This speaks to what I have been talking about lately.
It also touches on what I will be talking about in my new article "Has Christian Music Become A Cain Sacrifice?"
As Big Business Cashes in on Christianity, Can They Serve God and Mammon?
By Holly Pivec
You may have noticed something — everywhere, large corporations have started courting the Christian market.
Christian books and music, once sold only in Christian bookstores, can be found at Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club, Borders and Barnes & Noble.
Christian product labels bear secular imprints, like Time Warner, HarperCollins and EMI. And faith-neutral products, like cars and music equipment, are being marketed specifically to Christians. A recent Yamaha music equipment ad in Worship Leader Magazine boasted: “Training a new generation of worship leaders.”
Even Hollywood is now making Christian-themed entertainment, like NBC’s Revelations and Disney’s version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
What’s going on? Has Corporate America found Jesus?
Yes and no.
As the Son of God who died for their sins and rose again … well, no. But they certainly regard him as a Profit. And while they may not accept his message, they do know one thing — right now, it sells.
Americans will spend more than $4.2 billion this year on Christian books, music and other Christian products, according to the Christian Booksellers Association, an association representing Christian suppliers in the United States and 60 nations. This staggering sum — expected to keep rising — hasn’t escaped the notice of large corporations who want a piece of the pie. Many have begun buying Christian companies or have started their own. HarperCollins bought Zondervan, Time Warner bought Word Records, and Random House started its own evangelical press, WaterBrook — just to name a few.
And Christian companies aren’t complaining. Under the ownership of large corporations, they have more resources than ever before to make and distribute their products. Which means they can sell their products through chain stores — and reach more people with the gospel.
Everyone’s happy — the secular corporations who are making more money, the Christian companies who are reaching more people, and the consumers who have better access to Christian products at cheaper prices. But is there a downside?
If Christian publishers, music makers and other Christian product makers are under the control of non-Christian companies, could they be pressured to compromise their message? Has the message already been compromised?
These are important questions for Christian consumers, who depend on Christian companies to make products that represent biblical Christianity.
The person with, perhaps, the best pulse on this issue is, interestingly, one of the most optimistic and the most cautious — Bill Anderson. Anderson is the president and CEO of the Christian Booksellers Association, a member of Biola’s School of Business Advisory Board and a parent of three Biola graduates.
He’s optimistic because he firmly believes God uses Christian products to convey “His truth.”
“Isn’t it wonderful these products are available virtually everywhere?” Anderson said.
Yet he’s cautious. He said, as of yet, secular owners have not pressured Christian companies to change their message. On the contrary, the corporations have actually encouraged the companies to make products with explicit Christian messages. Why?
“As long as the wind is at their backs, they’re not seeking to change the message; they’re applauding it,” Anderson said.
But what if the spiritual climate changes, and the Christian message stops selling?
Anderson believes corporations and their stockholders could start pressuring Christian companies to change their products to “keep paces with the times.” And this makes him uneasy because he believes they have a God-given responsibility to protect the message.
Christian Books: Business, Ministry or Both?
Protecting the message is a weighty job, and Christian publishers shoulder much of it, according to Anderson. That’s because, of all Christian products sold, books and Bibles make up the lion’s share — about an annual $2 billion.
Can Christian publishers stay faithful to the message when they work for secular companies?
Some Christian publishers say they not only can — they have.
Consider Zondervan, one of the largest and most respected evangelical publishers. In 1988, HarperCollins — one of the largest publishers in the world — bought all Zondervan’s stock. Zondervan leadership approved the move since it would bring financial stability to Zondervan.
Biola graduate Stan Gundry ('63), Zondervan's senior vice president and editor in chief, was among the Zondervan leadership interviewed by HarperCollins officers during the events leading up to the purchase. He said HarperCollins assured Zondervan they would never interfere with Zondervan’s publishing philosophy or hiring decisions — a promise HarperCollins has honored.
“They have never tried to impose a publishing decision on us of any kind,” Gundry said. “In fact, they have encouraged us to strengthen our publishing philosophy statement.”
The only major difference is HarperCollins reviews Zondervan’s financial statements, “as they should,” Gundry said. After all, he said, HarperCollins is a business.
Can Gundry guarantee HarperCollins will never tamper with Zondervan’s publishing or hiring decisions?
“No. Theoretically, it could happen because they own us,” he said. “But the likelihood is extremely remote. They realize that, to do so, would likely destroy a valuable asset.”
Plus, New York publishers place high value on freedom of the press, Gundry said, which means they believe Zondervan should publish whatever it wants to.
And what if HarperCollins did tamper with Zondervan’s publishing decisions? There’d be a “mass exodus of Zondervan management,” Gundry said.
Another Christian publisher — Biola graduate Jerry “Chip” MacGregor (’84) — also sees major benefits in corporate ownership. In January, Chip left his job as one of the top Christian literary agents and accepted the position of associate publisher for Time Warner’s division of Christian books, “Warner Faith.” Time Warner, the largest entertainment company in the world, began publishing Christian books in 2000.
