Experience and meeting needs make Christian retail ‘more than a bookstore.’

Christian retailers were concerned about too many shades of gray long before E. L. James’ trilogy became an unexpected publishing sensation—in the form of the aging of their core customers and their inability to attract Next Gen shoppers, Millennials, and their following Generation Z-ers.

But while some stores seem to have quietly given up on trying to connect with younger consumers, tacitly admitting that their days in business are probably numbered, others are looking for ways to bridge the generational and cultural divide.

And there is encouragement for them from the church world, which is having its own struggles in reaching Next Gens: Though they comprise 22 percent of the population, Millennials account for just 10 percent of regular churchgoers.

That’s about the same proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds who visit Inspired Christian Storehouse in Windsor, Ontario, though owner Derek Ouellette is working to change that. “It’s important to understand this next generation,” he says, using social media to connect with younger consumers while being wary of coming off as insincere by trying too hard. “I don’t try to be too fancy.”

Learning from the church

This kind of measured approach is just what works for churches that are doing a good job of connecting with Next Gens, found researchers at the Fuller Youth Institute. It’s not about big budgets or bright lights but the basics laid out in the group’s Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Baker Books).

According to authors Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, churches that manage to connect with Next Gens:

  • Have leaders who champion and empower young people
  • Reject negative Next Gen stereotypes and empathize with their unique cultural situation and challenges
  • Emphasize real faith commitment rather than watering down the message
  • Focus on creating a sense of community over just “experience”
  • Prioritize the needs of Next Gens
  • Provide opportunities for them to be part of making a difference in the world.

Though the study focused on churches, Mulder says that there is application for Christian stores. He received a warm reception from retailers at the Munce Group’s Christian Resources Expo last fall when he presented some of the findings and suggested ways they might apply them in their situation.

While that will mean making some changes in practice, it’s more about a new attitude. “There are some deeply held beliefs and attitudes that we as the church or as Christian bookstores need to examine,” he says.

Choosing the right battles

One thing to bear in mind is that bookstores and libraries simply aren’t seen as crucial information centers in the same way that older people viewed them growing up. Next Gens have lived with access to pretty much whatever they want on their smartphone.

Consequently, Christian retailers should be asking, “What can we offer that the internet can’t?” suggests Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at long-time church and cultural trend researchers Barna Group.

Lance Coffman agrees. On taking ownership of Vine & Branches in Lodi, California, in 2015, he decided to “stop trying to compete with Amazon and iTunes; those are battles we could not win.” Instead, he with his wife, Laurie, added a coffee bar, recognizing that “one thing Amazon and other online companies cannot provide is culture and atmosphere.”

That has started to bring new people in. “We had to take a risk to break out of the traditional box and so far is seems to be paying off,” he says. “The word on the street is that we are more than a bookstore.”

Offering meaningful engagement

Just because Next Gens may currently be missing now doesn’t necessarily mean they are gone forever. According to Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, there is evidence that as many as two-thirds of young adults who drop out of church return at some stage.

Indeed, research by small group and children’s ministry publisher Group, which has studied the rise of the “nones” and “dones”—those with no religious affiliation or who have left the church—points to Next Gens being more open to going back to church than Baby Boomers, whose longer negative experiences may have gone deeper.

“You do have the opportunity to engage them in meaningful ways,” affirms Craig Cable, Group’s director of publishing, “but you are going to have to have a different conversation than what you may have had in the past.”

Often Next Gens come back to faith circles because of significant new life stages, like parenthood, which can present an opportunity for stores, believes Callie Grant, president of Graham Blanchard.

Expectant and new parents looking for faith-based resources may well turn to Christian stores because, increasingly, “they are one of the last outposts of Christianity in our culture because it has been excised from every other place,” says Grant.

Plus, while pretty much everything is available somewhere online, discoverability is a challenge. “Christian stores are one of the few places that believers and seekers can go today and get an authentic Christian voice and guidance,” she adds.

From Barna’s work, Stone cautions against getting too optimistic about the possibility of Next Gens returning, though. “They may come back when they get married and have kids, but it’s not something to bank on,” she warns.

Two key reasons she points to: because young people are waiting longer to get married, by the time they reach that potential point of need, they are likely to have been out of the church loop for a decade or more, rather than the briefer four or so years for a typical college-years dropout; and during that time they will probably have established habits and worldviews about how they spend typical churchgoing time, for instance, that might be hard to break.

There is no way of sugar-coating how difficult it will be for Christian retailers and churches to connect with Next Gens, says Stone, believing a reinvention to be critical. That will require asking some hard questions, she adds, such as “do we love the way we have always been doing it, or do we love the people we are serving?”—and that want to serve?

Much as Next Gens are often criticized for being superficial and too image-conscious, thanks to the pressures of social media, in truth they may be more interested in genuine connection than hip surroundings. That is how the Growing Young researchers came to identify “warm is the new cool” as one of the key factors in churches that have connected with Next Gens. They don’t just want smoke machines or louder music but take relationships very seriously, says Mulder.

Such authenticity is key in connecting, believes Ouellette. “In my store I know what we are and who we serve,” he says. “We serve a need—books, a bit of music, movies, gift items, and Bibles—and we try to do that well,” he adds, noting some Christian stores sell surf boards and the like. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not, and I think they see that.”

— Andy Butcher

Find out how to empower young leaders to take on more store responsibility at www.cbaonline.org/youngleaders.
Also see how to adapt customer service for NextGens at www.cbaonline.org/NextGens.
In addition, learn how to create an experience in your store for young parents at www.cbaonline.org/youngparents.