By: Clinton Wilcox
Brick and mortar stores have been in trouble for quite some time, thanks to the advent of internet services like Amazon. Borders is one such store that had to close up thanks to losing business to these types of companies, and LifeWay Christian stores are just the latest victims of internet commerce.
A blogger named Travis Agnew has penned an article in which he blames Christians for LifeWay closing up its doors. His article is called “What the Closing of LifeWay Stores Teaches Us About Christians”. The problem is that having a blog does not make you an expert in any issues you choose to pontificate on and this article shows that Travis really doesn’t understand how economics works (I would encourage him to read Thomas Sowell’s excellent primer Basic Economics).
Now it bears mentioning that I, also, am not an expert on economics. But I have read books by capitalists and socialists, so I have some knowledge of the issue. I would like to use my limited knowledge of economics to show why Travis’ blaming of Christians misses the mark completely.
It’s become all the rave to blame the church for everything, even if you’re a part of it. And certainly, the church is not perfect. It does have areas in which it needs to improve. But we need to give credit where it’s due and place the blame where it’s due.
Let’s take a look at one line in particular, appearing early in the article, because it really shows the overall issue with his reasoning. He writes, “I first read the news on social media of people decrying the move [to close the stores]. Many people were shocked and appalled by the announcement. Many Christians wanted the opportunity to visit the store but apparently, not enough were committed to supporting it.”
Christians are not to blame for LifeWay closing up shop. LifeWay has been around for years, so obviously it had an influx of Christians who would go and make purchases in their stores. It’s not because Christians refused to support them with their money. It’s simply because LifeWay hasn’t remained competitive with online retailers like Amazon, eBay, or even other Christian online retailers like Christianbook.com.
Here’s what Travis misses: the great thing about capitalism is that it spurs innovation. Selling books on-line and getting them to the consumer within a reasonable amount of time (sometimes in just one or two days for free, if you’re part of their loyalty program) has transformed the way that people buy books today. But the fact that capitalism spurs innovation is also a problem for many businesses because if you refuse to be innovators, or simply refuse to keep up with those who are, then you are not going to remain competitive to the businesses that are innovating. LifeWay stores often sold CDs at full price ($17-$20) when you can buy the same CD new on Amazon for $8 or used for even cheaper. Books sold by LifeWay would often cost a good amount of money (sometimes $30 or $40) when you can find the same book on Amazon new for a comparable price, or from a third-party seller for cheap. These are innovations that Amazon and others have been incorporating, which keeps them competitive and keeps the consumer coming back. And while LifeWay isn’t innovating, some Christian sites, like the aforementioned Christianbook.com, has an online book store which helps them to remain competitive.
Don’t get me wrong. I love brick and mortar stores. Nothing will ever beat going to a brick and mortar store, smelling that new book smell (and the subsequent intoxication), and browsing through the books at the store. But we need to be good stewards of our money and if that means paying for a book cheap on Amazon because LifeWay won’t or can’t sell it for less than full retail price, that’s not my fault. I’m not under any obligation to shop at LifeWay just because they exclusively sell Christian products.
Plus, there’s an even more important reason I rarely shop at Christian bookstores, in general: In many cases, they simply don’t have what I’m looking for. You can find a lot of CCM CDs there, but you can’t find any of the classics (e.g. Bride, Resurrection Band, Common Children, The 77’s, Mortal), bands which were, themselves, innovators or at least comparable to their secular counterparts in terms of skill and songwriting, if not exceeding them. It’s even difficult, though certainly not impossible, to find the better modern bands at these stores.
Additionally, they don’t sell many apologetics or philosophy books, if they sell any at all. My line of work is in bioethics, so if they don’t sell books that are of particular vocational interest to me (or of interest in other fields that I don’t work in), then I’m just not going to shop there. Yes, I can find plenty of Christian Living, Christian Fiction, Pastor Helps, etc., books, but books by William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Frank Beckwith, and Christopher Kaczor are severely lacking. I have a hard time shopping at bookstores that don’t have a robust philosophy and/or apologetics section (and even among secular stores like Barnes & Noble, the selection is usually lacking).
To sum up, it is not Christians who are responsible for LifeWay shutting its doors. This is a trend that has been happening for some time. It’s LifeWay’s inability to remain competitive that has caused them to close their doors. It’s regrettable but it’s simply the way capitalism works.
I’ll just respond to a few more of his points before I finish. Following the quote above, Travis says, “You can’t really be angry about a book store closing if you have an Amazon delivery box in your trashcan.”
My question is, why not? I have Amazon boxes in my trashcan because brick and mortar stores don’t have the books I need to purchase.
Travis goes on to give a bulleted list conclusions he draws from his observations, but they’re really just non sequiturs.
First he writes, “Christians want the conveniences without the commitments.” He says this without any sort of evidence for his claim, save the fact that LifeWay stores are closing. But that certainly is not a valid inference to draw.
“We want the bookstore to be open, but we aren’t willing to purchase our books there.”
I have purchased books from LifeWay and other Christian retailers. In fact, a local Christian store called Bereans was the place from which I purchased my first books on apologetics. Just recently I bought a CD and a book on singing corporately in the church, both by Keith and Kristyn Getty, two of the better songwriters that the church has writing music today, from LifeWay. I am a church musician, so these items were of particular interest to me. I am willing to purchase books there, provided they are reasonably priced and available. But I am not always able to buy books there because they rarely have books that I need.
“We want the church to keep the visitation program, but we aren’t willing to do personal visits ourselves.”
Another non sequitur. It just doesn’t follow from LifeWay closing its doors that Christians aren’t willing to do personal visits. I have belonged to churches which did personal visits, and despite being a card-carrying introvert, I even went along with them on those personal visits. It just seems like Travis has some personal beef with the church he wants to air out, but he certainly hasn’t justified his positions in this article.
“We want the church to have a larger staff, but we aren’t willing to support that endeavor financially.”
I don’t even know what this means. I don’t know any Christians who are clamoring for more staff in the church. If anything, it seems that the idea that we shouldn’t be paying a church staff is the view I hear more frequently. Perhaps he could offer some examples?
“We want the church to have numerous programs, but we aren’t willing to serve in one of them.”
Again, he can’t draw this conclusion from the article. I serve my own church in a music capacity. Our church has many people who serve in many different ministries.
“We want the church to grow, but we aren’t willing to invite anyone.”
Again, another non sequitur. He just hasn’t made his case for this position.
Again, it is not Christians who are to blame for LifeWay’s closing but their lack of competitiveness with online retailers. This is the way of things and it’s not really something to bemoan. I would love for them to continue in their physical stores but I am also not to blame for their closing. I am a consumer and if they don’t have products that I, the consumer, needs, then I will buy them elsewhere.