COVID19 – Shopping Mall Churches Face the Music

The Age of the Shopping Mall

Perhaps I’m dating myself here a little, but I remember when shopping malls were all the rage and acted as the primary place where people of all ages would come and spend their weekends. Friday nights, especially, were spent roaming the halls of the malls.

These malls were packed with multiple shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, snack stands, perfume shops, jewelry shops, music stores (when people still bought tapes and CD’s), book stores, and so on. Many malls even had arcades, and some even had movie theaters built in.

I used to work in the mall. Specifically at the Chick-fil-a in the Food Court of the mall where I lived which happened to be situated right underneath the movie theatre and right at the main entrance to the mall.

Most of the foot traffic of the mall came through this to begin or end their mall adventure.

When I wasn’t working, I would absolutely be hanging out here with my friends, catching movies, playing games in the arcade, grabbing snacks at the pretzel place, going to talk to my friends who were still working at the various shops in the mall, or going out and cruising around the mall in my car trying to see if I spotted anyone I knew.

If you’re not sure what a mall looked like back in those days, check out the last season of “Stranger Things” and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Or…well…really, you could watch any 80’s or 90’s movie to see it as well.

The End of the Age of Malls

Fast forward to the mid to late 2,000’s and technology introduces us to things like eBay, Amazon, and all the shopping someone can muster, all at their finger tips through their computer without leaving their house or putting on clothes.

Fast forward a little further to the mid to late 2010’s and we find shopping malls seriously on the struggle bus. And why were malls struggling? Because online shopping was growing in convenience and popularity.

No longer were people coming to the mall to buy stuff, which meant people were less inclined to come and enjoy the other amenities of the mall.

Couple that with the advent of online streaming services for both movies, TV, and video gaming, and suddenly the other cool amenities like the arcade and movie theaters are taking a huge hit as well.

Sadly, as a result, we’ve seen a great mall exodus from America. Even in my own area I’ve watched one of the largest malls (and nicest in my opinion) go from hugely popular to struggling to even get older people there to walk in the mornings. They have literally turned the mall into a church (on one end) and in the middle they have turned it in to a branch of MUSC (a hospital system in my area).

There are still some malls hanging in there, but by-and-large, malls have lost their luster and the people have lost their affinity for them. Companies who had stores in malls that adapted to online shopping and started providing online shopping services to their customers have managed to pull through and survive the coming mall-apocolypse.

Unfortunately, other shops that didn’t adapt have had to close their doors altogether.

Fast forward again to 2020 and with the COVID19 pandemic, many stores who didn’t already have an online presence have had to close their doors, try and quickly get an online presence or find other creative ways to get their product to customers. Either way, they’ve struggled.

Meanwhile, stores that have had an online presence and have been providing shipping for years quickly and easily adapted and even became popular sources for shopping for those who hadn’t previously done online shopping, simply because people were too scared to leave their homes to shop.

The Age of the Shopping Mall Church

Now, imagine with me if you will, still in the 80’s and early 90’s, replacing those individual shops with various local churches and then, let’s call this place the “Western Church Mall”.

As you walk through the halls of Western Church Mall you see the various church shops with their people standing out by the doors begging you to come inside and see what they have to offer as they shoot glares and smirks across the hall to the church across the way while they tell you all about how different and better they are than the Church shop down the hall.

You notice that some of the shops appear to be ethnically targeted, while others seem to be targeting certain age groups of people.

Some of the church shops appear to be hocking formal wear, offering only the finest in suits, ties, and dresses. While other church shops appear to be hocking casual wear offering the latest trends emerging from the casual markets.

All of the church shops appear to be in competition with one another to get customers. Some of the church shops even belong to larger corporations who put out advertisements on TV and radio comparing their offering to the other church shop offerings like some Pepsi vs Coke commercial of the 80’s.

As you walk by each church shop you hear their various radio stations playing over their loud speakers. Some, like the formal church wear shops, are quietly playing classical music over the speakers, while others like the casual wear shops are blasting loud rock, hip-hop, or even rap music over their speakers.

As you continue walking you see all the other people around you walking the halls, some of them slipping into one shop, and then moments later slipping into the next shop, and so on. You see several who walk the halls, peruse the shops, and leave the mall without buying anything because, in their words, “The stores just didn’t have what they were looking for” so they are going to go try the mall across town and see if those Church shops have what they want.

The End of the Age of Mall Churches

In the mid 2010’s we saw the increase in popularity of a little thing called “Live Streaming”. Live streaming suddenly made it possible for “churchgoers” to attend their churches Sunday gatherings from the comfort of their home. They could pull up their churches services right there on their computer without leaving their home or putting on their clothes. They could even watch multiple church gatherings if they wanted at the exact same time from churches all across the country and world.

Fast forward to 2020 and we suddenly have a pandemic on our hands called COVID19 and churches are being forced to consider closing their physical church locations to help prevent the spread of COVID19 to their parishioners.

Churches that have been live streaming for years have faced as much of a struggle with this as they simply continued to produce online services that they were already doing. Some faced a slight dip in giving, but generally, they were able to maintain their Sunday worship services for their people with minimal additional effort and even saw a massive uptick in “attendance” via their online services.

