If it’s true that successful Christian book-selling requires a business head and a ministry heart, you probably wouldn’t go to Brad Scheelke for advice on the first part of the equation. “We don’t sell enough books to pay for the electricity, hardly,” admits the manager of Oasis Books.
But he has given a lot of books away during the 30-plus years he has served at the evangelistic bookstore deep in Mormon country—its mission, providing “free literature, Bibles, and great discussions to any interested persons”—and learned much about how to use Christian literature effectively in outreach.
Despite being one of the more visible members of the region’s small evangelical Christian population—a profile further raised by his open-air witnessing on the local campus of The Church of Latter Day Saints university in Logan, Utah—Brad’s way of engaging people has earned him the accolade of being “one of the saner souls in a mad, mad world” by a columnist on the LDS-owned Deseret News.
A mechanical engineering graduate who arrived at the store two days after it opened in 1983, Scheelke planned to work for the Community Christian Ministries (CCM) outreach center only until he was ready to go to the Middle East as a missionary. But “I just fell in love with the people,” he says, finding he could readily identify with Mormons. Their religious teaching and his background as a “super self-righteous agnostic” intersect in the need to understand and experience God’s grace, he believes.
In the three-plus decades he has been in Logan, Scheelke has modeled a patient, gracious witness to the suspicious, the skeptical, and the seeking. Together with two other team members and a few volunteers, he runs the store six days a week and helps lead a small church that meets there on Sundays. Many of the fixtures are on wheels, to allow the space to be rearranged for meetings and occasional concerts.
In its current, fourth location, the 2,600-square-foot nonprofit store draws a lot of visitors to the artsy downtown area. Work by local artists frames the walls by the entrance, with a seating area at the front where people can use the free Wi-Fi and drink free coffee and iced tea. A question of the day on the blackboard behind the checkout aims to encourage conversation.
Oasis Books stays open late for the bi-monthly Downtown Art Walk promoted by local businesses; the store has “a friendly relationship” with LDS bookstores in town. When Halloween brings crowds down to the area each year, Scheelke can hand out up to 1,000 tracts to passers-by.
The whole approach is very easygoing. There’s a small selection of books that address LDS issues, but it’s not in an in-your-face display. In conversations, Scheelke doesn’t focus on the historical differences between Mormonism and Orthodox Christianity, “which is the traditional approach,” he says. “We don’t tell people to stop sinning; we tell them to give up being self-righteous.”
Part of communicating that message involves gently challenging Mormons’ belief in the part their good works play in faith. On campus and at other open-air events, Scheelke will offer passers-by a dollar if they pass a test for being honest—then give it to them when he explains how everyone fails to reach the perfect standard. “The Mormon culture is where nothing is free, everything has strings attached,” he says. “So the Gospel is such a surprise here.”
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Books play an important part in challenging people’s beliefs, Scheelke believes. “Good books help people see the love of God and the seriousness of sin, “ he says. “They can reinforce what the conscience says to a person.”
Given that emphasis, Oasis has a rather unusual inventory. There aren’t many top sellers on the shelves. Instead, the store carries many classics and thoughtful writers like C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. CLC Publications, InterVarsity Press, and Moody Publishers titles are popular.
There are also a number of testimony books recounting how lives were impacted by the Gospel—“people from different walks of life who came to believe that Jesus Christ did all the work for them to be in a right relationship with God”—and a number of CCM-produced pamphlets and books.
The aim is “to build bridges with Mormons not by compromising on content but by having an open heart and welcoming them in,” says Scheelke. “When people come in we don’t treat them like customers but like valuable people we’re really glad to meet for the first time.”
Scheelke makes a point of trying to remember everyone’s name, repeating it and even writing it down. It’s part of “honoring and respecting” people, he says, and it “wins a lot of points” when people return and he knows who they are. “I ask a lot of questions to get them to tell me their point of view before I tell them mine,” he adds. “I find that when they’re asked questions, people are more willing to examine their lives, but they aren’t very willing at all when they’re being told what’s wrong with them.”
The dominant Mormon culture means that it’s not hard to strike up a conversation about religion. “They talk about it in the store, in the bank lines,” says Brad. “It’s small talk, but it’s religious, so it’s easy to test the waters with a question or some personal story or statement and see if the person is interested in more conversation.”
Most Christians “speak somewhat rudely to Mormons,” he observes, “so I want to break down those walls. I ask questions, perhaps about how they became a Mormon, or I’m willing to listen to their stories—most people love to hear themselves speak.” He uses humor and questions to connect with people: “it seems to me Jesus did that.”
While evangelism is a main plank of CCM’s ministry, another is building up the church without emphasizing differences and doctrinal divisions. “So if a book says that to really be a Christian you have to be a part of their group, we’re probably not going to carry it,” he says, “even if it’s a very good book otherwise, because we don’t want to encourage that kind of thinking.”
Christian shoppers make up only a small percentage of Oasis’s visitors—“90 percent of the people claim a Mormon background,” he says—but some go there to support the ministry with their purchases rather than shop online. Some visitors whose lives have been influenced buy multiple copies of books to pass on to their friends.
Scheelke and his colleagues are funded by CCM supporters, while the few book sales they do make—including secular titles they’ll special-order for regulars, and others offered through Oasis’s online Amazon storefront—are supplemented by greeting cards and a small range of gifts. In addition to the local art, the store carries crafts from artists in the area and a range of wind chimes like the one that jangles outside the front door.
Overall, though, it’s slow work without a great deal of visible reward. “It’s been hard, dry ground here,” Scheelke acknowledges. But the store’s consistency is part of its message: he has had people who don’t like his on-campus book table and evangelism—complete with a “Free Books” sign—tell him they respect his faithful presence, up to six hours a day, three days a week, during term time.
“Persuasion doesn’t happen in an instant, generally,” he says. “We try to win people with patience and kindness and respect. We want people to ask how they can be right with God, not which church is true. That’s the Mormon question: which church is true. We think the Christian question is how can a sinner be right with God?”