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LifeWay store closures lamented as ‘a great loss’

NASHVILLE (BP) — Sarah Beth Van Dyke shopped at LifeWay Christian Stores during her childhood when they were called Baptist Bookstores. She worked in a LifeWay store in graduate school, and now she takes her two children to LifeWay to spend their allowance money. Generally, she shops at a LifeWay store multiple times every month.

With all 170 LifeWay stores set to close this year, Van Dyke said Christians will lose “a unique chance to shop for Christian books, Bibles, studies, music and gifts with confidence, knowing that the [re]sources [have] been through a vetting process before making it onto the shelves for purchase.”

As LifeWay stores begin to disappear, LifeWay supporters and critics alike say the brick-and-mortar book market will lose an important means of theological quality control. They also wonder if another theologically trusted brick-and-mortar option will emerge.

“I enjoyed being able to take my children to LifeWay to participate in their summer reading program and various other children’s events, and they too have come to love the store as I do,” said Van Dyke, a member of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn. “They look forward to going in LifeWay stores to spend their hard-earned allowance money, and I have been able to rest in the assurance that items my children pick are biblically sound.”

For Van Dyke, the physical LifeWay stores are important, especially when shopping for a Bible, because they allow her “to thumb through the Bible physically before purchasing to see the layout and flow of the study notes, etc. This same process cannot be achieved through online stores or with the limited selection of other brick and mortar stores.”

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian author who says LifeWay stores opted not to carry her 2012 book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” tweeted March 20-21, “The average reader has no idea just how large LifeWay loomed over Christian publishing, and just how many voices and ideas it managed to stifle” with its “strict, fundamentalist standards” for the books sold in LifeWay stores.

Over the years, LifeWay has opted not to carry books on visiting heaven and books by Jen Hatmaker, Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald among other authors, Christianity Today reported.

Indiana pastor Tim Overton agreed LifeWay stores are known for their theological standards. But he sees that as a positive.

“In the information age, the difficulty is not finding material,” said Overton, pastor of Kingston Avenue Baptist Church in Anderson, Ind. “It’s finding quality material. I think one of the greatest competitive advantages LifeWay could have had, and had in some ways, was being trustworthy, where pastors could tell their congregations, ‘You can go into the store, and anything you buy is trustworthy.'”

Overton is among a group of pastors who have gone to microphones “numerous times” at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings over the years, he said, to make motions and offer resolutions asking LifeWay to pull from its shelves material the pastors viewed as theologically suspect. While LifeWay has not always done what Overton wanted, “there’s no doubt LifeWay did a better job of [selling trustworthy resources] than other retailers.”

Because of its status as an SBC entity, LifeWay “was unique [among bookstores] in holding very high standards and not simply allowing a profit to motivate all choices,” Overton said.

In the end, however, profit margin was precisely the problem for LifeWay stores.

By late 2018, LifeWay leaders realized revenue declines at stores “had not reversed” despite efforts to revamp retail locations, former LifeWay President Thom Rainer told trustees in February. The closing of an unnamed number of LifeWay stores was announced in January, with the closure of all stores announced this month by acting president and CEO Brad Waggoner.

Rainer called LifeWay stores “the last man standing” among major Christian bookstore chains after Family Christian Stores closed two years ago.

Steve Christensen, owner of the independent bookstore Bibles Plus in Albuquerque, N.M., told Baptist Press “peak” sales for Christian bookstores came in 2002-2003. Bibles Plus has “been able to weather these 17 or 18 years of this kind of [industry] decline” by “maintaining a lower overhead.” Still, the store’s sales volume is 40 percent of what it was in 2002-2003.

Most Christian bookstore customers seem to be between ages 50 and 80, lack “tech savvy” and do not want to buy online, Christensen said, though “a few” younger customers still want to handle books before they purchase them.

As Christian bookstores inevitably close, Christensen said, a major loss is the ministry that occurs with customers. “You try to really see what their needs are,” he said. ” … There are opportunities to pray with people that are going through crisis situations.”

Yet Rainer told LifeWay trustees in February even the volume of ministry testimonies from stores is shrinking as brick-and-mortar sales decline.

When LifeWay stores close and the SBC’s publishing entity shifts entirely to online sales, some customers see no alternate venue for the ministry and theological quality control offered by LifeWay stores.

“The closing of LifeWay stores will be a great loss to my family,” Van Dyke said. “While almost all of the products LifeWay offers can be purchased at other retailers or online, we have continued to shop at LifeWay Christian Stores exclusively and will not be taking our business to another retailer or to an online platform.”