Why are so many Americans turning to Christian books?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Maybe it's 9/11. Maybe it's fear over the war in Iraq. Or perhaps Christian books are getting better at answering the spiritual questions of readers.

Whatever the reason, a recent Barna Research Group report that half of all Americans read Christian books and one-third purchase them comes as little surprise to Ken Stephens.

"I think it would really come as a big surprise to secular book buyers or retailers though," said Stephens, president of Broadman & Holman Publishers, the trade book division of LifeWay Christian Resources. "I don't think most general booksellers realize there is such a demand for inspirational products."

In a January 2003 survey, Barna, a marketing research company that studies cultural trends of Christianity, discovered that 51 percent of American teenagers and 48 percent of adults have read at least one Christian book in the past year other than the Bible. What's more, the survey found, one-third of all U.S. adults (35 percent) and teenagers (34 percent) purchased at least one Christian book (other than the Bible) within that same time frame.

The Barna survey compares to a Gallup poll that found 24 percent of Americans were "very likely" to have read books on religion and theology within the last year. In fact, among 13 categories of books, the genre of religion and theology scored third in the Gallup poll, with biographies or books about history ranking first (30 percent) and thriller or suspense novels second (25 percent). Self-improvement books ranked just under religion and theology in the Gallup poll at 23 percent.

"While the percentages in the two polls are different, the overall finding is similar," Stephens said. "Lots of people of buying and reading Christian books."

Stephens said he believes people are interested in books on spirituality because "as humans, we are all by nature spiritual beings."

"We have a desire to nourish and care for the needs of our souls just like we care for our bodies and stimulate our minds. Many books rooted in Christianity help meet the spiritual needs of readers because they point us to an experience with Jesus Christ and God's Word."

Stephens said authentic spirituality is about getting in touch "with the one true God who created us through His initiative and desire for a relationship. Christian books point us toward this authentic relationship."

Not surprisingly, it is Christians, and more specifically Protestant pastors, who are the primary purchasers of Christians books, Barna found.

"Overall, the typical Protestant pastor ranks among the top 10 percent of book buyers in America," the Barna report stated.

Nearly all Protestant pastors (98 percent) purchased at least one book in the last year, and most bought 20 books, four times as many as most adults. One in five (19 percent) purchased about 50 books last year. About 75 percent of those books are ministry-related, Barna reported.

"Ministry-related books for pastors are a huge market for Christian publishers," Stephens said. "But Broadman & Holman goes a step further and publishes books that speak directly to pastors."

For example, he said, "Brothers, We Are Not Professionals" by John Piper "articulates something a lot of pastors have felt, but haven't been in touch with. That's the idea that the pastorate is a spiritual office and you don't execute it well by learning techniques of a secular CEO and applying them to your church."

B&H also is answering the reading and Bible study needs of a teen market, he said, with TruthQuest products and the re-published Chip Hilton Sports 24-book series. The TruthQuest line includes devotional and prayer journals; "Living Out Loud," a book about defending one's faith; "Survival Guide," a workbook to help believers develop a firm foundation in the fundamentals of Christian faith; and "You are Not Your Own" by Jason Perry of the Christian band Plus One, focusing on the importance of a teen's decision to follow Jesus.

The Chip Hilton Sports series for young teens was introduced in 1948 by Clair Bee, a college basketball coach. The books have been refashioned with a contemporary message by Bee's daughter, Cynthia Bee Farley, and her husband, Randall Farley, Stephens said.

"These books are really popular for teen sports lovers, and they are unique in that they offer a spiritual and moral message for young readers who might not be Christians," he said.

In fact, the Barna study revealed that many people not affiliated with Christianity had read at least one Christian book other than the Bible in the last year. That includes one-sixth or 17 percent of atheist/agnostic adults polled, one-fifth or 20 percent of those who don't attend church, one-third or 34 percent of those who don't consider themselves born again, and half or 46 percent of adults associated with a faith other than Christianity.

"One of the things we are trying to do with some of our books is reach out to people who are not Christians," Stephens said. He listed some of those as The New York Times best-selling biography of Payne Stewart, the PGA champion golfer who died in a plane crash in 1999; "Mission Compromised," a novel by Oliver North that was another New York Times best-seller; "Life Lifters" by Zig Ziglar; and "Faith in God and Generals" a companion resource to the major motion picture about the leaders of the Civil War, "Gods and Generals."

The Barna study also revealed, of adults who purchased Christian books in the last year:

--75 percent were evangelicals;

--48 percent were political conservatives;

--47 percent were non-evangelical born-again Christians;

--46 percent were adults who attend church regularly;

--45 percent were African American;

--44 percent were women;

--44 percent had been divorced;

--43 percent were Protestant; and

--32 percent were Catholic.

For the more technologically advanced, Stephens said several B&H books are available for download into Palms and other PDAs. Currently that list includes:

--"Mission Compromised" by Oliver North

--"Jesus the One and Only" and "Praying God's Word" by Beth Moore

--"Experiencing God" and "Spiritual Leadership" by Henry Blackaby

--"TruthQuest: You Are Not Your Own" by Jason Perry

--"What You Need to Know about Islam & Muslims" by George Braswell

--"The Problem of Life with God" by Tommy Nelson

--"Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven" by James Bryan Smith

--"Payne Stewart: The Authorized Biography" by Tracey Stewart

"Broadman & Holman makes every effort to reach people for Christ through the books we publish," Stephens said. "Whether we are introducing non-Christians to Christ or enhancing the knowledge of current Christians, our message is consistent in all that we do -- Jesus Christ has the ability to transform lives."

LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the world's largest publishers of religious materials, producing 180 monthly and quarterly products and more than 210 new undated products annually. Established in Nashville, Tenn., in 1891, LifeWay is engaged in the production and sale of Bibles, church literature, books, music, audio and video recordings and church supplies, as well as Internet services through www.lifeway.com. The company owns and operates 115 LifeWay Christian Stores throughout the United States, as well as two of the largest Christian conference centers in the country. LifeWay is a religious nonprofit organization that receives no funding from the SBC, and reinvests income above operating expenses into mission work and other ministries around the world.

(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TALKING BOOKS.

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