Easter Sunday has been called the Super Bowl of the church calendar, and like the TV audience for the big game, a wide range of people will fill the pews. In addition to the faithful followers will be those drawn by tradition, some more interested in the surrounding hoopla than the actual event, and others there only for the snacks.
A 2013 LifeWay Research survey found 41 percent of Americans planning to attend an Easter worship service that year, with a further 20 percent undecided. Anticipating that at least some of them did turn out for church, overall national attendance would have well outstripped the usual 37 percent weekly rate.
While the seasonal attendance spike has long challenged churches to consider how to maximize their connection with these occasional visitors, it also raises a couple of important questions for Christian retail: how might stores support churches during the Easter high tide, and can they find ways to tap into this larger community that’s apparently open to exploring faith, to some degree?
The first thing to recognize is that the “Chreaster” people who swell church attendance in the spring and at Christmas—the second-highest church turnout of the year—aren’t necessarily nonbelievers or nominal believers. A good chunk of them could be committed Christians who have simply given up on traditional church life for the most part but are open to returning for important moments.
“They’re done with church, but they aren’t done with Easter,” says Craig Cable, director of church publishing and Christian education and discipleship specialist at Group Publishing. According to the company’s research, there are around 30 million “dones,” Christians who have largely given up on church but not their faith.
Cable summarizes them as “still very active in reading their Bibles, and reading Christian books, and in study around growing in their faith—very much in pursuit of understanding and continuing in a relationship with Jesus.”
This profile is backed up by a 2015 segmentation study of the U.S. Christian book consumer by researchers at Nielsen Book, whose Director of New Business Development, Kristen McLean, presented some of the findings during a main session at CBA’s UNITE 2016. “Professing Christians”—those with a loose pick-and-choose approach to church involvement— could be the future of Christian retail, she told attendees.
Although committed Christians with active church lives are the channel’s core customers, they tend to be older—57 percent of them aged 45 and above—while 52 percent of those “professing” believers are between 18 and 44 years old, making them the future.
This younger group is looking for Christian resources: almost one in three says that more than half their reading is “Christian,” and one in five reads their Bible at least five times a week. And, even more encouragingly, some of them are already shopping at Christian retail; they have the second highest engagement with Christian stores of the four buyer groups identified in the Nielsen research.
However, reaching this community “in a way that won’t turn them off” may require a different approach from suppliers and retailers, suggests Jeff Ray, senior director of marketing at Warner Press, where he has organized three national conferences to better understand the new demographic.
“They aren’t abandoning their faith,” he says. “It’s as strong as it has ever been. It’s the way they look at faith that’s a big change for most of us who’ve been in the industry for some time.” A sense of community, rather than necessarily a specific church convection, is a big driver, he notes.
That orientation could present an opportunity for stores, providing an informal meeting space for discussion groups or book clubs, or ministries like Group’s Lifetree Cafe, whose curriculum explores faith-related issues in a low-key environment. However, it may demand a shift in thinking from some retailers.
By way of example, Cable recalls recently visiting a Christian store where he was asked which church he attended. While well-intended, the inquiry could be a turn-off to a “done.”
“If I was a ‘done,’ I’d be faced with this messy explanation of why I left, and maybe left feeling somewhat marginalized as a ‘real’ Christian,” he points out.
A better opening question to ask visitors might be where they find and enjoy community that enriches their faith, suggests Ray. “Go to the local coffee shops and Panera some morning and you’ll see there are collections of small groups of people who may not belong to a church,” he says, “but they’re having faith-based discussions.”
McLean underscores the importance of this community factor: it’s a bigger driver for young consumers than online shopping. Although Amazon and brick-and-mortar retailers are selling the same product, at the same time “they aren’t really selling the same thing,” she explains. “It’s really important to understand the distinction—online retail sells convenience, and community-based retail sells what it says: community.”
With that in mind, “if you can figure out what they want and if you can figure out how to put it in the right place for them, I do think that community-based retail has a really great future.”
But if Christian retail can be a gateway between individuals and the church, it’s one that swings both ways—on those who are leaving and for those who may be open to exploring more about faith, and maybe even congregational involvement.
For non-church attenders, going into one “can be overwhelming,” observes Sue Smith, manager of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and CBA chair. But a bookstore can be a “safe haven” for a seeker, she believes.
“Independent stores particularly have the breadth of offerings for almost any Bible study or discussion,” she says. “Not only having these books, Bibles, and study guides available, but also creating the space for people to relax, study, ask questions, and discuss welcomes them to see Jesus outside of the church walls.”
Getting people into church at Easter may be a harder task than providing more neutral ground somewhere like a bookstore, Smith concedes, but there are ways stores can support local congregations in that effort.
“Easter is a great time for Christian stores to come up alongside the local church to help facilitate an effective community outreach program,” says Doug Knox, senior VP at Tyndale House Publishers. “Many Christian publishers offer inexpensive Bible portions and other books that can be purchased in bulk and distributed by churches to the communities they serve.”
Tyndale examples include The Book of Hope and the classic More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. “Both of these books can be purchased in bulk for a reasonable price, making it possible for churches to distribute them to homes in their community the week before Easter with a card included inviting the family to church Easter Sunday,” he says.
Given that more people might be more open to looking for a church to visit at Easter, stores could provide a list or bulletin board of recommended local houses of worship. “Like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” says Don Pape, publisher at NavPress. “It could be helpful to new people.”
Along those lines, former storeowner John DeSaulniers suggests in a Christian retailers Facebook forum that stores provide information about churches with Lenten readings and programs. “Churches could be invited by stores to have devotional times at the store during Lent and Holy Week,” he adds.
This kind of endorsing could require some stores being a bit more open and inclusive, including recommendations of churches beyond the owners’ and staff’s personal background, although “you’re going to want to be discerning, of course,” Pape says. “Clearly if a church is practicing bad doctrine you wouldn’t want to include it.”
Building on the “Easter guide” idea, stores could connect with churches that have special promotions and programs, asking for copies of any mailings they may be doing, to make available to visitors. That suggestion comes from Jamie Stahler, VP of partnerships at Outreach, whose “The Hope of Easter” program kit is also available to stores and includes a promotional video that could be looped in-store. He also recommends connecting this kind of information with any seasonal displays that might include best-sellers like Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.
Additionally, Stahler urges retailers to be aware of the heightened openness to Easter church attendance that could be stirred in 2017 as a result of the arrival of The Shack in movie theaters. Releasing March 3, the adaptation of William P. Young’s best-selling novel—which will be the focus of a major Outreach campaign involving many churches—is “maybe the best film that I’ve ever seen for engaging with God and understanding His love,” Stahler says. “A lot of people will be touched.”