical truth.

"There have been products in the Christian market that really have no business being there," Sholar says. Still, she believes Bible-themed merchandise, along with crosses and angel pins, provides needed encouragement in today's uncertain world.

Overt evangelism is important, according to Bob Siemon, who started his own design company 34 years ago after accepting Jesus as Savior in a jewelry counter discussion with a Christian bookstore owner. After his conversion, Siemon carved the words "Jesus saves" on a sterling silver ring as a conversation starter.

Soon others asked him to make similar jewelry. Today, his Santa Ana, California, firm occupies an 80,000-square-foot facility and has 125 employees. He keeps up with cultural flashpoints, as evidenced by the latest craze, a Ten Commandments bracelet.

This year Siemon also has sold hundreds of thousands of "shield of faith" chains inscribed with Joshua 1:9. He originally intended the jewelry with the admonition about being strong and courageous for soldiers going to Iraq, but it also caught on with families of military personnel, those going through medical crises and people in the throes of spiritual warfare.

"What a piece of jewelry can do in communicating a message is unbelievable," Siemon says. "It can actually change a person's behavior." Five years ago Siemon found success by producing 4 million pieces of pewter "What Would Jesus Do?" products. In response, cheaper WWJD jewelry from Asia flooded U.S. stores. However, Wal-Mart and Kmart pulled the knockoffs after a 2-year-old Tennessee boy contracted lead poisoning by putting one of the necklaces in his mouth.

"Christian merchandise, if done right, helps people share and express their faith," Siemon says. "It gives them hope and reassurance."

Cheryl Stolfo of Brigantine, New Jersey, wants to be the next Phil Vischer, whose VeggieTales became the nation's best-selling children's videos thanks in large part to sales at secular discount chains. Rather than Bob the Tomato, Stolfo sells Pray with Me Mantis. The foot-tall plush green insect sings and prays when pushed in the heart or squeezed in the sneakers. She believes children should learn about God's love from their toys.

"Christian toys are needed because we live in a negative world," says Stolfo, 35. "This toy provokes questions about who God is and what He's about."

After an initial run of Moses, Samson and Noah, Isaac Bros. Bible Bobbleheads now is producing Queen Esther, Daniel in the Lions' Den and John the Baptist.

Company President Dan Foote, 43, of Allen, Texas, got the idea when he attended a professional baseball game in which fans received a free bobble head of a star player. A friend suggested that Foote, who is a cartoonist and children's book author, could create bobble heads of long-gone biblical heroes without worrying about paying royalties or making the likeness match the real person, both concerns with modern-day athletes.

Foote says the figures can help both children and adults renew their faith. He notes, for instance, that business leaders have found the Moses bobble head to be inspirational because the Old Testament patriarch knew what it was like to lead people through tough times.

"We are people who like to have fun, but who take our faith seriously," Foote says. "Our intent is to create an even greater hunger and desire to go to God's Word and learn more about these imperfect people used by a perfect God."

However, Pember, who began working for GPH in 1968, hopes that customers buying Scripture-embossed products, from coffee mugs to neckties, are able to fully understand and defend the verses. "People need to understand the value of learning to support their faith, otherwise there's no real foundation on which to build," says Pember, 61. "Learning needs to go much deeper than something we wear."

Although books still comprise 35.4 percent of CBA stores sales and Bibles make up another 21.2 percent, if trends continue there could be a shrinking availability of ministry tools. Small privately owned stores with limited shelf space are likelier to carry the higher profit stuffed animal toy or Precious Moments figurine than a biography of William Tyndale or Jonathan Edwards.

"If we compromise what we're all about in the process, then there's an erosion of our intended purpose," Pember says.

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