However, unlike the online stores, even these churches have begun to see a serious hit to their bottom line, attendance (both in person and online), and more. These churches have had to halt building projects, let go of or reduce the pay of staff, and have had to put all sorts of programs and events on hold that would’ve otherwise been a smash hit during the summer.

Churches that haven’t been live streaming for years, may not even know what live streaming is, or struggle to even have a single computer in their facility have been a horse of a different color. They have struggled to quickly catch up, learn the technology, implement new parts to their website (or get a website to begin with), find people in their churches who know how to use this technology, and find ways to get these digitally produced services to their members who by-and-large aren’t all that big on technology either.

The Barna Group released a study on July 8, 2020 titled One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19, and I’ve already seen the rounds going by Christians and pastors alike decrying peoples non-commitment to the local church. In this article Barna reveals that all churches (traditional and contemporary) are struggling hard in this pandemic.

Technologically advanced and technologically disadvantaged churches have had to learn a hard truth in light of COVID-19:

…they have (for better or worse) built their entire existence around a one hour gathering on Sunday’s as though this was their entire reason for being, and all it took was a single pandemic to practically topple it.

And because of that, if they do not manage to find a way to maintain it or replace it with a creative alternative in light of the current era we find ourselves in that is plagued with a literal plague, they will find themselves closing their doors no matter how young, hip, cool, technologically advanced, or whatever else they may be.

In short, these churches put all of their eggs in one basket because they assumed this was the only basket the Church had to carry.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

Unlike shopping malls and stores, the Church is, or at least should be, a very different entity from a business. Mostly because they are not a business.

However, up until now, the Church has made the massive mistake of becoming a consumer driven organization that looking more and more like the shopping malls of the 80’s and 90’s than a living, breathing, world shaking entity that is empowered and equipped by a mighty God who created all things to go out into the world and be His ambassadors of light to this dark world.

The mindset has become, “If we build it they will come.” (NOTE: This is a famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner…classic late 80’s/early 90’s movie)

As a result, COVID19 stripped nearly every church in America of their identity because we put all of our efforts and focus into a single hour of the week assuming this was the purpose for which we existed, instead of in the person of Christ and in the relationship with him and with one another.

We were dead wrong, and many churches are facing the music because of it. I don’t celebrate this. It’s sad news.

Unfortunately, I have been saying this for years now, but especially in the last few months, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The Church in the West doesn’t have to go down like this.

Yes, we’ve had our facilities, gatherings, budgets, staff, and all the niceties of the modern church stripped from us, but these things really weren’t the church, were they?

No. These things were the trappings of a church that had adopted a toxic consumer mindset and have spent the better part of the last 30+ years trying to find ways to function like a business but still call itself a Church.

This isn’t a jab at contemporary churches only. It’s not just a contemporary church problem. This is a Western Church problem, and has been for a very long time. [See some of my other articles on this issue like Obese Church vs Keto Church, Tiny House Movement: A Big Lesson for the American Church, 20 Signs of a Consumer Driven Church Culture, or Re-Branding the American Church).

But we can change course. We don’t have to go back to what we’ve always done. We can use this moment as a moment for positive and effective change.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Back in March, when all of this COVID19 stuff started making its rounds in America, I wrote the following article: COVID19 Aftermath: The Church Cannot Go Back to Egypt.

I highly recommend going and checking this one out because this was my first step at trying to outline where we need to go from here.

But now, I’m trying to think of some ways to address the glaring issue I think is out there because it’s not enough to sit around and point the finger and say, “See! There’s a problem!” and then do nothing to try and fix it.

So, here is a feeble attempt to provide four starting points:

  1. Start with the Bible. I know this sounds so cliche, but the Bible informs our understanding of God and the Church. Explore the New Testament and how the church lived, functioned, and more. Compare this to what you see today in the Church.
  2. Be willing to ask questions. Not softball questions. Hard questions. Questions that are going to make others and even yourself uncomfortable. Question everything. Seriously…it’s OK to ask questions. You don’t find answers if you don’t ask questions. Don’t just ask yourself these questions. Ask your pastors, church leaders, family, etc to help you understand from a biblical perspective what the Church is and why it exists and whether or not we are accomplishing this. Start a discussion, see where it goes. But always be respectful. Don’t become a clanging cymbal.
  3. Find people who have already been down this road and the resources they have available. Explore what bumps they hit, what tips they have, advice they give, encouragement they can show you, and what ideas they have explored. I’ve already found several challenging and respectable resources out there from people like Frank Viola (author of “Organic Church” and “Pagan Christianity“), Brian Sanders (founder of the Tampa Underground Network and author of “Microchurches” and “Underground Church“), or even Francis Chan (author of “Letters to the Church“).
  4. Connect with like minded people locally, not to whine, complain, and trash the local church, but to begin to explore how you can take your exploration to the next level. Perhaps it’s connecting with something like the Underground Network and starting something in your area. Perhaps it’s going back to your local church and speaking with the pastor and/or leadership about what changes might could take place in your church, and if they’re even open to that.

At this point, I think the next steps will be determined by what you discover and learn through the above steps.

Truth is, I’d be sad to see the American Church go. And we have the power and the means to make sure that doesn’t happen. We just need to be willing and courageous enough, and even creative enough, to take the steps necessary to ensure it.

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