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Our Story

On May 5, 1969 at the age of 19, Chris Johnsen hears the gospel preached for the first time. He listens to a sermon from Isaiah, chapters 1 & 54, and hears an invitation to accept Christ as his savior. After an overwhelming emotional experience, he cries out to the Lord and surrenders his life. The feeling of despair that he felt before, is wonderfully transformed to joy and the assurance that Christ has redeemed his life.

Chris and Ems are married on September 5, 1970. While on vacation, Chris reads the book God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew. God speaks to him and a profound desire to work with books and Bibles is born. Shortly thereafter he reads a book called “The Sharp Sword”. Halfway through the book Chris experiences a deep confirmation of his calling to share the gospel through the written Word. Chris connects with the only friend he knows in Christian Retailing, Tommy Tomlinson, and leaves with 5 boxes of books he intends to sell with great passion.

After 8 months of selling books door to door, Chris is offered a position as a store manager in Tomlinson Bookstore. With prayerfull consideration Chris accepts the position and the family moves to Carltonville. As Ems becomes pregnant with their first child, she continues to help Chris in the bookstore.

The Johnsens’ first son, Heinrich, is born on January 5, 1972. The family feels very blessed. They have almost no money but they are sure and joyful that they are in God’s will.

Tomlinson Bookshop starts a small colportage in Vereeniging. It is no more than a small prayer room where Christian books and Bibles are offered for purchase. Tommy suggests the Johnsens move to Vereeniging and partner with him in starting and operating a book store there. Arriving at their destination, with no assurance or direction from God, Chris feels the same despair he felt when he first encountered Christ. Chris cries out to God to give him an indication that He is with them. That same evening he reads from Haggai 2, and the Lord answers him with these words: “Gold and silver belongs to me…You must work because I am with you … the tree that is nothing in your sight will become a large tree.” Chris understands that God will take care and provide for him and his family, all he needs to do is trust God and do the work.

On June 26, 1974, a new 100 square foot Christian bookstore opens in Vereeniging. They have a total inventory of $300 and average daily sales of $2.50. An average book retailed for $0.20 and the Amplified Hardcover Bible retailed for $0.75. That same year, Chris’ interest in sourcing books from abroad is fueled by a short and inconsistent supply from their wholesalers in Johannesburg.

Chris is introduced to a Christian jewelry manufacturer in Vereeniging who offers to manufacture samples on a non-commitment basis. If the product sells, he will continue to manufacture more products; if not, both parties will abandon the endeavor. Customers love the product and this leads Chris to investigate US suppliers. This results in his first international trip to the US and Hong Kong.

Chris’ entrepreneurial spirit takes him all over the world to source suppliers and manufacturers. He soon realizes that the quantities he would need to order far exceeds his South African customer base. A trip to the United Kingdom puts him in contact with Steve Thornett, who is interested in selling gifts to the Christian Book trade. Together they decide to form Christian Art UK. Chris’ limited financial resources eventually prohibit him to further be a part of Christian Art UK and his share is bought by David Dickenson. The company continues to grow, and in the course of time, it is bought out by a plastics company and placed in a trust along with Kingsway. Chris meets Kevin Futter, a representative from the Australian company Harvest Christian Products, at a bus station while attending a CBA convention in Dallas. The short bus ride is all it took for Kevin to sign on to distribute Christian Art gifts in Australia.

RG Mitchell becomes the North American distributor for Christian Art Gifts South Africa. Product is shipped to Canada directly from manufacturers in Asia. In 1997 two former employees from RG Mitchells in Canada, Pat Chown and Bob Wood, contact Chris and explain that they are starting their own business, Foundation Distributors. They ask Chris to be one of their main suppliers of gift items and another long term partneship and friendship is forged.

Chris realizes that he cannot limit the company to South Africa. Demand for Christian product is soaring. There is interest from Singapore, Central Africa and the USA. Chris's oldest son Heinrich and his wife Heidi move to the United States in 1997 and settle in the suburbs of Chicago. After 5 years of extensive travel, Heinrich decides to look for a different career so he can be home more as they start a family. Chris and Heinrich travel to China together and discuss the idea of setting up a business in the USA.

Chris contacts a friend in the industry, Rolf Garborg, who councils them on entering the US market. After some consolidation in the market, the Harvest Sales group is left without a main gift supplier. Heinrich, Chris and Rolf meet with them, and Harvest agrees to take on the Christian Art Gifts line of product. Heinrich establishes Christian Art Gifts as a separate entity in the Chicago suburb of Lombard. God provides a warehouse and the first employees of Christian Art Gifts, Inc. Products start arriving in March and the first customer orders ship in May. God blesses this new company and it ends its first year with a small profit.

Building long term relationships with suppliers is one of Christian Art Gifts core philosophies. To facilitate this Christian Art Gifts Hong Kong opens in 2007 with an office in Kowloon Bay. This location manages sample making, quality control and product testing.

Christian Art Gifts continues to expand in the general gift market. To facilitate this growth they open a new showroom in the AmericasMart located in downtown Atlanta.

Christian Art Gifts expand into children’s products and introduces Christian Art Kids. Their new line includes devotionals, Bible story books and prayer books.

Christian Art Gifts continues to innovate and their three-pronged approach of quality, design and affordability attracts some of the largest retailers in the US. Christian Art Gifts is honored by Family Christian Stores as Partner of the year in 2009 and Supplier of the year in 2010.

Chris and Kobus Johnsen visit Tyndale house publishers, and the idea of opening a bookstore in Wheaton is born. After not having a bookstore in that community for several years, Tyndale House Publishers, Christelike Uitegewrers MPY and Christian Art Gifts decide to invest in this ministry and open a Christian bookstore. A location is selected in the South of Wheaton and the doors open in October for business. The store is named in honor of Mr and Mrs Kenneth Taylor who founded Tyndale House Publishers and Chris Johnsen who founded Christian Art in South Africa.

Christian Art Gifts take over the operations of Harvest Christian Products in Australia. A new warehouse is selected in Brisbane and the company is renamed as Christian Art Gifts. Gordon Cowell continues as manager of this operation and serves Australia and New Zealand with gift products.

Christian Art Gifts outgrows its facility in Lombard and moves to a 75,000 square foot warehouse in Bloomingdale IL, approx. 15 miles from their previous location. This warehouse provides them with the necessary space to continue to grow.

Also in 2012 Christian Art Gifts introduces a Spanish imprint called Semillas de Fe. Many of their products are now available in both Spanish and English.

In January of 2013, Christian Art Gifts celebrates 10 years of God’s provision and faithfulness in the United States. This is also the year that Lifeway Christian Stores purchase the Johnsen and Taylor bookstore from the three partners. Christian Art Gifts looks forward to the next 10 years and starts an ambitious project to replace all their systems with a fully integrated web enabled platform to better serve retailers in the future.