Retail's Afterlife: The Mall-ification of the American Church

the mall-ification of the American church
the mall-ification of the American church

Stroll through White Oaks Mall in Springfield, Ill., and you'll see the usual suspects: Spencer Gifts, Panda Express, Gap Kids (GPS). If you're preoccupied, you might not even notice iWorship. The low-key illuminated "iWC" sign, flat-screen TV, and a welcome banner splashed with what look like '90s-era tech-company logos give it the appearance of a computer repair shop. Only if you look closely -- or happen to be there on a Sunday morning -- might you realize that iWorship is a church.

iWorship Center isn't your typical Christian congregation. The self-proclaimed "media-driven" church opened in the space previously occupied by the White Oaks Mall Cinema in 2010, when membership at its first location had reached capacity. Sermons are preached in the theaters, with portions simulcasted onscreen. Originally, two of the theaters were to be converted into the aptly named "Paintball Heaven" in a deal struck with mall management to help the church pay its lease.

Malls and churches may seem like an strange combination, like Auntie Annie's pretzels washed down with communion wine. Still, over the past decade, congregations in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, among others, have taken advantage of cheap suburban retail space to expand.

Store Purgatory; Seeker Paradise

As malls across the country empty out, it's no wonder their remains are being scavenged. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a third of America's indoor malls are currently in "financial distress." Retailers are leaving indoor and strip malls for popular outdoor "lifestyle centers," those cutesy, mixed-use developments that resemble the Main Streets their predecessors helped destroy.

Meanwhile, it is no news that Protestant churches in the American suburbs are growing and franchising. The Hartford Institute for Religious Research defines a megachurch as a Protestant congregation with more than 2,000 members, and estimates that their numbers have grown from 350 to more than 1,200 since since 1993.

Most of the churches DailyFinance identified that reside in malls or former malls fit the Institute's description. According to its 2008 survey, which got responses from about a third of the nation's megachurches, most practice a generic form of evangelism, view themselves as contemporary, and regularly adjust worship styles to meet demand. While individual church practices vary, many are "seeker friendly" in that they use technology, pop music, and relatable sermon topics to reach non-churchgoers.

Looking conventional isn't a priority for many of these churches, either. As Lead Executive Pastor Chris Hahn of Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Ky., explained, "We don't want to seem intimidating. We want to convey welcoming, inviting space to anyone, including those who feel like the traditional church may have disappointed them."

Southlands (a 9,000-plus member church famous for its "Jesus Loves You" letters to Britney Spears during her bald period) is currently renovating the two-story Dillards (DDS) department store in the empty Lexington Mall. The building will become its third satellite campus, a modern structure of glass and steel that will look more like a college science department building than a church. Southlands had raised $18 million from its congregation for the renovation as of November 2010.

mall-ification of the American church
mall-ification of the American church

God's (City) Plan

Retail businesses aren't always thrilled to have a church as a neighbor or tenant, even in a struggling mall. In Springfield, the White Oaks Mall owner Simon Properties recently informed iWorship that it wouldn't be renewing the church's lease, according to Lead Pastor Eric Hansen. "They found someone who would pay more," he said, though offered no further details. Mall management also declined to comment on the alleged new tenant for the theater space.

Perhaps things went sour between them when Heaven--Paintball Heaven, that is--turned out to be more mythic than real. While churches do draw in crowds on weekends, they don't incite them to spend money like a department store or big box anchor would.

From a city planning perspective, though, churches that occupy dead mall space are godsends. Vacant retail space can fast turn into a liability, as the South Park Mall in Shreveport, La., exemplifies. The once-popular mall emptied over the course of the '90s as the surrounding neighborhood became a haven for gangs. A shooting occured in Dillards in 1995. One year later, a local girl disappeared while shopping and was never found. One by one, its stores moved out.

South Park still looks like a mall today, but one where the stores are all

religiously themed. Summer Grove Baptist Church, a 162-year-old congregation, jumped at the opportunity to buy the nearly empty million-square-foot mall for a mere $3 million in 2005.

After renovating the old J.C. Penny's (JCP) into a worship hall and adding a steeple, Summer Grove converted the remaining stores into church "ministries," or stations for community outreach. Where once there were stores and restaurants, now one finds counseling services, banquet halls, classrooms, a cancer center, a food bank, a daycare, a charity clothing store and (soon) a nonprofit pharmacy. Summer Grove has also donated spaces to the local school board and sheriff's office. Today, the mall is full again, says Dr. Quinn Nyman, minister and director of counseling at Summer Grove.

While Summer Grove isn't a glitzy new church with multiple campuses, "it has always been on the cutting edge," says Nyman. "Our older members remember meeting in a circus tent for two years while another location was being built. They know how much fun and good memories there are when something like that happens."

The only retail business still hanging at South Park on is the Burlington Coat Factory, which remains open in its anchor location, though not connected to the rest of the mall. Burlington had a long-term lease, Nyman explains, so Summer Grove set up a private LLC to charge the department store rent. As nonprofits, churches don't pay taxes. However, they're allowed to operate unrelated income-producing businesses that report revenue and pay taxes separately.

Cities like Shreveport lose property tax revenue when churches move into big retail spaces. Still, this is less than they would probably spend chasing crime from enormous, derelict buildings.

"There used to be a lot of crime in the area," Nyman says. "It's gone down so much since we moved in it's unbelievable."

Church, Inc.?

Some smaller churches question whether their larger competitors should be able to run paintball facilities in the first place, or whether such commercial activities aren't more profit-seeking than pious.

Allegedly, churches run businesses and franchise in to shopping centers in order to reach--and save--more people. But detractors say increased megachurch income ends up benefiting church leaders more than members. On a case-by-case basis, this is hard to determine: Unlike other nonprofits, churches are not legally required to apply for tax-exempt status, or to report their spending and revenue annually to the IRS. This means that many also don't disclose their finances publicly to their their congregations.

There is some data to go on, though: According to the 2008 Hartford Institute survey, 47% of megachurch income typically goes to employee salaries and benefits, compared to 13% for missions and benevolence. According to Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit, pastor salaries in megachurches can reach as high as $400,000 a year. The IRS monitors salaries and specifically prohibits shareholder-like pay for ministers and church employees. Still, popular personalities regularly command higher salaries.

Churches maintain that monetary growth is just a means to the end of gaining new converts, not the other way around. On its website, Southland writes: "Some say, 'We don't need more churches. We're only draining the rolls of other churches.' Our hope is that we're draining the rolls of hell. More locations provide more opportunity for evangelism."

For churches like Southland, paintball courts and letters to Britney are ultimately good because they help bring more people to God. Malls, similarly, are tools that bring in more members. But at what point does embracing commercial culture change one's religious message? While holding services in a renovated Dillards might not affect how worshipers see Jesus, giving away flat screen TVs and cars to new attendees as prizes on an Easter Sunday "egg hunt" probably does. (The hunt, hosted by Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Cristi, TX, also served as a casting call for a new season of MTV's reality show "Made.")

Even when they become shells of their former selves, malls' pasts never completely disappear, as Summer Grove's recycled mall Christmas decorations suggest. Whether you fasten on a steeple or add a glass facade, Americans remember malls as childhood fantasy lands, where they could meet Santa Claus and play with any toy. Perhaps it's not a bad bet, then, that as adults, they might come back to meet Jesus.