For I am ashamed of the Gospel? Concerns raised as Living Oasis declares plans to “de-Christianise” shop windows

Nationwide Christian Trust puts faith in former Wesley Owen stores

The Bookseller, 08/09/2010: Nationwide Christian Trust puts faith in former Wesley Owen stores

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN RAISED by booksellers responding to Andy Twilley’s comments about plans to “de-Christianise” Living Oasis shop windows, reported yesterday by Victoria Gallagher in the Bookseller, Nationwide Christian Trust puts faith in former Wesley Owen stores:

Revd Andy Twilley, director of Christian Life & Ministry at the Nationwide Christian Trust, said: “The shop window will be a coffee shop, it will be a de-Christianised shop window and there won’t be Christian paraphernalia. We want it to be totally accessible to people, irrespective of faith.”

Responses left on the Bookseller report include questions about whether or not this approach is “selling out” on the idea of a Christian presence on the high street:

What is the point of moving the shops to the High Street if nobody can tell it’s a Christian bookshop!!! It does raise the question of whether this is profit coming before ministry! I will probably get lambasted for this – but why be embarrassed about our faith?

On facebook, Melanie Carroll of Unicorn Tree Books, Lincoln, who stocks both Christian and general books, comments:

Can we not be Christian and open and receptive to all anyway without need or want to make them be like us or for us to be any less than we are? Places of warm hospitality and reception for all and any but that wear our colours plainly and in so doing show how different from others perceptions of us we really are?

That’s what I try with my shop – being Christian is nothing special, it doesnt make me any different to anyone else, all the same things everyone else likes are liked by Christians, done by Christians and by being normal joe it’s easier to come alongside others where they are and in turn reflect the glory of His presence for them to find and embrace at their choice and in His time I think, however it’s also not something I should feel the need to hide or gloss over either because if I do tht what sort of witness is that in the end, what reflection does that case? a question for each to ponder but I do think at the end of the Day they are probably just trying to do the best they can to keep themselves going and that’s a fair thing for them to do – after all if they can’t run at a pofit then they are unlikely to be there for long and the question then is which action is the worst?

Living Oasis: 'Our Vision'

Living Oasis: 'Our Vision'

The Living Oasis vision is:

To provide a Christian presence on our High Streets, connecting with Christians and non Christians, fulfilling a mission objective, and providing a resource for Churches as they seek to impact their local communities.

  • Can such a vision be realised by “de-Christianising” the storefronts?
  • As Christians,  should we seek to be distinctive or to blend in?
  • If mission is the objective, is it right to effectively lure people in with coffee without letting them know they’re entering a Christian mission zone?
  • If you entered a “de-Islamicised” Muslim bookstore only to discover it was a ‘front’ for the local mosques, how would that make you feel?

Where Next?

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29 thoughts on “For I am ashamed of the Gospel? Concerns raised as Living Oasis declares plans to “de-Christianise” shop windows

  1. As a minister I was asked for feedback on my local living oasis. My response was “try thinking like a business”.

    Putting the stuff no one wants in the window (bargain bin in this case) will put them out of business like wesley owen. Then we have no “christian presence” and no place for “resourcing the christians”.

    Nuff said.

  2. Wesley Owen have not gone out of business – there are eight shops left and a website and they do events. But anyway you cannot say that WO hit the problems it did because of the window-dressing. The problems resulted from the fact that the market the books were aimed at – Christians – did not shop in sufficient numbers or spend enough money to keep the shops viable.

    If Living Oasis wants to invite people in without putting them off they are not being ashamed of their faith, they are trying to make sure people are not unnecessarily put off. Can’t we just support them rather than leaping to condemn them?

    • 1. Wesley Owen
      A lot of the Wesley Owen shops were very successful with what they did and built excellent relationships with their local Christian communities, which is why Koorong and CLC have been able to take over almost half the branches between them and keep them going.

      What went wrong was Biblica’s grandiose globalisation strategy and some very bad senior management decisions that led to the collapse of the whole STL UK infrastructure, so let’s not blame either the local Christian communities or the local staff for a failure that was not of their own making. The full impact of the fallout from the Biblica fiasco has yet to be felt as Authentic authors lose their royalties, bookshops don’t receive the credits they were promised on the Paternoster stock left over from the final Engage promotion and publishers/suppliers receive only a fraction of the monies owed. Biblica did a cut and run on the UK Christian book trade under the cover of a bankrupt bankruptcy law that protects debtors and leaves creditors high and dry: that’s what left the Wesley Owen shops in crisis; but who will stand up to a giant like Biblica? Where is David with his slingshot when we need him?

      2. Living Oasis
      Long may Living Oasis thrive! It’s a courageous venture and one that I applaud. But at the same time, I think questions need to be asked about a mission strategy that apparently seeks to hide its face.

