Disruption to U.S. religious retail brings many story leads

A LifeWay store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 2009. Photo by  Albert Herring .

A LifeWay store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 2009. Photo by Albert Herring.

(COMMENTARY) Hammered by superstore chains and then the online omnipresence of Amazon, America’s bookstores are struggling.

Thus there was more sorrow than shock when the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources announced on March 20 it will close down its chain of 170 brick-and-mortar stores, which sell books, Bibles, curriculum and a variety of other religious products.

Baptist Press reported the gap between LifeWay stores; sales and operating expenses grew from a manageable $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million by 2017. That year, LifeWay’s chief rival, Family Christian Resources, shut all of its 240 retail locations, following the 2013 demise of the United Methodist Church’s 38 Cokesbury stores.

The Baptist collapse raises two themes for solid stories, the limits on what products religious stores should be selling, and the ongoing disruption as U.S. religious retail, dominated by evangelical Protestants, shifts toward online and phone-ordering operations. As a company, LifeWay will continue alongside the likes of family-owned Christian Book Distributors. There will be ever fewer independent stores surviving to serve as local ministry and fellowship centers.

On the first theme, officially Christian stores obviously are not going to sell lottery tickets, randy novels and movies, pop music that degrades women, or books that deviate from their faith’s doctrines. The Baptists’ no-no’s include the prosperity gospel and accounts of purported visits to heaven. Some respondents danced on LifeWay’s grave over the way its policies reflected the Southern Baptists’ narrowing definition of doctrinal fidelity.

The most-discussed example occurred in 2012 when LifeWay refused to sell “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” a slightly sassy book on the gender wars by well-known author Rachel Held Evans, published by Thomas Nelson, an evangelical subsidiary of HarperCollins that’s based in Nashville, the same city as LifeWay.

Regarding the LifeWay news, Evans said she’s “truly sorry to everyone for whom this means the loss of a job or a publishing partner. But, at the end of the day, this is good news” for writers and publishers, showing “we don’t have to conform to Southern Baptist culture and theology to sell books and that fear of getting banned from LifeWay shouldn’t drive editorial decisions.” She added that readers have “no idea how large Lifeway loomed over Christian publishing & just how many voices & ideas it managed to stifle.”

There are lots of story hooks there to pursue.

The second aspect involves turbulence in the industry. In its heyday, the annual trade show of the Colorado Springs-based Christian Booksellers Association (later renamed CBA: The Association for Christian Retail to signify that books are only part of sales) was an essential showcase and networking opportunity not just for marketers but the entire evangelical movement.

But attendance declined considerably, with CBA reporting 1,700 at its “UNITE 2018” conference in Nashville last July. Then in November, Publishers Weekly reported “the apparent demise” of CBA following the departure of its president and board chairman, and worrisome protests about unpaid accounts. Reporters who go to the website for current info will find nothing but one of those “new site under construction” notices.

Writers could update market trends and CBA’s current status with these retailers who were officers on its board: Sue Smith of Baker Bookstore in Grand Rapids, Mich. (sue.smith@bakerbookstore.com), Heather Trost of The Greatest Gift store in Pueblo, Colo. (info@thegreatestgiftstore.com) or Vicki Geist of Cedar Springs Christian Stores based in Knoxville, Tenn. (vicki@cschristian.com).

Also last November, the Munce Group of Largo, Fla., a marketing firm that specializes in independent Christian retailers, launched a new Christian Retail Association to fill the gap. Munce’s annual Christian Product Expo lists 51 exhibitors for the August 25-27 trade show in Murfreesboro, Tenn., down Interstate 24 from Nashville and perhaps worth a look. Media contact: Andrea Stock at andrea.stock@munce.com or 727-596-7625.

In the nearer term, journalists could develop a story around President Stan Jantz and other industry sources attending the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association convention April 30–May 1 at Rosemont, Ill. (contact Cynthia Helblig at chelblig@ecpa.org).