lifeway, power, and the cost of telling the truth.

In 2007, I co-authored a spiritual formation tool for evangelical women called Refresh. It was a pretty cool project for that long ago; the entire book was printed in full color, magazine-style, and centered on 10 stories of real women (most of who were friends) with journaling and reflection questions, small group discussion ideas, and different ways to engage with the topics. The stories weren’t the typical Bible study ones but included abuse, adultery, abortion, eating disorders, perfectionism, fear and anxiety, and more (the cover doesn’t reflect that, but that’s another story about marketing, argh). Although I am now in a completely different place faith-wise, I was happy to be part of an alternative for evangelical women’s Bible studies that addressed life and faith from a much more honest place than what I’d experienced.

Then, when Lifeway Christian Bookstores, the #1 Christian retailer in the world, discovered I was a co-lead pastor, they turned back their big book order and choked the primary distribution channel.  I will always remember the moment when I got the call from the publisher sharing this reality and the punch-in-the-gut-feeling I experienced. The publisher and editor were stunned, too, but Lifeway is their bread and butter and there really wasn’t anything they could do about it.

They live in the reality that Lifeway holds incredible power.

Back then, it was brutal for my soul, but it’s one in a long line of things that have happened to me over the years as a female pastor with evangelical roots.  It hurt, but I moved on and it truly helped me gain some of the strength and call I have to keep advocating for gender equality over all these years.

Fast forward 9 years.

In 2015 I was invited to be part of a collaboration for a new, interactive Bible called The Jesus-Centered Bible. They paid me for my work and I had a good time writing the introductions to Lamentations, Isaiah, Luke, and Colossians.  When Lifeway discovered that Tony Campolo, Paul Young, and I were contributors, they said they wouldn’t sell it.  The publisher moved forward anyway, using different distribution channels. When they shared this with me, I was grateful for their unexpected stand.  Then, earlier this year I got the message that because Lifeway is the #1 retailer for Bibles, they really needed them to get it out there in a wider way (which I do respect, it’s a great project and I want it to flourish) and so they pulled out our 3 contributions and created a special “trade-only” edition that is sold in Lifeway without us (the original version is still on Amazon and other venues).

When this one happened, it didn’t hurt as much. It was a blip on my radar and I was in the midst of some other far-more important things happening in my life as a pastor at The Refuge so I haven’t given it much thought since or shared this story beyond a few people.

But then this week I heard about Jen Hatmaker’s story. She is a brave, strong, wise (and incredibly funny) woman with a huge following who speaks strongly for justice, love, and hope as followers of Jesus in all kinds of ways. I have much respect for her voice and work.  In a recent interview she shared her support for the LGBQT community and for marriage equality.

The next day, Lifeway banned selling all of her books.

The outrage against this move has been beautiful to see on social media. Advocates and allies and truth tellers are standing with her and raising awareness about the power that Lifeway holds and what it points to in the wider structures of conservative evangelical Christianity.

The divide is real.

The costs of telling the truth about our shifting theological convictions are increasing.

The reality of how much power and resource is held by certain groups is revealing.

I am glad things are tipping, that people are speaking up and calling out these unhealthy structures and the power they wield.

And I am also reminded of the cost of telling the truth, of being who we really are, not hiding or pretending. 

There’s always a cost.

Once I performed a same-sex wedding, my invitations to speak at certain conferences and events were instantly gone, the risk too great.

Do you know how many pastors and ministry leaders are at risk right now, if asked a certain question and required to answer it honestly?

How many are in hiding, trying to toe the line but knowing their days are numbered when their true beliefs and support for marriage equality or a host of other theological ideas are called into question?

How many churches teetering on the edge, knowing the day is coming when they are going to be forced to address this issue in their congregations and bear the cost?

I also know so many of you have paid the cost in your own lives, faith, ministries, and families; it makes me cry, thinking of it.

You’ve courageously come out and been honest about your sexuality. 

You’ve told your truth and stood with your LGBQT friends in a circle of people who disagree with your views. 

You’ve supported your LGBQT family members when your pastors and leaders and church friends told you to “speak the truth in love to them.” 

You’ve shared honestly on Facebook and incurred the wrath of certain friends and family members. 

You’re leading strongly in your congregations and ministries as an advocate and ally.

This is the only way that power will shift. 

It won’t shift by being silent, by toeing the party line, by holding back and disengaging.

It will come by using our voices, telling our truth, sharing our beliefs, and living with the fallout.

I’m grateful to be free, that I don’t have to pretend.

I’m grateful that more and more people are speaking out and tipping the scales.

I’m grateful to know so many beautiful people gladly paying the cost.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

10 Comments

  • Luckily we have Amazon now. My wife and I stopped visiting Lifeway stores many years ago. Back then it was even more obvious that they heavily censored what made it into their stores. At the time we knew a fellow who tried to run an independent Christian bookstore. He told stories of the problems he had with this group and that group whose adherents would come into his store and have a hissy fit that he carried books by certain authors, certain translations of the Bible and so on. He eventually tired of making little profit, said he couldn’t please everyone, and closed his store.

    As most of us know, “Christians” can be very nasty. My friend, who moderates a large Christian blog, tells me about some of the things that people regularly attempt to post in the comments (“You are a demon from hell”, “You have your head up your a**, “You will burn in hell forever for thinking…” and even nastier stuff). As with the current election cycle, we have to ignore some nasty, angry people, and by all means not support these people. It’s easy to say nothing, but many of them take that as a tacit sign of support. Are we brave enough to speak out and kindly tell them why we do not support what they have to say?

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  • The problem comes from the womb of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Because of their influence over Christian booksellers, egalitarians cannot get their books sold even in their local Christian bookstore. Publishers will not publish books they cannot sell and if a Christian book cannot be sold in a Christian bookstore, they will not publish it. I write egalitarian Christian books and self-publish. My local Christian bookstore (Assembly of God owners) will not even look through the pages. ( I write about this in my latest book “Raising the Hood: A Christian Look at Manhood and Womanhood”). I give my books away as the “Street evangelist for women’s equality.” I place my books in our local library and small libraries around here. I sell my books at Craft Fairs. We must speak up. Thank you for posting this article. And those of you who read this, buy our books! Help support us. We are working for you through the talents we have, and we need your help.

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  • Thanks Kathy! This is so beautiful and so sickening. Standing with you!

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  • Interesting info, Kathy… thanks. And I respect your continued efforts greatly, as I have for years. As Sam mentioned below, we fortunately have decent alternatives to the big distributors and publishers these days… Amazon, but not JUST them. I’ve recently self-published on Amazon myself… Kindle ebook called “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” (it still needs some more reviews – hint, hint to anyone.) I prepared/studied a lot; invested, with still-minimal results, tho it’s a start. So I can say it’s not a real simple or easy road, though much easier if one has a large following and many connections, as you do.

    My related point will be this: You are probably aware that a good part of what is relatively lacking among us former-evangelical-but-still-Jesus-following folks, in various church or non-church locations, is the kind of linkage, organizational structure, etc. that the older groups (or institutions) have. It’s happening some, but I think we need (and I’m trying to aid) much more connection and collaboration. Not just among “reforming” Evangelicals but between them/us and others who have long been Mainline or recently become so (as I have). And part of that involves publishing and various uses of media. I imagine we’ll be in contact again before too long, as I’m aggressively working, partly with my church and another pastor in town, to develop some creative programs (focused on young adults) and to continue to publish about that and much more. (You know a fair amount about one of them.)

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