      I’m all in favour of dumping the religious tat: it alienates. Go read Tall Skinny Kiwi’s How To Survive a Christian Bookstore: #1 EMBRACING THE FEAR and How to Survive a Christian Bookstore: #2 FINDING YOUR HAPPY PLACE and thank heavens that Living Oasis isn’t going to give us those sorts of bookstore!

      Personally I’ve long favoured a softly-softly approach to evangelism and mission. I did the in-your-face Bible-bashing version back in my teenage years and probably drove away more people than I ever drew in: Lord have mercy and save us from Bible bashers!!

      But surely the answer to nutjob Christianity — the kind of berserker evangelicalism I once belonged to — is not to run away from ourselves, to hide our Christian identity? Is it not rather to seek a more sane and balanced approach — not to “de-Christianise” but to “re-Christianise”, rediscovering our identity in Christ as human beings in a way that identifies with those around us rather than alienates?

      If that is the Living Oasis aim, I’m with them all the way; but going back to my last question above: I know that if I set foot in a “de-Islamicised” Islamic bookstore only to discover it was actually a ‘front’ for local mosques’ recruitment drive, I’d be out of there like a shot — and I fear that’s what “de-Christianising” our supposedly missional presence on the high street might achieve…

  3. I maybe read Andy’s comments a bit differently.

    Firstly, I ALWAYS view ‘quoted’ comments with suspicion- even if the actual ‘bit’ is acccurate, you often don’t see the sentences before and after that give the wider context of what the person actually said. I’m sure even the Bookseller recognises the value of a controversial quote, and aren’t above taking it out of context a bit….?!

    Secondly, I think what is being implied here is walking past the windows & seeing a COFFEE SHOP rather than a CHRISTIAN BOOKSHOP,and I think this has some resonance. It’s perfectly valid marketing to pull people in through the door for a coffee & muffin, and I don’t think anyone should be over-anxious that a shop has to say ‘Christian’ somewhere at the front door to justify it’s existence. And I’m with Andy on the subject of display- ‘we’ are sometimes guilty of ‘Christian paraphernalia’ thrown in a window. It does no-one any good- least of all the merchandise!

    I just hope the coffee shop in the shop window won’t be too south facing – otherwise the customers will be transformed into ‘cookies’….

  4. I agree with all three previous commenters. I don’t really see something to be worried about from Andy’s comments. We know that the shops Living Oasis took over weren’t sustainable the way they were operating, and I wish LO best of success as they try a new model.

  5. The coffee shop needs to appeal to all people regardless of whether or not they are Christians. This will be achieved by the atmosphere and the service that they receive when they enter; a place that is different, welcoming and inviting even if there is no obvious ‘Christian paraphernalia’ as Andrew has aptly put it. I know for those I’ve spoken with about the concept the main concern has been the idea of it looking ‘churchy’ which would immediately put people off.
    Whatever the place looks like I know that God will be present and He will be glorified through it, we just seek to do it justice for Him.

  6. I think Phil Groom makes a fair general statement on faith, but thinking terms of a business and a mission, Living Oasis isn’t out to bring people into the coffee shop and converting them because of what’s on sale.

    Rather, it’s about providing a service to the community. A cafe that offers a bright and welcoming atmosphere for all, whilst having the shop along side to serve the needs of the local church community.

    I think the phrase “de-Christianising” may not have been the best choice of words. It’s not a secret that the shop is Christian, but at the same time it shouldn’t be for the outsider to assume “that’s a café for Christians”. It needs to be accessible, with Christian values being shown by the staff and service as opposed to the window display.

  7. When in 1999 I signed up as a fully fledged christian I decided that I should wear my faith on my sleeve… and on my chest and round my neck and on my feet and even on top of my head. I signed up for all of the christian paraphernalia, T-Shirts socks haircut the lot. To my non-christian friends I was abrasive and not pleasant to be around. As I’ve got older (and hopefully wiser) I’ve discovered that people don’t meet with Jesus because of the way a church looks, or because we can think of a clever slogan but through people and authentically changed hearts and lives. Why would the lack of fish and rainbows stop people meeting with Jesus through the conversations that will happen in a non threatening cafe environment?

  8. When the SPCK Bookshops were in their profitbale era, many of them stocked a mix of secular and Christian books, and window displays tried to reflect this, so that passing customers might be attracted by seeing a Bible or a local history book. Faith is part of the world in which we live, not detached from it so your “selling point”/window display should attract all life, within reason (not advocating hard core porn obviously!).

