If a commitment to Christian retailing says anything about the Southern Baptist Convention's intentions to expand in Utah, they're saying it loud and clear.

Lifeway Christian Resources, formerly known as the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, has purchased two Intermountain Christian Bookstores - one at 880 E. 2100 South in Salt Lake City and the other at 4039 Riverdale Road in Ogden.The move comes on the heels of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, held in Salt Lake City in June.

In fact, Mark Scott, president of Lifeway Christian Stores, said negotiations with Intermountain Bookstores were initiated in May, while he was in town preparing for the convention.

Pleased with their success in sharing "the message of Jesus Christ" with Utahns, Scott said the purchase made even more sense once Southern Baptist messengers had come to the Beehive State.

Heavy news coverage by both the local and national media, along with an orchestrated advertising campaign had Utahns abuzz with talk about the Southern Baptists and their beliefs - in particular their characterization of Mormons as "non-Christian."

Scott says the purchase of Intermountain Bookstores was more than just a good business decision.

"It was really what we would consider a divine appointment.

"When I called and talked with (Intermountain owners John and Judy Constance) about an acquisition, they they'd been talking themselves for a short time about selling the stores, but they hadn't told anyone else. They were a little surprised that we would bring it up.

"We believe it was just God's timing. We were interested in talking with them, and their thoughts and plans intersected with ours."

The purchase closed on Sept. 14, making the Utah stores Lifeway's newest additions in a 79-store chain.

Lifeway also purchased two Christian bookstores in Toledo, Ohio, in February - which, in addition to the Utah purchase, is part of the company's move into "pioneer markets" where the Southern Baptist Convention doesn't have a large membership but likes the prospects for membership growth.

Scott told Baptist Press that the move "is an opportunity to advance the Kingdom in what is considered a nontraditional market for us."

James T. Draper, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, said in the same story that his organization is "delighted to return to the Salt Lake City area so soon after our Southern Baptist convention in June. This time we plan to stay to serve churches and individuals in ways that honor Christ."

Constance said he understands Lifeway's "strong desire to operate in markets where the Southern Baptists are not dominant. Their goals and vision are very broad-based. Even the (recent) name change (to Lifeway Christian Resources) reflects their attempt to serve a broad base of the Christian church body."

Founded in 1891 by a vote of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Sunday School Board, based in Nashville, Tenn., was originally formed to publish Sunday School literature for the growing denomination. That original charge has grown during the past century to include publication of books and Bibles, helping churches in developing their ministries, and operation of what were formerly known as Baptist bookstores.

During their convention in Salt Lake City, messengers unanimously approved changing the name of the Sunday School Board to Lifeway Christian Resources.

The body's mission statement says, "We will assist local churches and believers to evangelize the world to Christ, develop believers and grow churches by being the best worldwide provider of relevant, high-quality, high-value Christian products and services."

Scott said Southern Baptist leaders were pleased with the number of conversions which occurred - "well over 1,000 during the convention. As you know, Salt Lake City is a rapidly growing city and there are new people moving in all the time. We see it as indeed a growing market, with many evangelical Christians from all over in addition to Southern Baptists.

"We have the opportunity now to not only serve the Baptist churches, but all the evangelicals in the Intermountain region."

The variety of products the store will offer goes well beyond Bibles, books and jewelry.

Scott said the Utah stores will offer "Church Prospect Services" to local churches. The service helps individual church congregations locate new neighbors, new homeowners and families moving into their geographic area by providing lists of names arranged by ZIP code and complete with pre-printed mailing labels.

"This allows churches to know all the people moving into the community, and allows leaders to quickly be able to visit them." The information comes from the same folks that might provide Welcome Wagon with information - we provide that same service. When someone moves into particular set of ZIP codes, we have the ability to let those churches know on a monthly basis what new families have moved into the community," Scott said.

In addition, the stores will offer church furnishings and equipment, including such big-ticket items as baptistries, church steeples, outdoor signs and even stained-glass windows.

Office equipment is also part of the product mix, including not only fax and copy machines but specialized software packages for membership rolls, contributions and attendance that serve the administrative needs of churches.

The vast array of services definitely go beyond the traditional purview of a bookstore.

"We think it's just the beginning of a stronger and stronger ministry to the church market," Scott said. "Intermountain already has a real good relationship with the churches in the area and individuals as well. We just want to be able to build on that strength."

Market surveys show that 80 percent of Lifeway Christian Stores' customers are women, Scott said. Thus, all their newly acquired stores will eventually have the look and feel of something like a Barnes and Noble, only with a less academic and more spiritual feel.

"Customers have the same expectations for Christian retailers as they have for the secular retail experience . . . We are a business with a ministry purpose. If we don't do our business well, we have no ministry. If we only do business well and that's the end, then we really have no ministry."

Asked if the new stores fall in line with newly elected SBC President Paige Patterson's declaration that he wants to spread the gospel to every person on Earth by the year 2000, Scott said they do.

"Southern Baptists are evangelistic in their beliefs. Our stores are out there to equip people with evangelistic and discipleship tools to help them be more effective Christians. That's right in line with what Dr. Patterson was talking about.

"We will be working with pastors in the area, meeting with them one on one and talking about the work going on in their church. We'll be trying to understand what their needs are."

Constance and his wife will continue to manage the two stores, which won't see any dramatic changes in appearance and will retain the name Intermountain Christian Bookstore for now. Constance said the stores' 20 employees will all be retained.

For the Utah stores' former owners, the purchase is a validation of what they've been trying to build along the Wasatch Front since the business was first formed in March 1952.

Their Salt Lake store burned to the ground in 1992, leaving the couple to wonder whether they could ever recoup the business.

Yet since then, they've been able "to build back to a very strong operating position," Constance said. "In a way, the idea of turning this over to new ownership is a real feeling of accomplishment. For us this is wonderful to see how the business will be able to go to the next level in serving our customers."