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

summer grove baptist church
summer grove baptist church

By Alice Hines

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.