  9. We run the independent Oasis bookshop in Wisbech in the Fens. Last January we also took away our window display and put in a second coffee table. People are not buying as many books as previously, and many Christians also prefer to order direct from the internet rather than from us. We think that our calling is to be welcoming to all and a listening ear, and we pray for opportunities to share the gospel when appropriate. We started a Friday night drop-in (also late night shopping but hardly anybody comes for that) because we were asked to provide a place where people could come and chat without alcohol. Many folks are lonely and need somebody to listen to them. We also stock non-Christian books and other items because we want as many people as possible to feel welcome in our shop.

  10. To those who wish to de-christianise their appearance for whatever reason, I suggest that RT Kendall’s “Out of the Comfort Zone” is worth reading.
    I agree wholly that not enough Christians are buying enough books – that’s due to a lack of discipling of all ages, and to tghe dumbing down of the Adrian Plass type of literature.
    I buy regularly from CLC and find their staff friendly and knowledgeable. I can think of many bookshops where the dowdiness of the staff, the unprofessionalism of the presentation of materials on sale and the downright unhelpfulness of staff kill the ambience – Christian bookshops are not exempt. Coffee shops and the like depend on high-quality product in a cut throat competitive environment – just ask Starbucks! If the coffee is poor, staff are unfriendly and materials are poorly presented, viability will remain a distant notion and witness a distant ambition.

  11. I take up certain comments on the process through which Wesley Oween passed. The business did go bust – it passed into Administration and parts (not all) were rescued by sale from insolvency. UK insolvency law is not debtor friendly although certain procedures, as in any regime, are open to abuse by the unscrupulous. I do not suggest that this happened in the case of Wesley Owen. I’m a chartered accountant and licensed insolvency practitioner – I have yet to see an insolvency where the creditors were ultimately off the hook, just as I have never seen an insolvency where the debtors were happy either. Failure, whether corporate, personal or otherwise, is a painful and humiliating process.

  12. So, if we hide what we are by not displaying “Christian” products in our windows then we might just get people into the shop who would otherwise not enter?

    I think you can create an image that is ‘accessible’ to all without having to ‘de-christianise’ your entire shop front – you should have plenty of product that has a wide appeal, more so now than ever before.

    Im not sure i can get past the fact that people who do not want to go into a ‘Christian bookshop’ will not want to be in a ‘Christian bookshop’ regardless of what tricks you play on them!

    People who actually do want or need a ‘Christian bookshop’ may not be able to recognise it any longer if we are not careful………

  13. Have just had a helpful chat with Andy Twilley, who assures me that Nationwide Christian Trust / Living Oasis are emphatically not ashamed of the Gospel. The aim is — as several commenters have recognised — to develop the Living Oasis stores in a way that opens them up to all: friendly, accessible and non-threatening.

    My apologies to Andy and any other Living Oasis staff for any misunderstanding or hurt caused by this post: it was not and is not intended as an attack on Living Oasis but is rather intended to stimulate debate about the concept of “de-Christianisation”.

    As I’ve already stated, I applaud what Living Oasis have achieved and are doing: long may it continue, and may they shine brightly as beacons of hope and good news on our high streets!

  14. While I applaud Andy’s desire to “draw in businessmen, families—we want to draw in a whole cross-section” I can see why “de-christianising” has caused some lively debate (which Phil does like to stimulate!). The balance between mission-station and resource-centre is always difficult! I think my main concern centres around N.C.T.’s desire to have “high street locations” – those of us (visionaries?) who argued this case in the past were, quite rightly, rebuked by the business economics of colleagues (realists?) who said it would not be viable. I think there needs to be some clarity about how such ideal locations will be funded – are local churches expected to underwrite them?
    God bless all who are providing a “christian presence” anywhere – high street or back street.

  15. Does being “Accessible” also mean being “de-christianised” (whatever that means).

    “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

    I applaud everyone at NCT for taking this bold step, and keeping so many shops (I hesitate to call them “Christian Bookshops” any more) on the high street.

    However, neither should we try to “hide” our light.

    I certainly think that some window displays, whether Christian or otherwise, leave a lot to be desired. I was recently on holiday, and walked past a Christian bookshop (I shall not mention where) whose window was full of old, irrelevant, faded and brown-paged books, which did nothing to entice anyone into the store.

    However, at the same time, I don’t think it is necessary to hide what you are either.

    At easter, we forgo all stock in one of our windows in favour of a large, empty Cross, draped in a purple robe and with a crown of thorns on it. No more, No less.

    We are still visited, by non-Christians, who come in for Cards, or Willow Tree, none of them have ever mentioned being put off by the overt, blatant Christian iconography.

    I am certain that perhaps, some people will visit Living Oasis stores, who would not otherwise do so, when they see Coffee, not Christen books in the window, however, I wonder how many Christians will also walk past without realising that this is the place where they could get their Christian books, Bibles, music and videos?

