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The Evangelical Endcap: Little Debbies, the Shack, and Thom Rainer

Seth Dunn

“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:13

Have you ever noticed that Little Debbie snack cakes are always on the end of the aisle at the grocery store?  That’s prime space; shoppers see the Little Debbie display even if they walk by the aisle and don’t go down it.  The Little Debbie people pay the grocery store for that space, too.  It’s called an endcap.  The companies that are willing to pay for the best shelf space get to put their products there.  Little Debbies are good.  I’m glad they put them on the endcap.

I learned all about endcaps and other types of retail promotions when I worked in the consumer products division of Georgia Pacific (GP).  For nearly two years it was my job to audit product promotion performance requirements for paper towels, toilet paper, napkins, Dixie cups, and paper plates.  GP paid big money for its product promotions and planned them out months in advance.  People don’t usually think about that when they go the grocery store to buy a roll of Sparkle and some Nutty Bars, but a lot of thought goes into where those products are placed.  People don’t think about that when they go to the Christian Bookstore either…but they have special displays there, too.

I recently read an account by Brad Cummings, the publisher of The Shack.  If you’re not familiar with that book, it’s a novel full of heretical theology that has been strongly condemned by Christian thinkers such as Albert R. Mohler, Matt Slick (of CARM), and Tim Challies. According to Cummings’ account, he received an unsolicited phone call from the “President of LifeWay Christian Bookstores” of the Southern Baptist Convention, not long after sales of The Shack began to take off.  The “President” offered to make The Shack LifeWay’s “Book of the Month”.  Cummings was thrilled to receive the offer until he heard the catch.  Being the “Book of the Month” didn’t come free.  Like the Little Debbie people, he was expected to pay the retailer thousands of dollars for this honor.  He refused to pay.  LifeWay gave in and featured The Shack as its “Book of the Month” for free.

LifeWay doesn’t sell the book anymore.  A company spokeswoman provided the following statement as to why:

“We stopped carrying ‘The Shack’ a few years ago because although it is a work of fiction, the theology presented as integral to the story clearly conflicts with the Bible on many issues, especially in regards to the character and nature of The Trinity.”

So why did LifeWay ever carry The Shack in the first place?  Why did the President of LifeWay Christian Resources, Thom Rainer, who has a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), allow The Shack to become the “Book of the Month” at the official bookstore of the Southern Baptist Convention?  The president of SBTS (Mohler) understood that the shack was heretical, surely Rainer did.  So…why did Rainer’s organization sell it?

Contrasting Rainer’s role as the President of a media organization with the role of a pastor may provide the answer.  Consider the case of Dr. Michael Youssef, who is the pastor of the Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia.  Youssef, who normally preaches verse-by-verse through scripture, stopped an on-going sermon series to preach a sermon specifically polemicizing The Shack and then published a free guide for exposing the thirteen heresies that he identified in The Shack.  During his polemic of The Shack, Youssef stated his primary responsibility as a pastor was to “protect the flock over whom the Lord has placed me as an undershepherd.”  He wanted to protect his people from The Shack.

Youssef’s friend Albert Mohler is charged with educating theologians at SBTS; he wrote a scathing review of the book and repudiated what he saw as “missing discernment” among evangelicals who consumed and promoted the book.

Yet, Thom Rainer, whose website motto is “Growing Healthy Churches Together”, put the book on an end cap at his denominational bookstore.  This is the same Thom Rainer who offers to “mentor” pastors for $249.97 a month.  Thom Rainer, as a practice, makes the job of pastors more difficult.  (He does this for profit, to sell more books…to make more money.)  Then he offers to mentor them for a fee.

Sadly, you can only use a good blog title once.  I’ve already used “Masters of Wares” to describe the hucksterish group that sells the church growth system.  But I will again allude to the words Bob Dylan in relation to Christ merchants like Thom Rainer and them team at LifeWay.

“Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul”

Thom Rainer and LifeWay put spiritual poison on the endcap.  They make life harder for pastors, not easier.  From The Shack to Jesus Calling to the latest nonsense from Beth Moore, LifeWay Christian Resources is a scourge to Christendom and pox upon the Southern Baptist Convention, which owns it.

I hope that it dies and that its death will come soon.

Southern Baptist Pastors should demand that LifeWay and Thom Rainer be taken off of their denomination’s endcap. Thom Rainer should be fired immediately and his leadership team.  Anything else is a failure to exercise the discernment that Albert Mohler claimed was so desperately needed.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.  I do not receive compensation for writing at the Pulpit & Pen nor do I necessarily support any advertiser featured on the site.

**EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article identified Thom Rainer as the “President” to whom Cummings spoke.  Since that time, Pulpit & Pen has communicated with Cummings.  Cummings indicated that it was not Rainer with whom he spoke but another LifeWay executive.  In either case, Rainer bears responsibility for the actions of his executives.  According to its website, LifeWay does not currently employee a “President” of the bookstore division; it is overseen by a Vice President.