the mall-ification of the American churchStroll 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
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.

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Sunwyn Ravenwood

This merely confirms me in my core belief, all churches are cults and all churches with paid clergy are scams. I seriously believe that we should abolish the tax exemption for all churches. The part of the church finances that are actually used for charity should be tax-exempt on the same terms as the secular charities. The part that is used for "worship" should be taxed like the income of any other entertainment company.

October 06 2011 at 4:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As I read these comments the most obvious fallacy is that the church is a building, which people go to if, they are Christians. When in reality the Church, i.e. the Body of Christ, is made of Christians and is therefore a living being with Jesus, the Christ, as its head. If these believers truly believed, they would take seriously their role as followers of Jesus, and be the love of God to everyone they meet. Jesus came into this world not to judge it but to save it and that's still His mission today. The Church is to be Jesus to the world (savior, not judge). John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus” if He was the one or should they look for another?” Jesus said “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me. ”. Jesus knew He was recognizable as the Christ by His works. In the same way, the world will recognize Jesus in the Church today by His works. Believers, as members of the Church, God wants us to be one with each other. That’s another way of saying God wants us, as a Church, to function as a single unit, the Body of Christ.

October 04 2011 at 9:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

People find fault with religion and the clergy to have an excuse not to go to church. Most church people are good, religious, and Godly.

October 04 2011 at 2:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

what's good about the churches 98% of which are penticostal, nazarrene, four square, assembly of god etc is that they don't have to pay taxes, so if any taxes were considered as part of the rental expense for the former "retail" tenants, it can not be passed on to the churches, which should help cut down on the taxes that the local government gets to spend foolishly . the tea party certainly endorces greatly expanded religious occupancy, especially as most are IAW with the above, tea party religious adhereance to the Word and bible

October 04 2011 at 2:05 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to fpfininc's comment

People who give to churches already paid taxes on the money. The Tea Party is middle class hard working, patriotic, America. Your neighbors.

October 04 2011 at 2:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I think malls are a good place to have places of worship. Have a religious mall. Say 20 stores. Have a different religion in every store. When people enter the mall they could chose the place they want to worship.
I grew up in the south in the 1940's and 50's. I didn't have a choice. It was Baptist, Methodist, or Lutheran, or a Pentecostal.
We did have two Catholic families. They went to the Lutheran church.

October 04 2011 at 12:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rha39's comment

you inadvertenly left out mosques, probably just an oversight

October 04 2011 at 2:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michael Jensen

This is just what we need, more non-taxable buildings. If the churches want to talk politics, then I say just like every other organization, we tax them.

October 04 2011 at 9:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael Jensen's comment

Yea, black churches got Obama elected.

October 04 2011 at 11:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to savemycountry911's comment

and the mosques will eventually put in sharia law if we don't outlaw moslems and take their mosques by immenent domain

October 04 2011 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

The American church is becoming consumerized. What a shame.

October 04 2011 at 8:31 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

churches need to pay taxes.
everyone needs to pay taxes.
we need the 9-9-9 plan.
and we need congress to not spend more than they collect.

October 04 2011 at 7:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to scottee's comment

so you have no problem with the American Cancer Society paying taxes, the Humane Society should pay taxes, in fact you feel all charities should pay taxes, right?

October 05 2011 at 9:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

IF ALL CHURCHES PAID THERE FAIR SHARE OF TAXES ........ we could do away with personal income taxes !

October 04 2011 at 2:21 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to richikid's comment

its not just in the empty malls that these new churches are popping up,you can see them also on commercial esatblishments,next to a restaurant,beauty salon,phone store etc.these pastors are con men ,masquerading themselves ,as godly men,using the bible,as their business tool! most of them have fancy vehicles and expensive houses,but look at their members,they;re mainly,poor, uneducated and gullible for brainwashing.these pastors are just grreedy and have no conscience!

October 04 2011 at 1:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to pio9860's comment

Not in all places. In our State most Pastors live in a very small house that is part of the Parish. They are all very good people and care about their parisheners, their neighbors and communities.

I'm glad I live where I do:)

October 04 2011 at 7:53 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Pastor Roland

Your characterization of pastors and parishioners is far from the truth, let alone "most" of them. I drive a 1995 mini-van with 200K miles on it. The other pastor here drives a 1997 mini-van with over 200K miles on it. The people here are not poor, uneducated or gullible, and neither are the people at every other church I have ever belonged to. Once again there are exceptions, but to apply your characterization to "most" pastors is laughable. Are you aware that the average church size in America is about 50 people and the salary of the pastor should be the average of what his people make? The mega-churches are out there for sure, and so are the mega-salary preachers, but these are once again the exception!!!

October 04 2011 at 9:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Pastor Roland's comment

Pastor Roland, kudos to you! Keep telling it like it is! Funny how we can't assume everyone of a particular race is bad because of the acts of a few, yet all Christians/preachers are bad because of a few shysters. One day we ALL will stand before God and give an account of our lives (religious shysters included) and no one will answer for anyone but themselves. He'll ask, "Why didn't you believe in Me?" Someone will say, "Because some greedy preacher misused church funds, so that means all preachers were like that." (Actually means, I needed an excuse to justify my selfish life, and I found one.) You can believe the sky is green, and believe it sincerely, but that won't make it green. You can sincerely believe God is a myth, but one day "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Best to do it now; then will be too late. The honest preachers as well as the shysters will be judged according to their own lives, as will the rest of us.

October 05 2011 at 8:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down