    I would love to think that most Christians in the area knew about Wesley Owen walsall, but as i have begun my promotional tour for The Hub, I have realised just how few really did. As Living Oasis move to new, more suitable “coffee shop” locations, away from their known, “Christian Book Shop” ones, I fear that Christian books will become more, and more de-emphasised, as less and less people realise that they are, in fact, also Christian Bookshops.

    Whether or not this is a bad thing I don’t know. I know some very good, very popular, and more important, very profitable Christian owned Coffee Shops. They do very well, and are amazing ministry bases, and do so without the need to sell christian books at all. Perhaps the Christian bookshop really is dead and buried, and Living Oasis has found a way to continue beyond the “books and music” model… perhaps.

    I for one, however, am not ready or willing to concede defeat just yet, and think that, we can be both relevant, open, accessible, and overtly Christian in our model as well.

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  17. Hi,
    I always smile when Christians get up in arms about what other Christians say ie ‘I’m ashamed of the Gospel’comment is very immature and divisive! For long enough people are happy with a wee holy huddle only for christians, in fact most christians are happier to “go online” and buy their christian books, cd’s etc because it is cheaper and don’t go to the shops on the High St which end up closing down because christians moan about lack of parking, high prices and all the rest…shame on you because remember every christian doesn’t have access to a car…or two! Lets face it if you don’t want non-christians coming into christian bookshops then how are you going to reach them, do you think you just sit in church and ‘pray’ them in? well I’ve been a christian over 20 years and churches i’ve been in haven’t succeeded, and that is the general outcome. We are told to go out int Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the eart, are we not?
    I say well done the Living Oasis for the vision they have and they are not ashamed of the gospel but going out and bringing the lost in. Praise God.

    • Thanks for stopping by, J. So what do you make of the idea of “de-Christianising” the shop windows, then? Is that the way forward for Christian retailers: to do away with anything overtly Christian at the storefront? Should churches follow suit and remove crosses from outside the buildings? How does removing any outward sign of our Christian identity equate with “going out and bringing the lost in” — if that’s even what we’re there for?

      As far as I’m aware no one’s getting “up in arms” about this, by the way: just trying to understand what the Living Oasis mission strategy is…

  18. Interesting review at yelp.com of Wesley Owen Manchester from back in December 2009: if this is how the shop already looked to a non-Christian then, does it — do they — need “de-Christianising” any further?

    There I was, wandering round Deansgate, nosing into stores which might sell gifts suitable for my friends and family, when I spotted this lovely little bookshop and café. But as you might notice from the photos (apart from the one I took of the hidden little sign that says ‘Formerly Christian World’), you would not know, as I did not, that this is in fact a religious shop. My first clue was when I flounced in and took in my surroundings. Where were the Clarkson tomes, the Barbara Windsor bios, the crime thrillers, the self-help books? They were absent, well, aside from self-help books – there were plenty of those, albeit with a Christian flavour…

    … But Wesley Owen? Well, I really want to know why they don’t seem more proud of the fact that they are a Christian bookshop. Is it to draw people in? And in that case, why would they feel that their religious status would put people off? I think that’s such a shame if it is indeed the case, because what Wesley Owen reminds me of is not the darker side of religion which myself and my father experienced in our young lives, it reminds me of primary school, when faith was used as a means to teach children to treat one another equally, to explain empathy and to instigate a sense of belonging. You walk into Wesley Owen and no matter your beliefs, you don’t feel like anything is being pushed upon you or shoved down your throat. It’s relaxing, and as I went in there at Christmastime, the music was soothing and traditional, the charity cards on offer were beautiful and of course, it reminded me of the true meaning of Christmas. Every year we forget amongst the piles of Amazon deliveries and the mountain of wrapping paper that this commercialised holiday actually has a spiritual meaning for a lot of people…

    Read the full review

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    • Most Christians I know today agree that the best way to communicate their faith in Christ is through how they live and relate, rather than going round wearing lots of Christian paraphenalia in the hope that that will tell the story. In fact such items very often are barriers to the gospel rather than drawing people to Christ.
      We need to view any Christian high street presence in precisely the same way. We shouldn’t need to be blandly claiming to be a Christian venue, instead the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit should impact those who enter in.
      Do we really think that the average non-christian is going to be enticed in to a blandly Christian coffee shop? No. We must be more subtle and more authentic in what we do and how we do it. Of course we can all think of anecdotes where people have come in because of what they’ve seen in the window, however I believe it is far more beneficial to see a shop heaving with non-christians with whom we then have opportunity to relate to at a personal level.
      I, like St. Paul am passionately committed to becoming “all things to all men for the sake of the Gospel, so that by all possible means we might save some”.
      And as a final thought…instead of criticising the approach and attempts people are making to do this, let’s seek to live out the mandate of St Paul expressed in Philippians 4: 8… and apply it both in our conversations as well as our blogs!

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