“Time Warner books are distributed everywhere. So we’re taking Christian books into places that, a few years ago, wouldn’t have even considered selling them,” MacGregor said.
Time Warner currently has two authors on the New York Times bestseller list, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.
“Both authors have received incredible acceptance by the general market without watering down their message,” MacGregor said.
But some Biola professors are concerned Christian publishers have watered down the message, like theology professor Kevin Lewis. Whether that’s the fault of secular ownership, he doesn’t know. All he knows is, “Christian publishers have a decreased commitment to evangelical, Protestant orthodoxy.”
What’s his evidence? He said, 20 years ago, Christian publishers released books of great theological importance. But, today, he said, reputable publishers are releasing books like Benny Hinn’s Good Morning, Holy Spirit — which, he said, had heretical statements about the Trinity in the first edition. He’s also concerned about books promoting open theism.
What’s more, he said, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association recently admitted the Local Church into their membership, “a group that for years has been declared to be a cult.”
The problem, Lewis said, is Christian publishers have become businesses first, and ministries second.
“You have a person like Benny Hinn who, frankly, is marketable. He’s going to sell millions of copies and make money for the publisher,” he said.
Lewis isn’t alone with his concern. Biola ethics professor Dr. Scott Rae said he’s seen a dumbing down of Christian books. “When I go into my local Christian bookstore, I don’t see a lot of rigorous books that push people to think hard about issues,” he said.
Though Christian publishers do make mistakes, overall they’re doing a good job, said Gundry. Of course, all Christian publishers are tempted to publish Christian “celebrities” simply because they’ll sell, Gundry said. And there are dozens of ways to rationalize such a decision. But Zondervan, he said, tries to only publish books that will make “positive contributions to the Kingdom.”
Gundry also believes publishers are still releasing works of theological depth. He mentioned two of Zondervan’s bestselling authors, Philip Yancey and Joni Eareckson Tada.
“I’m not proud of everything Christian publishers have published, and I do think there is, from time to time, legitimate cause for concern,” he said. “But if a publisher thinks one of its roles is to further the dialogue among Christians about controversial issues, then we have to allow that they will make mistakes.”
Mistakes, he said, that can be made equally by secular-owned publishers and Christian-owned publishers.
Marching to a Different Tune
Another booming industry is contemporary Christian music, to the tune of more than $700 million a year, according to the Gospel Music Association. And secular corporations are cashing in.
Secular corporations own the three largest Christian music companies: Provident Music Group (owned by Sony/BMG), Word Entertainment (owned by Warner Music Group) and EMI Christian Music Group (owned by EMI North America, who also owns Virgin Records).
Have Christian lyrics changed under corporate ownership?
That depends on whom you ask.
“I don’t know of any attempt by mainstream companies to influence the lyrical production whatsoever,” said the president of the Gospel Music Association, John Styll, who also founded CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) Magazine.
Styll said music companies are smart enough to realize their gospel labels need to remain distinct from the rest of the music they produce. After all, he said, they bought a Christian label, not jazz or hip-hop.
“They want the music to be what it is — Christian. They know enough about niche marketing to not mess with that part of the formula,” Styll said.
Jim Van Hook, the CEO of Word and the founder and former CEO of Provident, confirms this.
“In my nine years under Zomba and BMG, not once did they tell me to change the message or who we were,” Van Hook said. “In fact, if we had artists who wanted to be something other than Christian, they frequently were disappointed.”
Meanwhile, the benefits of corporate ownership are huge, according to Styll and Van Hook: Wider distribution, more resources, and more connections for radio play.
But one Christian artist isn’t buying it. Steve Camp left a successful career in the Christian music industry in 1994 because the Christian labels were being sold to secular corporations. Before going independent, Camp released 16 records through top Christian labels like Word, Warner Alliance and Sparrow.
“There’s no question Christian lyrics have weakened,” Camp said. He encourages anyone who doubts this to listen to the top 20 Christian albums. He said they’ll hear “man-centered” lyrics that are sparse on biblical truth and the name of Christ.
Yet, he agrees with Styll and Van Hook about one thing: Corporations haven’t said, “You can’t sing about Jesus anymore.”
They don’t need to, according to Camp.
“What they have said is, ‘We don’t care what you say as long as it sells,’” he said.
And, of course, what sells may not be biblical or honor the Lord, he said.
“There’s a reason Amy Grant no longer sings ‘El Shaddai’ but continues to sing ‘Baby, Baby,’” Camp said.
The bottom line, Camp said, is Christian music labels have become unequally yoked with secular corporations — something Scripture forbids.
“The context of being unequally yoked, in 2 Corinthians 6:14, is the attempt to harness believers and non-believers in a spiritual ministry,” he said. “Paul says this is as ludicrous as trying to find partnership between Jesus Christ and Satan.”
Styll, of the Gospel Music Association, agrees Christians should be careful not to be unequally yoked. And he admits he doesn’t know if the prohibition applies to business, in this sense. After all, the same Paul who forbid being unequally yoked also said he didn’t care about someone’s motives for preaching Christ, as long as He’s being preached (Philippians 1:18).
