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The empty bookshelves of Decatur's LifeWay Christian Store will be filled by its opening Sept. 28, and a wide selection of gift items typically draws in customers, said manager Christy Petit.
Daily photo by John Godbey
The empty bookshelves of Decatur's LifeWay Christian Store will be filled by its opening Sept. 28, and a wide selection of gift items typically draws in customers, said manager Christy Petit.

LifeWay on its way
Will it prove too much competition for independent religious retailers?

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com · 340-2468

A LifeWay Christian Store is opening in Decatur, greatly increasing local retail space for religious products and church supplies.

The 5,400-square-foot store at The Crossings of Decatur is part of the nonprofit LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville and is linked to the Southern Baptist Convention.

With 140 stores in two dozen states, LifeWay Christian Stores is the second-largest U.S. religious retailer.

A few miles away on Danville Road Southwest, The Gospel Lighthouse Christian Supply Center is in a shopping center next to Holaway's Market.

Owner Jerry White is on the premises with his employees every day, helping customers, fielding phone calls and doing his own remodeling to put in a café and meeting room.

According to the Christian retail trade organization CBA, the value of products sold by its member suppliers last year was $4.63 billion.

The LifeWay chain and the independent Gospel Lighthouse reflect two facets of that vast religious market.

Will the LifeWay store, the first chain religious shop in Decatur, put too much squeeze on area independent Christian retailers?

The LifeWay store likely will affect The Gospel Lighthouse, but White said he's not overly concerned. He has survived other changes.

White said he has loyal customers, and some are asking if LifeWay will hurt his business. White said he tells them there's probably a need for LifeWay here.

"There are a lot of big Baptist churches that we are not able to serve, and they have had to go to Huntsville," he said.

Huntsville's LifeWay has been the closest one to Decatur. Morgan County has 72 Southern Baptist churches, and at least 10 percent of them have memberships over 1,000. LifeWay carries specialty supplies that SBC churches typically use, such as Bible studies and membership application forms.

Mick Houston, director of the south central region for LifeWay stores, said the company picked Decatur because people asked for it.

"We have a very strong Southern Baptist constituency asking for a long time to have one there," he said.

LifeWay looks for areas when it can serve churches and where there is a strong evangelical market, Houston said.

Market changes

White said his business has weathered many market shifts, such as other Christian stores opening locally and big retailers like Wal-Mart adding religious merchandise. He said he came close to shutting down but stayed with it.

In operation 26 years, The Gospel Lighthouse is non-denominational, which can be an advantage over a store linked to a church group, according to White. Special orders and customer service distinguish his business, he said.

White's recent adaptations include a café corner that serves coffee and sandwiches and a room for Bible studies and meetings. The store sends out catalog booklets through a group for independent stores like his. He also has an interactive Web site, www.gospel-lighthouse.com, featuring online ordering for thousands of books, CDs and other products.

The period after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was his most challenging time, White said. Some independent stores went bankrupt during the market downturn, and publishers were then less willing to give credit to small retailers, he said.

"Independent Christian stores have had a hard time," he said.

Growth

Meanwhile, LifeWay and some other chains have been expanding.

In Alabama, LifeWay Christian Stores opened new outlets in Oxford and Birmingham last year and acquired one in Tuscaloosa. Elsewhere last year it opened five other new stores and acquired three others.

LifeWay, the world's largest provider of Christian resources, is a religious non-profit. It receives no funding from the denomination and reinvests income above operating expenses in mission work and other ministries, according to a company statement. Besides the store division, LifeWay has six other divisions.

The store section's executive leader, Mark Scott, told LifeWay Christian Resources' trustees this week that Spanish product lines showed the highest percentage of growth during the last fiscal year, followed by gifts and then Bible and book products.

The largest Christian retailer in the U.S. is Family Christian Stores with more than 300 stores.

Want more?

The new LifeWay Christian Store:

  • Is located at Crossings of Decatur, U.S. 31 at Alabama 67.

  • Opens Sept. 28.

  • Will be closed Sundays.

    LifeWay to open Sept. 28

    Workers with Vincent Construction Co. in Birmingham were putting in display cases and furnishings this week, getting the LifeWay Christian Store at The Crossings of Decatur ready to open Sept. 28.

    Books, Bibles, music, church supplies and many items will soon fill the store.

    A wide selection of gift items typically draws in customers off the street, said Christy Petit, manager.

    LifeWay shoppers also will find CDs and listening stations for previewing them, children’s toys, DVDs and hundreds of other items, including specialty church products like financial record forms and communion ware.

    Petit said some unique items exclusively produced by LifeWay Christian Resources will include vacation Bible school curriculum and works by popular Bible teacher Beth Moore.

    LifeWay operates 140 stores in two dozen states. The Decatur store is the 11th in Alabama.

    Petit, who has been training at the store in Florence, said LifeWay has hired 15 full-time and part-time employees for the Decatur store.

    A grand opening will be Oct. 13 when Target opens, she said.

    Melanie B. Smith

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