Have the Days of Christian Media Come and Gone?

Another week, another failed magazine. But while the collapse of print media is hardly news, this demise is different.

Today's Christian Woman was founded in 1978 to reach evangelical Christian women who wanted a publication that reflected their values. They didn't want the crass sex talk of Cosmopolitan. They didn't want the mainstream relationship advice of Redbook. They wanted inspirational stories of faith and Bible-based help in managing their children, friendships and marriages. Anita Bryant graced the first issue's cover. "It was as close to what people were looking for as anything," remembers its founding editor, Dale Hanson Bourke. Last week, TCW's parent company, Christianity Today International (CTI), announced that the magazine's September/October issue would be its last. "I feel like a dinosaur," Bourke moaned in an e-mail.

The death of TCW is important for two reasons. First, it shows that Christian magazine publishing is in the toilet along with almost every other kind of print publishing. In its announcement, CTI also said that Ignite Your Faith—formerly the historic Campus Life—would close, and that 22 percent of the CTI staff would be laid off. (Christianity Today, CTI's flagship publication, founded by Billy Graham in 1956, will remain in business.) Other Christian magazines—Discipleship Journal, Pray and CCM, the Christian community's version of Rolling Stone—have also been shuttered in the past 18 months. New Man and SpiritLed Woman, published by the Charisma group, have abandoned print and are now available only online. "The perfect publishing storm that's hitting everyone is hitting us," says Harold Smith, CTI's CEO and editor in chief. "It has hammered us."

The real interest here, though, is more than merely economic. TCW's death signals something much bigger: an end in America to the perceived separation between the secular and the evangelical worlds. Not 10 years ago, the conventional wisdom as reflected in much of the mass media held that evangelical Christians led completely separate lives from everyone else. They went to separate colleges, they married each other—and they shopped at Christian bookstores, where they could purchase books, records, magazines and tea napkins produced and distributed by Christian-owned companies. Only secular people shopped at Barnes & Noble. So separate were the two worlds that Christian bestsellers rarely showed up on the New York Times bestseller list—and when they did (as with Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind books), the secular media treated the authors and consumers as oddities. In December 1985 the hip, Andy Warhol-founded Interview magazine did a piece on Bourke and TCW. "It was very much a look-who-we-discovered approach," says Bourke.

Now, though, Christian and inspirational stories are widely available in secular places. O, Redbook and Good Housekeeping regularly run the kinds of articles that TCW once considered its bread and butter. On her Web site, Oprah currently features an interview with Queen Rania of Jordan, in which the queen says that she and her husband strive to raise their children "like any other family." "The most important thing," she says, "is to instill [in your children] the right values." Barnes & Noble and Borders—not to mention Sam's Club and Wal-Mart—carry a wide variety of Christian and inspirational books, magazines and music. Even the most committed Christians no longer have to shop only at Christian stores or buy only Christian media. "I don't shop at a Christian bookstore," admits Ginger Kolbaba, the current editor of TCW. "Not when I can go online."

Even more important, evangelical Christians are less willing to identify themselves as a coherent group embodying one set of values. As a result, it seems Christians are more willing to take their parenting and relationship advice from secular sources. "This next generation, they can read a marriage magazine or a parenting magazine and filter it through their Christian world view without saying, 'I need Today's Christian Marriage or Today's Christian Woman'," says Don Pape, publisher of trade books for David C. Cook, a Christian publishing firm. "I can pick up a music magazine and I don't need a writer to say, 'You will like this because it's a Christian artist.' I can do that myself. I think that's one of the issues." In the old days, efforts by Christian or secular companies to "cross over" into foreign turf were considered quixotic. But the popularity of the book The Shack and the music of Carrie Underwood, not to mention The Passion of the Christ and the selection of Kris Allen as America's newest Idol, demonstrate how defunct the conventional wisdom has become.

In the world of Christian publishing, as elsewhere, the successful brands are those that have found small but profitable niches. Relevant magazine, with about 100,000 subscribers, talks to young, mostly male evangelical Christians with a strong interest in social-justice issues. Its ad sales have remained steady through the downturn, as has its subscriber base, says editor Cameron Strang. Now TCW is in the process of reinventing itself as what Kolbaba calls "a digizine": an online magazine for Christian women in their 30s interested in social justice and community action. The price of the new product—which doesn't yet have a name—will be much lower than that of the print version. But since the layoffs at CTI, Kolbaba is doing this relaunch very much on her own. Who else from the TCW staff is working with her on this project? "Actually, just me. I'm it, yeah."

You've got to love her for trying.