“We have the mainstream market helping to propel Christian music to places it’s never been able to go before,” Styll said. “And I don’t find that to be a bad thing.”
He also opposes the claim that lyrics have been compromised. Styll said some very explicit Christian songs have crossed over into the general market, like Mercy Me’s “I Can Only Imagine,” a song about heaven.
Besides, it’s a mistake, Styll said, to think all Christian lyrics need to be explicit.
“I personally don’t want every song to be about John 3:16. I like a little lyrical variety myself,” he said. “As long as a song isn’t openly contradicting the Bible, I would not call it a compromise.”
The Gospel According to Hollywood
Even Hollywood has, reluctantly, come around. After refusing to take part in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — which has made about $371 million in U.S. box offices — they’ve realized they can’t afford to ignore the Christian market.
“You’ve had a perfect storm of interest in Christianity created by the Left Behind book series, The Passion of the Christ film and the recent presidential election,” said Craig Detweiler, the head of Biola’s Film/Television/Radio program.
Though Hollywood hasn’t started buying out Christian companies, they have started making more Christian-themed entertainment, from TV dramas to blockbuster movies. If the trend continues, Jesus may soon get a star on the Walk of Fame.
Last season, TV networks aired Christian-themed programming like NBC’s Revelations, CBS’s Joan of Arcadia and ABC’s 20/20 special on the resurrection. Next season’s lineup includes new supernatural dramas and thrillers like NBC’s Book of Daniel and Fox’s Briar & Graves (described as The X-Files goes to church).
Even Disney has jumped on the bandwagon and, Dec. 9, will release the film The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on a book by the beloved Christian author, C.S. Lewis. Disney partnered with Walden Media — a faith-friendly entertainment company who acquired the rights to the book from the C.S. Lewis Estate — after assuring Walden they would be faithful to the book. Then Disney hired a Christian marketing firm, Motive Marketing, to help them promote the film to Christians — the same firm that marketed The Passion of the Christ.
“This is one of the first films where we’ve had a significant and focused ‘Faith and Family Outreach Program,’ where we are marketing specifically to the Christian community because we know we have a huge fan base of the books within that community,” said Rick Dempsey, the senior vice president of Disney Character Voices (and a member of Biola’s Studio Task Force). His department oversees character integrity and is a part of the effort to preserve the integrity of Lewis’ book and characters.
Yet some Christians are skeptical. They wonder how Disney will depict one of the book’s main characters, Aslan, who is an allegory of Christ.
But Dempsey said they needn’t worry: The depiction will be faithful.
“Just like readers of the book, Christians will see Aslan one way,” he said, “while general audiences may likely see Aslan in a different way — as just a great character that people will love and embrace.”
Disney’s campaign includes sending fliers to churches, promoting the film at Christian youth camps and concerts, and making pastors aware of the film so they can promote it to their flocks. Disney is also planning a music CD, inspired by the movie, featuring Christian artists like Steven Curtis Chapman.
Biola graduate Mark Joseph (’90) — who served for four years as a consultant for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Walden Media — said that Hollywood’s growing interest in the Christian market “makes perfect sense” since 84 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, according to the latest Gallup research.
“The real question is why wouldn’t studios have thought of this before?” Joseph said.
But is there a danger that, when Hollywood depicts Christianity, they will get it wrong? Based on Hollywood’s track record, the answer seems obvious.
“The media’s purpose is to entertain, not preach,” Detweiler said. “We can’t expect their products to fall in line with orthodox Christianity.”
But he thinks it’s great Hollywood is addressing issues of faith and spirituality, even if they do get it wrong.
Kevin Lewis, however, thinks false depictions of Christianity do have harmful effects, such as films that depict all Christians as greedy televangelists or weird cult members. He said people form impressions about Christianity based on what they see, without getting all the facts. “So they go into their search for God at a disadvantage,” Lewis said.
But some movies have accurately portrayed spiritual themes, with positive results, he said. For example, when The Exorcist came out in 1973, the culture was blind to the spiritual world.
“The movie, though overstated in some places, was accurate as far as its portrayal of a world with real spiritual evil,” Lewis said. “It caused a worldwide phenomenon where people started thinking about spiritual things, and they started calling churches to find out how they could be protected from evil.”
In cases like this, Christian-themed films have clear benefits, he said.
So, is the corporate interest in Christianity good or bad for the Christian message? It seems, like many things, to be a mixed bag.
“I’m encouraged companies are recognizing there is this faith-dominated segment of the market that is worth their pursuing,” said Rae. “
But he also said: “I would want to be careful that the gospel message isn’t prostituted and make sure the message is accurately portrayed.”
Bill Anderson, of the Christian Booksellers Association, agrees, saying Christian product makers face some “serious challenges” — challenges pastors and others in Christian ministry also face. Do they give people want or what they need? And how do they guard their motives and the message?
He believes Christian consumers also have a duty to guard the message by supporting good Christian products and objecting to unscriptural ones.
So far, Anderson said, Christians haven’t voiced much concern about secular ownership of Christian companies because, as of yet, there haven’t been any downsides.
“But there is a need for a real word of caution and a sobering warning,” he said.
© Biola University 2005