By Eddie Pipkin

We love what we know, and the familiar brings comfort.  Nostalgia is a powerful force – embedded in memory and tinged with a sense of “the way things were meant to be” – a gauzy reminiscence of when things seemed simpler and more straightforward, and we seemed more content.  (At least that’s the effect of memory and time.)  Because things from an earlier era were done the way they were done and were thus familiar to us, those ways often feel like the “right” way of doing things, and that can hold us back from looking forward.  Consider the shopping mall.  For those of us in our 50s, we grew up with these ubiquitous suburban outposts, and they have an outsized hold on our formative memories – they are the place where we not only shopped, but socialized, went on dates, got our first jobs, and scarfed our first Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  Now they are struggling relics of the past, and as such, they offer food for thought for ministry in a time of transition and transformation.

My thinking on this metaphorical parallel (between churches and malls) was triggered by a recent article in Time Magazine, called “The Covid 19 Pandemic Has Been Tough on Shopping Malls. History Suggests We Should Be Wary of What Might Replace Them.”  The article, by historian and sociologist Sam Wetherhell, tracks the ascent and demise of large suburban shopping malls as American cultural institutions.  They reached their peak here in the U.S. back in the 90s, and have been waning in popularity since, and Wetherhell recounts that the pandemic has accelerated the decline of brick-and-mortar shopping (particularly of the mall variety) with some 25,000 retail locations expected to close, with probably half of all traditional department stores vanishing forever.  There are eerie websites and artistic collections of “50 haunting photos of abandoned shopping malls across America.”  But sadly, it’s just as easy to find articles with titles such as “23 hauntingly beautiful photos from abandoned churches around the world.”  The parallels between derelict malls and defunct local church congregations are unnerving.

First, let’s take a look at a deep-dive quote from the Time article, which pays tribute to the power of one person’s distinct vision, because it was principally one fellow who envisioned the utopia of the modern shopping mall as we know it:

If anyone can be credited with inventing the shopping mall it is Victor Gruen, a Viennese socialist architect who fled Nazi-controlled Austria in 1938. Gruen settled in Los Angeles and quickly began to think of ways that his passion for top-down planning and beautiful public spaces could be grafted onto the expanding suburban landscape of southern California. In 1943, Gruen and his wife, Elsie Krummeck, co-authored an essay for the Architectural Forum in which they proposed a new type of space: A fully enclosed, landscaped and pedestrianized mall that would house stores, art-installations, concert halls and spaces for community gatherings. This new urban form, they hoped, would rein in the chaos and sprawl of suburbia, filling people’s lives with art and music, and giving order to an expanding free market of consumer goods. By the mid-1950s, Gruen’s vision had been realized in the Northland Center in suburban Detroit and the Southdale Center in Edina, Minn.—developments that propelled Gruen to nationwide fame and established the shopping mall as a familiar type of urban space to be replicated by developers.

It was a glorious civic vision, but you will note that the reality did not quite live up to the vision.  It became a much more commercialized bastardization of Gruen’s idealized civic space.  And perhaps more tragically, it accelerated the very suburban sprawl he was hoping it would defend against.

Gruen helped create a world from which there was no escape. In 1968, depressed by the fact that his creations had exacerbated rather than cured the alienation and inequality of American suburban life, Gruen moved back to Europe. There, with, almost dizzying irony, he discovered that his childhood second home had been demolished to make way for a shopping mall.

These details are a potent illustration of both the power of vision and the pitfalls of vision that goes awry.  Churches have certainly had parallel stories to tell as they undertook visionary projects that did not pan out as expected.  This has usually played out in two kinds of scenarios:

  • A very successful, thriving ministry tries to go ever larger and more expansive and loses sight of the core goals that led to the initial success. This is a form of overextension that can result in a sudden, dramatic collapse of the ministry.
  • A ministry tries to grow by adapting a current fad or popular ministry model that is not suited to its specific context. Even with extensive planning and investment, the chosen template just doesn’t work in an ill-fitting template.

In church settings we have seen both of these scenarios play out, and they ultimately result in either a core value reboot, reset, and recalibration, or they tragically end in the complete collapse of the ministry.  There are many safeguards to be employed when developing a ministry vision which can prevent either of those negative outcomes, and we have written about those strategic safeguards here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching.

