I read a tweet this morning by Jonathan Merritt that spoke triumphally of the fact that LifeWay was closing all its stores. He pointed out that while LifeWay was closing, Jen Hatmaker and others whose books LifeWay had stopped selling were still going strong. As is normal in the Twittersphere, there was a piling-on without much attempt to garner facts. The prevailing idea was that LifeWay was going under and to them, it was just desserts for LifeWay’s failure to embrace the LGBTQ+ and progressive Christian agenda. Others in the so-called progressive Christian movement have joined in the celebration, dancing on LifeWay’s grave.
The problem is, LifeWay isn’t dying. From what I’ve read, LifeWay’s phone and online sales are doing well. It was the brick and mortar stores that were dragging things down and a decision was made not to subsidize them anymore. As one friend said yesterday, if LifeWay was just a bookstore, they’d be going under. They are not.
Sorry, folks. The celebration is premature. As I have heard so many times, “Facts are our friends.”
LifeWay is going to focus on online and phone sales and will likely be continuing to contribute money to the SBC’s coffers for some time to come. They are not teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They made a business decision that causes a lot of people a lot of pain, yes, but it is not an indication that the entire company is dying. Sorry to burst your bubble.
I have been conversing with friends and reading online discussions since this news hit. I have no inside information here, so what I am about to say is just my opinion, based on what I know and what I’ve surmised. Here’s the facts, as I see them.
1. The failure of the brick and mortar stores is not hard to explain. Brick and mortar bookstores are failing all over the country.
- The reason for the failure of brick and mortar LifeWay stores can be summarized by a statement a good friend made in a private discussion. “I can’t remember the last time I bought a book there that wasn’t on clearance.” That’s my paraphrase.
- There are online sources like Amazon, CBD, and others that can beat their prices. I am a cheapskate and I’m not paying 24.95 for a book I can get for 14.95 online.
- There is a Barnes and Noble less than a mile from me. I shop there often – when they put stuff on 75% off. The only time I purchased something at full price there was when I needed something in a hurry and couldn’t wait for it to be shipped. I’ve gone in, seen something, and ordered it on Amazon. Yes, I said I’m cheap.
- I saw a comment from someone yesterday who complained about something similar. When he needed something last minute he’d not be able to run over to LifeWay and pick it up. True. But that kind of business couldn’t sustain a brick and mortar store.
- I googled articles about the demise of bookstores yesterday. This is not a LifeWay problem. To pretend that LifeWay has failed in its management because it couldn’t make a chain of brick and mortar stores work is counterfactual.
While there isn’t a LifeWay store within 250 miles of me, it is people like me who are responsible for this. I am a “frugal shopper” who pays my annual Amazon Prime membership and makes the most of it. LifeWay focusing on online shopping is not a bad idea. That’s the future, folks.
2. LifeWay is a denominational entity. Their goal is not to outsell everyone else or to become the biggest retailer of Christian goods. They are a Baptist publishing house and they are bound by our confessional statement.
- See Dave open a can of worms. Open, Dave. Open! LifeWay has been criticized repeatedly for their decisions about which books they will carry and which ones they will not. I haven’t always agreed with their decisions but those editorial decisions are not the point here. LifeWay does not carry every best seller out there. There are bestselling authors who could make money for LifeWay but are clearly not in line with our Baptist Faith & Message.
- We have a debate in the SBC about homosexuality, and it is intense. But that debate is not over whether homosexual behavior is a sin. We have made our position clear. We believe that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will. If you decide to rewrite the Scriptures as many have done, you will likely sell a lot of books, but it will not be through LifeWay. LifeWay is a Southern Baptist entity.
- I chided a commenter a couple of days ago for saying that the SBC’s problems were because we didn’t embrace the egalitarianism she valued so highly. This is a common and unhelpful response. When there’s bad news, we trot out our hobby horses and work them. “We are in this mess because of ________.”
- Frankly, I think if LifeWay just sold more New York Yankee stuff, this wouldn’t have been necessary!
3. There are plenty of questions that have been raised over the last 24 hours, and they are legitimate.
- William Thornton raised the question on a comment stream here as to whether there were profitable LifeWay stores and whether they could have simply trimmed those stores that were losing money and kept the ones that were making money. I do not know the answer, but I suspect that LifeWay felt that enough of the stores were failing that the entire division needed the ax. I also suspect we aren’t getting the answer to that question.
- Many have raised questions about how the stores were operated. The most common complaint I’ve heard is about the prevalence of “Jesus Junk” at stores, rather than serious books. Of course, I talk to pastors who want book stores to smell musty and stock volumes of the church fathers and Puritans.
- I have heard several strong criticisms of the LifeWay website. Since I’ve not been on it recently, I have no direct knowledge. If LifeWay is going to be an online-focused business, then these criticisms should be dealt with seriously.
- One question I’ve seen raised often is whether this reveals greater financial issues at LifeWay. I believe they have answered this, but it is understandable that such a question would be raised. Statements have made it clear that LifeWay is on solid financial footing in general, but as Baptists, we always have the right to ask.
The biggest tragedy of this, of course, is that many people will be losing their jobs in the near future. Some people will be inconvenienced by not having a local LifeWay store where they can shop. But life(Way) goes on. Our Baptist publishing house will continue to produce Bibles, books, and literature, and it will contribute generously to Baptist life. Its online presence will still be strong. This is not the end of the line for LifeWay, just a speed bump.
Again, I have no insider info here. I’ve listened and read and formed opinions. These are my conclusions.