Mecklenburg store extends church ministry beyond a ‘weekend experience.’

It’s been several years since the tide went out after the first big wave of church bookstores. Many bought into the vision but gave up when they discovered it was harder to realize than they had anticipated. But if Dr. James Emery White has anything to do with it, the water could be rising again soon.

The author of more than 20 books, White, who is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote a post for his Church & Culture blog championing “The Need for Church Bookstores.” In it he encouraged other churches to step into the gap being left by the closure of so many Christian retail outlets.

Reposted earlier this year in the wake of Family Christian Stores’ demise, his appeal for other churches to embrace a bookstore as part of its ministry rings more loudly. Turning his vision into reality at “The Meck,” as it is known—drawing some 12,000 to its three campuses—falls to Alexis Drye, a long-time member of the church and former missionary to Argentina who is the store director.

Much of her work centers on recruiting, training, and supporting the team of around 60 volunteers who operate The Grounds, a combined coffee bar and bookstore near the auditorium on the main campus.

Marking its 25th anniversary this past October, the church has made resources available to members for most of that time. But that focus increased with the addition of the 4,000-square-foot, two-story cafe and store a few years ago.

Family Focus

The name a play on its emphasis on coffee and grounding people in their faith, The Grounds opens each day with team prayer, and Drye works to foster a sense of family and focus. “We remind them that they’re not just serving coffee or selling books, but they’re doings things that are life-changing for people,” she says. Team building “really helps with longevity,” a common challenge when working with volunteers. “It feels different when you’re going in to serve with a bunch of friends.”

The book and Bible selection is deliberately limited, building on the 500 or so titles White requested be offered when The Grounds first opened. Most first-timers aren’t even aware there’s such a thing as Christian literature, Drye says.

“We’re not trying to draw a Christian crowd looking for the next Beth Moore,” she adds. “Our customer base is people shopping for their first-ever Bible, or they’re just discovering that there’s a book on parenting that uses biblical principles, so we keep our inventory very small for that reason.”

Curating Selection

The Grounds’ selection filters out what church leaders consider to be unhelpful materials; a few new titles are added from time to time, having been approved by someone on staff. “We don’t expect our customers to be able to distinguish which book might be better than another or more solid biblically,” says Drye. “We do all that work for them.”

Not every book is explicitly Christian—some are general market titles on leadership, and the small fiction selection includes the likes of The Lord of the Rings. The bulk of the inventory is tried-and-tested classics, some of which Drye has to work hard to track down because they’re no longer in regular print.

There’s another reason for the narrow selection, too: overload. “If you give people an option of 30 Bibles, they probably won’t pick any,” she notes. “If you give them the option of three, they have a much easier time picking one.”

Also for sale are CDs of White’s messages, a few fair-trade items and some other gifts, and a range of Meck items—hats, shirts, water bottles, tumblers, and more.

Given that The Grounds is intended to be welcoming to the unchurched, it feels more like a coffee bar than a Christian bookstore: “We don’t have any Jesus-y posters, or anything like that.” The signage spotlights how all profits go to Missions 2.0, the church’s various ministry efforts locally and internationally.

“One of the reasons people feel so loyal to The Grounds is that they feel like they’re doing more than just getting a cup of coffee or a book; they can support missions year-round and they don’t even have to get on a plane,” says Drye.

Books and Bibles are displayed near to the coffee service counter, to encourage people to browse while they’re waiting on their orders. Things get switched around regularly because “we try to create a new experience for guests every time they come in, whether that’s display tables or samples or social media contests.”

Promoting Ministry

White and other staff regularly promote The Grounds to members as a valuable part of the church’s ministry. “We don’t want people’s relationship with God to be a weekend experience,” says Drye. “We really want to empower them to be able to feed their own spiritual lives, and to do that we realize we have to equip people to read the Bible and use resources that are going to help them, that show God speaks to every area of their life.”

For many churches, recreating something like The Grounds “would be a large endeavor,” White acknowledged in his post. “But if I can be so bold, many with quick excuses could offer this ministry if they wanted to,” he added. “And it is a ministry.”

See how The Grounds manages volunteers and services at cbaonline.org/TheGroundsApproach.

—Andy Butcher