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Avoiding mistakes in mission

7 August 2008

Having been critical of the debacle of the former SPCK bookshops in Britain, perhaps I should balance the criticisms by saying something positive. After all, if I’m supposed to be a missiologist and teacher of missiology, I should be able to say what should be done, rather than simply pointing out errors that other people have made.

So in this post I will try to do that, or at least say what I would have done if I had suddenly found myself in the position of controlling 23 Christian bookshops in the UK. After all, I’ve often had a dream of running just one such bookshop — 23 would be beyond my wildest dreams, so it’s doubly sad to see that someone had the opportunity and blew it.

In what follows, I say what I would do. I don’t know whether the Brewer brothers did these things, or didn’t do them, or tried to do them and encountered insuperable obstacles. This is simply a list of some of the things I would do if I found myself in control of 23 Christian bookshops in Britain.

  • Consult with Orthodox bishops with jurisdiction in Britain. This is an elementary thing for any Orthodox Christian engaging in an operation on this kind of scale.
  • Consult with other Orthodox leaders, especially those who are British-born, such as Fr Michael Harper, the dean of the Antiochian Deanery in Britain.
  • Consult with university faculties of theology, theological seminaries and similar institutions, especially those in or near towns where the bookshops are — though much of this should be done by the local managers
  • Ask the above groups for recommendations of a person who could be a local manager, someone who was familiar with local culture, conditions and employment practices.
  • Ask the same groups to suggest people who could be consultants, and eventually members of a local trust, and also to suggest books that they would like to see stocked in the bookshops.
  • Hold a meeting with all the managers of the bookshops, getting them to report on each shop, its profitability, clientele, etc., to plan a strategy and discuss policy.  This would be done with the consultants appointed as described above.

If the bookshops were to be run as an Orthodox mission outreach, then obviously they would need stock a number of Orthodox books, but these should be selected on the advice of local Orthodox leaders, rather than imposed from outside. But for the rest, a lot should be left to the discretion of the local managers, who presumably know the situation, and know what books people want. If a particular shop seems to be losing money, then obviously one would need to find out why, and make a plan to remedy the situation. But instant dismissal of staff by e-mail should not be an option, even if it turns out that there is no alternative to closing the shop.

I would also bear in mind that Orthodox Christians are very much a minority in the UK, and in taking over a chain of bookshops that formerly belonged to another Christian group, I would try to serve the needs of that and other Christian groups where possible, even if the material they want is not Orthodox. Much Christian literature of any sort is simply not available in secular bookshops. By coming to my bookshops they would be exposed to the Orthodox literature sold in them, but I wouldn’t try to force it down their throats.

As for deciding what should not be sold, I would leave that up to the local managers. Obviously one would not expect a Christian bookshop to stock a large quantity of Mills & Boon romance novels, but some fiction could also be included, if there is storage and display space for it.

In the city where I live, Pretoria, there is no bookshop that sells Orthodox Christian books, whether a Christian bookshop or otherwise. The religion section of the secular bookshops is mostly stocked with spiritual westerns, with pink and purple covers and titles in a “script”-type font. They are usually sentimental in the extreme, and altogether wishy washy. Even two or three Orthodox titles would be a huge improvement.

If I were in a position to control 23 bookshops, obviously I would have my own ideas on how they should be run, and would put those ideas forward, but also check them with the local bishops and other church leaders, and with the bookshop managers and staff themselves.

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