What Would Jesus Sell?

Times Staff Writer

The fake rose petals strewn across the tablecloth gave Milton Hobbs' booth a romantic aura. He stacked crystal-cut perfume flasks in a pyramid and set out pink candles tied with ribbon. The effect was almost sexy -- at least compared with the other booths at the International Christian Retail Show.

Hobbs liked it. He needed a striking display to call attention to his most unusual product.

"Christian perfume," he said. "It's a really, really new genre. We're the first!"

Virtuous Woman perfume comes packaged with a passage from Proverbs. But what makes the floral fragrance distinctly Christian, Hobbs said, is that it's supposed to be a tool for evangelism.

"It should be enticing enough to provoke questions: 'What's that you're wearing?' " Hobbs said. "Then you take that opportunity to speak of your faith. They've opened the door, and now they're going to get it."

More than 400 vendors packed the Colorado Convention Center last week to showcase the latest accessories for the Christian lifestyle. There were acres of the predictable: books, CDs, greeting cards, inspirational artwork, stuffed animals wearing "Jesus Loves You" T-shirts. Many of the newest items, however, put a religious twist on unexpected products -- marketed as a means to reach the unsuspecting and unsaved.

Christian Outdoorsman was taking orders for a camouflage baseball cap with a red cross. In Booth 235, Revelation Products of St. Louis was pitching golf balls and flip-flops. Follow the Son flip-flops have patterned soles that leave the message "Follow Jesus" in the sand.

Gospel Golf Balls are touted as "a great golf ball with a greater purpose." Manufactured by Top-Flite, the golf balls are printed with well-known verses from the Bible, such as John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.... "). Dave Kruse, president of Revelation, said they were meant as "conversation starters," to help men share their faith while teeing up.

An added bonus: Duffers need no longer feel bad about losing a ball in the rough. "If you're playing great, good," Kruse said. "If you're spraying the ball, well ... lose a golf ball, share the gospel."

After years of steady growth, the Christian retail market notched $4.3 billion in sales in 2004, the latest year for which figures are available. Sales of Christian books, in particular, are booming, outpacing most sectors of the publishing industry.

But except for a handful of top-selling books and albums, Christian merchandise is marketed almost exclusively by believers for believers, through Christian stores, trade shows and websites.

There are Christian health clubs, Christian insurance agencies and Christian tree trimmers (who advertise in Christian business directories). There are Christian alternatives for the most unlikely mainstream products: gangsta rap, shoot-'em-up video games, sweatbands, playing cards, scrapbook supplies, children's pajamas.

Even the popular American Girl doll collection -- long a favorite of Christian families because it's so wholesome -- has inspired an overtly Christian knockoff.

A Life of Faith, like American Girl, publishes historical novels featuring spunky girl characters, then turns the heroines into $100 dolls with lavish wardrobes. In the Christian version, the dolls come clutching Bibles; their stories, sprinkled with Scripture, describe how the girls find sustenance in their faith.

"It looks like a bunch of pretty, frilly stuff, but ... it will get those Biblical values deep into the girls' hearts. Our culture is a river of mud, and we don't want girls to be swept up in it," said Sandi Shelton, president of Mission City Press in Franklin, Tenn., which produces the Life of Faith line.

The effect of such products, according to political scientist Alan Wolfe, is to create almost a parallel universe, one that allows Christians to withdraw from the world instead of engaging it as Christ commanded.

"It's as if they're saying the task of bringing people to Jesus is too hard, so let's retreat into a fortress," said Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

"Evangelism is about reaching out and converting the unsaved," Wolfe said. "This is about putting a fence around people who are already saved. It strikes me as if they're giving up."

Over at Booth 266, Michael McCarron has no time to contemplate capitulation.

Wearing a Stars-and-Stripes shirt and a harried look, the owner of Scripture Candy rushed about one afternoon last week filling plates with samples of Christian chocolate for the 9,000 vendors and retailers who visited the five-day trade show. His company, based in Birmingham, Ala., sells an extensive line of candy packaged in little bags printed with Bible verses.

The candy is all top-quality, he said: "You can't put the word of God on something that someone will taste and go 'Blech!' and throw away."

McCarron absolutely believes his sweets can and do save souls. He once received a letter from a man who came across a Bible verse on a packet of candy corn while going through his son's trick-or-treat loot. "The verse touched him, and he decided right there to stop drinking and go back to Christ," McCarron said.

Most merchandise missionaries say they don't expect such miracles. They hope instead that their products will light a spark. When a co-worker helps herself to a fish-shaped mint, maybe she'll remember she hasn't been to church in years. When a hunter sees the crucifix on his buddy's cap, perhaps he'll feel comfortable asking about Jesus.

"It's about picking people up at their level of interest," said Bill Anderson, president of CBA, a national trade organization representing more than 2,000 Christian stores.

The retail show offered Christians plenty of ways to provoke such discussions.

Skintight scoop-neck T-shirts for teenage girls bore slogans that practically begged those not in the know to ask questions. "Wood & nails -- a powerful partnership," one read. On another: "Life without you is not an option."

Would-be evangelists can carry little plastic key chains printed with the slogan "Got Christ?" They can serve their child's birthday cake on a paper tablecloth bearing the message "May God Bless You Today and Always." And for rebels with a cause, Good Newz Temporary Tattooz lets kids stamp their love for "JC" on their arms -- and rub it off the next time they shower.

"I know where you're coming from if you think it looks like we're merchandising or trivializing Christ, but this is a way to connect," said David Lingner, who developed the Christian Outdoorsman line, including a camouflage-print Bible cover.

From his center at Boston College, Wolfe views such products with bemusement. Waiting for someone to remark on your golf ball or perfume, he said, is hardly a forceful way to fulfill the Great Commission, the Biblical command for Christians to spread their faith and anoint disciples. "I think they're fooling themselves," he said.

Sociologist Charles M. Brown is less harsh. "I doubt very seriously whether you have a lot of people converting" after they're exposed to Christian products, "but it is a way of opening doors," said Brown, who teaches at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

In recent years, Brown has interviewed dozens of Christian vendors and retailers; he's concluded that many are motivated not by profit but by a genuine sense of calling. "They really do see what they're doing as a form of ministry," he said.

Though she doesn't doubt the vendors' sincerity, Ellie Cupps was taken aback to see booth after booth of Christian kitsch. She and her husband, Don, had come to the trade show seeking handcrafted gift items for their two Catholic bookstores in Albuquerque, N.M. They had to search for them amid Queen Esther action figures, Christian pirate decals, David and Goliath balloons, Armor of God pajamas and Bible-based cartoon greeting cards.

"It's getting a little bit overboard," Cupps said. "It's faddish. If you can slap Jesus on it, it will sell."

"Or they think it will sell," her husband broke in, shaking his head. "A lot of it is just flash in the pan."

Cupps lingered over an item she found more appropriate: Abaca Angels, made by women in the Philippines from the leaves of a tropical plant. She examined the delicate craftsmanship, then looked up.

"The Scripture Candy," she said, "was kind of neat."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°