One of the other parallels from the Time article that stood out to me was the link to globalization of the mall template:

There is a case to be made that shopping malls have resulted in one of the biggest global standardizations of urban space that has ever occurred. Hundreds of thousands of acres of urban land on every inhabited continent of the world are enclosed, heated and lit to international standards with profound detrimental consequences for the preservation of public space and the mitigation of climate change.

Even as the mall model wanes in the United States, it continues to proliferate around the world, and in doing so it frequently exchanges local cultural context for a homogenized American experience.  This, too, seems uncannily parallel for American churches, as the influence of the mega-churches which reached prominence in the 90s continues to exert influence on what worship looks and sound like for vast swaths of American churchgoers.  Praise services across the land have an almost generic feel as you travel the nation, largely due to the shared song list from a handful of influential worship bands and the similar stage settings.  It is increasingly rare to see local worship teams inject a sense of fresh context.  It is far more common to see local churches doing their darndest to emulate the worship videos they see from dominant artists and churches.  The pandemic’s influence of driving people to more virtual experiences as in some ways heightened this effect as people have realized that rather than watching their local church imperfectly recreate high level praise sessions, they can just tune in to the big-time players from the comfort of their couches (or as one couple I know spends Sunday morning, propped up in bed with a fresh cup of coffee).

Local context, local creativity, and local connections are the one thing that highly polished, theatrical extravaganzas can’t replicate (with perhaps the notable exception of the hybrid form which is the ‘distributed church’).

On the other hand, the pandemic has in many ways created an environment in which local churches are recalibrating ministry to respond in ways that highlight local context.  House church is on the rise (with its intentionally designed small group settings).  One-to-one connections and deep conversations are being encouraged.

These shifts dovetail with a general reaction against “church like it’s always been done.”  If it’s true that the local mainline denominational churches that many of us grew up attending have been related to spirituality in the same way that shopping malls have been related to retail, change seems inevitable, as people’s lives don’t comport to the one-size-fits-all approach of fifty or sixty years ago.  Most of us have changed the way we shopped over the past couple of decades, and most of us have changed (to various degrees) the way we worship.

As for young people, they are digital natives to shopping (unintimidated by the new thing and knocking out their Christmas lists from their smartphones with nary a thought of standing in a pre-dawn line for a Black Friday sale).  Likewise, they have no nostalgia for the old hymns from the hard pews.  They are quite willing to embrace their spiritual journey and develop their discipleship from digital platforms and from new versions of in-person worship and small groups.

Of course, not all malls will close.  Some high profile examples will prevail in contexts where they make sense, and there will always be a base of customers whose nostalgia propels them to shop as they have always shopped — and even for the young people, such classic experiences will be a throwback option that will be fun to engage once in a while.  So, too, it will be with churches.

But for most of us in our local settings, now is the time to continue thinking what the future will look like, how  we can hold on to the best of what we’ve been while embracing the exciting possibilities of what we can yet be:

  • Context is key.  What are the strengths, challenges, opportunities, and unique characteristics of our local context (both in terms of the surrounding community and the DNA of our congregation members)?
  • Flexibility is healthy.  We have to be listening and responding at a faster rate than local churches have traditionally moved.
  • Connection is core.  More than ever, it’s about relationships, establishing them and nurturing them.  This makes us locally relevant and always will, despite the tides of technology or swings in cultural fads.
  • Community beyond the walls is the future.  Even as traditional Twentieth Century local churches were idealized with expansive campuses to which people could travel to have all their needs met in one place (like shopping malls), churches have come to realize the downside of those resource-consuming campuses and begun to reinvent themselves as physical spaces in which the community is truly invited to participate as a public space.  Equally as important, we are beginning to focus on getting ourselves out into the community beyond our walls to make God’s grace real and relevant where people are.
  • Customization is critical.  As noted above, one-size-fits-all is a turn-off in a world in which people are finding more and more ways to curate their experiences and tailor their professional and personal trajectories.  Discipleship is filled with customizable tracks.  That’s how we should make it accessible in our local churches, and that’s how people will experience it with a fresh relevance.

How is your church like an old-fashioned shopping mall?  How is it like a food truck?  How is it like an Amazon store?  How is it like none of those things but uniquely itself?  How is it innovating?  How is holding on to what is sacred?  Share your stories below!