By Mike Pare

Chattanooga Times Free Press

NASHVILLE (TNS) – Nashville-based publisher LifeWay Christian Resources, the largest Christian retail chain in America, plans to close all its 170 brick-and-mortar stores across the country this year.

In Wilson County, the Mt. Juliet store at Providence will close by year’s end, according to LifeWay.

LifeWay acting president and CEO Brad Waggoner said last Wednesday the entity is moving into a new era with a strategic digital focus that will prepare it for the future and allow it to better serve customers.

“LifeWay is fortunate to have a robust publishing, events and church services business,” he said. “Our retail strategy for the future will be a greater focus on digital channels, which are experiencing strong growth.”

Bob Munce, president of the Christian Retail Association in Largo, Florida, said the planned closing of all of LifeWay’s stores “comes as a bit of of a shock in the industry.”

“I didn’t know it was as tough as it was for them,” he said. “They’re wonderful stores. Everybody wished this didn’t happen and they’d stay in business.”

In January, LifeWay announced it would reduce the number of its retail locations due to declining customer traffic and sales. LifeWay said last week the Hamilton Place store would close for the last time May 31.

“While we had hoped to keep some stores open, current market projections show this is no longer a viable option,” Waggoner said.

He said the decision to close its local stores is a difficult one.

“LifeWay has developed close connections with the communities where our stores are located, and we have been honored to serve those communities. We will continue serving local congregations as they meet the spiritual needs of their neighbors,” Waggoner said.

The timing of store closings will vary depending on local circumstances. But, LifeWay expects all brick-and-mortar stores to close by the end of the year.

Munce said many Christian bookstores and retailers are impacted by online sales just as secular businesses have been with the growth of Amazon and other e-commerce book sellers.

“All brick-and-mortar retail is under pressure,” he said, adding there’s not a decline in the interest in Christian publications and literature. “It’s a change in the way people buy things.”

Munce said the chains seemed to have struggled more than the independent retailers.

He said he’s optimistic Christian bookstores will rebound, as such retailers expand their offerings to inspirational gifts and other items. He said Bible sales at such stores are doing “extremely well.”

“It has gotten stronger rather than weaker,” Munce said, as buyers seek out expert advice to find the right Bible for them.

Lifeway, in operation since 1891, offers a comprehensive selection of Bibles, books, Scripture reference tools, Bible studies, children’s products, Christian music and movies, gifts and church supplies.

“LifeWay has been serving the church for 128 years, and we will continue to grow our ministry to churches and individuals into the future,” Waggoner said. LifeWay distributes resources in 164 nations and licenses resources in more than 60 languages.

As part of the organization’s strategy, LifeWay has introduced a number of digital resources including online Bible studies, worship planning, live streaming of events and online training opportunities.

In one month, LifeWay said it interacts with five times as many people through its digital environments as it does through LifeWay stores.