Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On the fate of Cokesbury Storefronts

One of the many aspects of the genius of John Wesley was his use of the media.  His theology of "Means of Grace" took the notion of communication with God beyond the traditional sacraments to include the Word in print, in outdoor preaching, and in song, and practices of spiritual discipline.  The Wesley's were the first evangelists in the Anglican tradition to make such ample use of media that the movement itself was for many years sustained by the sales of tracts and songbooks.

How times have changed.

As the world developed new and innovative means of public communication, radio, television, film, and retooled various forms of print media and personal visitation, United Methodists have ceded the media world to more sectarian forms of Christianity, heretical movements, and religious cults.   Embarrassed, perhaps, by the flamboyant television sets and personalities, the political interests and scandals of television evangelists, we have simply withdrawn.  

No longer do we see the Sunday morning television broadcast of worship services at "First UMC" or hear the ongoing radio broadcasts of prominent UMC pastors.   No longer do people hear that knock on the door and see United Methodists waiting to inquire as to their needs or share an invitation to church or an encouraging tract.  Few churches have the practice of opening preaching points and missions in underserved areas.

Little by little, the UMC has abandoned its concern for "reforming the nation, especially the church" and "spreading Scriptural holiness," dismantled its US domestic missionary infrastructure, and withdrawn from being a visible presence and influence in the culture.

This withdrawal is profound.  Evangelistic extension ministries were abandoned in favor of ecumenical/disinterested distribution and advocacy programs.  Campus ministries were closed and moved into local congregations.  Primary and secondary schools were shuttered, and hospitals struggle to hold on to their United Methodist identity against the bottom-line concern for profits.  Urban churches were neglected and abandoned.  Church leaders respond to geographical contraction and church closures by seeking the arbitrary layoff of pastors.

Our use of the Internet is encouraging, yet the Internet no substitute for other forms of media.  Save for the use of "spam" - the Internet is also entirely client based.  Its "servers" provide media content only on demand, leaving it to the client to find and access church related content in a distracting realm of voyeuristic stimulation and social simulation.  Similarly, our churches have "open minds, open hearts, open doors" but the impetus to  experience those blessings is still on the potential client.  The people must seek us.

We use "multi-media" - inside our church services, and can package this into portable churches "in a box."  We have national marketing campaigns, yet those campaigns intentionally express what I have said above - that our churches are client driven, focused on their own character (open minded, friendly), inordinately modest of our Christian identity, most proud of the disinterested work we are doing, and leaving it up to the viewer, hearer, reader, the potential client to take the initiative to show up.  

In light of these trends, it is no surprise that the UM Publishing House has chosen to close all the Cokesbury Retail stores by 2013.  

Cokesbury storefronts suffered the fate of many of our local churches and for many of the same reasons.  

1.  Unintelligible brand.  Cokesbury is the combination of the names of Bishops Coke and Asbury, and the logo features a 19th century circuit rider, personalities known only to Methodists, like the word "Methodist" itself.
2.  Retro Inventory.  What is offered on the shelves reflects the complexion and needs of the UMC itself in terms of theology, ministry, and liturgy, rather than larger cultural trends or needs.  
3.  Introverted marketing.  Like everything from church newsletters to new church starts (where demographics are used to bias site selection to wealthy, white, pro-Methodist areas), Cokesbury offered its wares almost exclusively to those already affiliated with the church.
As Aristotle observed, "nature abhors a vacuum."  Think of all the other "Christian" bookstores in your city, and how many are a meeting place for people of many denominations and perspectives.  Now expand this idea to the secular book store, the coffee house, and you can see the missed opportunity.  Others will most certainly fill this void.

On the way to work the other day, I was waiting at a bus stop when two well dressed adherents of a non Christian sectarian religion approached.  They had a message, they had literature, and more importantly, they had initiative.  Its no surprise that they have a strong presence among our emerging demographic groups. 

While I grieve the closing of Cokesbury Retail Storefronts, what grieves me more is that we have chosen, again, to withdraw from our culture rather than to retool, deploy, try new and unique ideas even though they may fail, and to take initiative and engage people where they are... in the marketplace, outside the church.


  1. This Change.org petition is gathering momentum. Do you mind sharing the link? http://chn.ge/YOrC9L

    Signing may not keep the stores open (although that is the hope). At the very least, signing it shows that some United Methodists aren't prepared to throw out the denominational towel just yet.

    Every Christian read your article. We need to be in the world and not out of it. When one Christian bookstore makes this decision, then other denominations may not be far behind.

  2. No problem sharing this. My prayer is that this closure will open the opportunity for new ideas rather than just be one more withdrawal.