NASHVILLE (BP) -- The year LifeWay Christian Resources was formed, Thomas Edison filed a patent for a motion picture device, the game of basketball was invented and Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first Sherlock Holmes novel.
That year was 1891, when LifeWay -- then called the Sunday School Board -- launched with the mission of creating Sunday School resources for churches.
While much has changed in the world over the past 128 years, LifeWay's mission of resourcing the church has stayed constant. What has changed over the years for the not-for-profit organization is the way it distributes and supports its resources.
As LifeWay engages a changing marketplace in 2019, here are some ways the ministry is newly positioning itself to serve churches and individuals scattered across the globe.
Leveraging online relationships
One of the more notable changes LifeWay is currently experiencing is the closing of its chain of brick-and-mortar stores -- a move facilitated by many shoppers migrating from traditional storefronts to digital retail experiences.
Ben Mandrell, LifeWay's president and CEO, says the organization is leveraging this digital shift by providing multiple avenues for churches and individuals to engage with LifeWay online.
"LifeWay's reach and impact is not waning with the closure of brick-and-mortar stores," Mandrell said. "In a typical month, traffic to LifeWay websites was more than four times larger than the normal monthly traffic to physical LifeWay Stores."
This influx of online traffic has contributed in part to LifeWay's year-over-year growth in its publishing and events ministry. Direct channels of sales, such as through the company's flagship website, LifeWay.com, and Customer Service Center posted a 6.9% gain over the previous year.
New brick-and-mortar options
Despite closing its chain of bookstores, LifeWay is continuing to find ways of selling Bibles, books and Bible studies to people who want to touch and feel them first.
To bridge the gap of physical storefronts where customers can shop for LifeWay products, the organization recently announced an Authorized Dealership program that allows independent Christians bookstores to sell LifeWay-branded Bible studies.
Already, more than 400 independent Christian retailers in 45 states have become authorized LifeWay dealers. This move provides customers more touch points for LifeWay products than were previously available through LifeWay Stores alone.
But LifeWay is partnering with more than just independent bookstores. LifeWay also sells select resources through established chains such as Walmart, Books-a-Million and Mardel Stores owned by Hobby Lobby.
While customers can expect to see familiar LifeWay products on new shelves around the country, they can also now access LifeWay's resources through popular digital retailers such as Amazon and Christian Book Distributors.
In addition to these distribution avenues, LifeWay will also continue to provide pop-up stores at conferences and events.
Improved service tools
To better assist customers, the organization is investing in additional personnel in its Customer Service Center.
Currently, more than two dozen customer service representatives are trained as resource experts for the new chat function of LifeWay.com. This service allows customers to check the status of orders, get assistance navigating LifeWay.com and ask product information questions. Customers can also send files and screenshots directly to customer service representatives by way of virtual chat.
LifeWay also provides an online platform to assist churches in managing ongoing orders of curriculum, periodicals and church supplies such as Bibles, tithe and offering envelopes, bulletins and communion resources.
This platform makes it easy for churches to browse curriculum for the current cycle, store information for automatic, reoccurring orders and receive discounts up to 5% on early orders of physical, ongoing Bible study curriculum.
While digital technology continues to make online ordering easy and convenient, LifeWay recognizes the need for church leaders to be able to speak face-to-face with church resource experts.
"Our church partners represent 36 states and Washington D.C. and exist to both hear from churches and partner with them in ministry by being experts on the many trustworthy resources LifeWay provides," said Fran Trascritti, director of church partnerships.
A new day at LifeWay
Since assuming the role of 10th president of LifeWay Christian Resources this past June, Mandrell has repeatedly labeled this a "new day" in the history of the organization.
"The world is changing and so is LifeWay," Mandrell said. "We need to make bold and brave decisions about strategy in order to respond to the needs of our customers. There is no future for LifeWay unless we stay relevant to our customers."
But while Mandrell expects the organization's strategies to be fluid in an ever-changing marketplace, he insists the gospel message that anchors LifeWay's mission is unchanging.
"We want to celebrate the gospel of Jesus that has transformed our lives," Mandrell said.
"As long as we keep that the main thing and create resources where people in every part of the world can experience the life-changing power of the gospel, LifeWay will never be without work to do."
Aaron Wilson is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.