By Joy Allmond
BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Amid significant changes in the last several months, Lifeway Christian Resources’ acting President and CEO Brad Waggoner shared a vision for the present and future of Lifeway in an interview at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting on Monday, June 10.
Amy Whitfield, director of communications for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—and co-host of the “SBC This Week” podcast—had a conversation with Waggoner about the state of the denomination’s publishing arm at the Cooperative Program stage.
Waggoner provided clarity about the future of Lifeway’s ministry to the local church in the wake of the March 2019 announcement that all brick-and-mortar stores would close by year’s end.
Waggoner said despite the store closings, Lifeway has seen tremendous growth in key areas of the core business, including B&H Publishing Group and the success of the ongoing curriculum area in reversing “a 30-year trend of decline” in Bible study sales.
“We all know the retail industry has been changing for a long time,” said Waggoner.
“Lifeway has been interrupted, just like all the other major retailers. We fought the fight, really long and really hard—some would say we fought it too long. The reason for that was the ministry—all of those touch points and points of light in those cities. We did not want to give up on the retail strategy.”
But the retail chain hasn’t made a profit, Waggoner said, since 2013. And the rate of decline since that year has been significant.
By 2018, with increasing losses, keeping Lifeway Stores open became irresponsible and began to threaten all of Lifeway, he said. “We had to make some really hard decisions and move in the direction we’re now moving. It’s been painful, and we hate to see it happen, but it really is the best decision for the long term.”
Waggoner then addressed the future of Lifeway, noting the strength of publishing and events, the growth of its e-commerce strategy and the intense focus on global reach.
“We’ll be able to serve the church more effectively at a faster pace,” he said, citing the example of Ministry Grid, Lifeway’s online leadership training tool, “and we’re investing more in the customer service area. We’re working more and more on the user experience. We have church partners who travel all over the country interfacing with our churches.”
Waggoner explained that Lifeway not only had been proactive in making customer connections easier, but the organization remains more committed than ever to resourcing the local church.
“We’ve seen in Baptist life there are a lot of things we can do better together than we can independently,” said Waggoner. “Lifeway has always had the ability to come alongside the local church and do some things for them they would have a hard time doing by themselves. “
One of the newest ways Lifeway is coming alongside Southern Baptists—and the Church at large—is through the “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused” curriculum, available at ChurchCares.com.
This free multimedia resource, developed with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, contains 12 video lessons and a handbook to be used in tandem.
“Lifeway exists for the local church—not the other way around,” Waggoner said. “We have to be careful that we’re listening to the church, we’re listening to pastors and staff members, and that we’re responsive to take their ideas and to understand their needs.”
Many of those churches Lifeway is working to serve, Waggoner added, are outside the U.S.
“We’re beginning to press deeper into the global space,” Waggoner said. “You’ll continually see Lifeway grow globally in line with the Great Commission.” He shared that this year Lifeway will reach more than 10,000 churches in India with Vacation Bible School in their languages.
Another key to Lifeway’s global reach efforts, Waggoner said, is growing its pool of indigenous authors.
“We can’t just take Western content and put it in a different language,” said Waggoner. “They’re working hard to find indigenous authors who live in these other countries and communities, who understand their culture and their people. We’re making really good progress on finding these God-ordained individuals who can speak to people in their context.”
Waggoner said despite the painful loss of the brick-and-mortar stores, the future of Lifeway is hopeful—and prayerfully bright.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat the loss of 170 stores and the ministry that has taken place in those venues over the years,” he said. “That’s a loss for us and the churches. But we believe by God’s grace we can make up for that in all the other ways we’re trying to serve people.”
Joy Allmond is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.