The Death of the Mall and the Future of Church Buildings

I remember the first time I went to a mall. Raised in a small town in the southeastern section of Alabama, I was amazed when I went to the “big city” mall in Montgomery. All the stores were under one roof. They were new and shiny. The venture became an adventure for me.

But that was fifty years ago. Things have changed. Things have changed significantly.

As Jeff Jordan notes in The Atlantic Cities, the future of American shopping malls is tenuous.

The Plight of the American Shopping Mall

As Jordan says in his prescient article, the trends are gloomy for malls. Sales are down. Numbers of malls have closed or they are on the precipice of closing. Vacancy rates are up. Jordan notes “there are more than 200 malls with over 250,000 square feet that have vacancy rates of 35 percent or higher, a clear marker for shopping center distress.” He further provides data that indicate over 10 percent of malls will close in the next five years.

Of course, the declaration of the death of American malls is an overstatement or, at the very least, a premature obituary. Many malls will remain open; a number will remain viable and growing. Still, the trends are unmistakable and unavoidable. Only those who deny reality will fail to note the implications of this issue.

The Relationship to Church Facilities

Is it then fair to suggest any relationship between the decline of the malls and the future of the church buildings? I think so. To be sure, most malls are adversely affected by the growth of online shopping. There are not too many brick and mortar stores that don’t feel the impact of the Internet.

But there is more to the decline of the malls than the rise of the digital world. The Boomer generation has been the generation of bigness and sprawl. Their parents, in the aftermath of World War II, moved numbers of them to the new and massive suburbia. Large malls would soon follow. Most large megachurch buildings were constructed primarily for the favor of the Boomers.

But the children of the Boomers, Generation X and, even more, the Millennials, have been pushing for more intimacy and smallness. They triggered the unprecedented growth of Starbucks. They have been the key movers in social media, which has fostered a new online intimacy.

Among the Christian Millennials there is a desire for greater intimacy in church. They are in many ways triggering a new small group revolution. And though they may not have an explicit aversion to large church facilities, neither are they attracted to them.

The Future Size of Church Facilities

As there will still be large malls twenty years from now, so will there be large church facilities whose worship centers can accommodate 2,000 or more in one service. But you will also see a discernible difference in megachurches in ten or twenty years. Fewer of these large churches will have large facilities. More will have smaller worship centers and multiple venues, many with multiple gathering times and days.

The trend in smaller facilities will not be limited to just the largest of churches. Churches of all sizes will “downsize.” Or, as an alternative, they will not build larger the first moment the capacity feels challenged in their worship services.

A Boomer church leader looks at a small building and limited acreage and sees challenges. He sees the limitations of size and space. A Millennial leader looks at the same building and acreage and sees opportunity. He immediately thinks multiple venues, multiple services, and multiple days.

It will be fascinating to watch these trends unfold. Large malls will yield to online shopping and smaller and more intimate shopping villages. And large church buildings will yield to smaller church buildings and other venues that aren’t “churchy” at all. The result may be that we will see our church facilities actually utilized more; greater facility stewardship could result. After all, only college football stadiums are utilized less than church facilities.


  1. says

    Bro. Rainer,

    I can’t help but think that you are on to something here, but in all honesty I wish you weren’t. A church is an entity that by it’s very nature should want to grow. A growing church usually means that souls are being saved, and people are being brought into your fold of doctrine, which if you believe your doctrine is correct (which you should) are all good things.

    I know that the younger generation has become more introverted, but I don’t see how that is a good thing, especially when you consider that Christ was always out in the world, reaching out to those who needed Him, with plans of bringing them into His fellowship.

    Again, I think you are dead on that this will be a trend, but it seems like a bad trend.

    Thanks for the article.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Tom –

      See David S.’s comment in response to you. He responded better than I would have.

      Blessings friend.

    • says


      I agree with David S, as Thom pointed out. Younger Christians are maybe just looking to change the venue. But I think at play here is the difference between desiring THE Church to grow versus desiring your church to grow. As a young pastor in an older church that just wants to see their congregation grow again, I see this as one of the markers of the future of the Church in America. I think Millennials may strive in the next decade or two to establish more unity with other Christians despite theological differences. Therefore, to aim for many more small, intimate congregations takes the place of larger megachurch congregations. This will also be necessitated by the trends toward becoming a post-Christian nation (similar congeniality across lines can be seen in western Europe and Britain as the Church becomes an increasing minority voice).

      This isn’t a response to introversion so much as a desire for more meaningful, intimate relationship. Christian Schwartz talks about this in “Natural Church Development.” He says, “Just as the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple but another tree; the true fruit of a Christian is not a new Christian but another group; the true fruit of a church is not a new group but another church; the true fruit of a leader is not more followers but new leaders.” I think the Church is still growing and can desire to grow, but that Christians ought to be willing to let go some of the attachment to their specific church congregations.

      • Lois Keen says

        Nick, this is just what I would have said, and more articulately. I’m struck, since you mention apples, by the Apple stores as a metaphor for what you have described, a metaphor for a church as well as for what church is, or can be. I’ll leave it to you to imagine why, and it’s a good thing. I was just about to blog about that metaphor so I won’t say more here.

  2. Thom Rainer says

    I am in Miami today and tomorrow for the BCS National Championship game with my son, Jess Rainer. I’ll do my best to respond to comments, but I might not get to all of them. Thanks for understanding.

  3. says

    There certainly is a correlation here. I grew up in St. Louis a few miles from Northwest Plaza, which was literally the largest mall on the face of the earth when it opened in 1963 in what was a shiny new post-war suburb. It is now completely closed, and is only an empty shell of building, and the one-time mega churches in the area have followed suit. It seems that if nothing else, malls are a good thermometer of an area’s growth or decline, and post-war ‘boomer’ suburbs are generally in decline.

  4. says

    It’s interesting to read about these developments as a British observer (who once lived in the States for a few years). Generally we tend to be about 10 years behind the US in pursuit of its trends. (We’ve yet to introduce drive through banking, but hand car washing enterprises have sprung up all over the place here).

    I would hope that the Church in the UK could bypass the whole mega church phenomenon altogether. Alas, this is what is still being pursued by many, with the advent of the first mega church building in my city just a few years ago, along with the growth of many London mega churches in the last twenty years.

    What a shame that we will discover the fallacy of this in the years to come.

  5. David Siekbert says

    Tom, I don’t believe it’s an issue of the church not growing, but instead the church meeting place has changed in favor of multiple services, types of services and locations. You can compare it to Thom’s example of shopping malls. The number of shoppers is not in decline, but they choose to shop from different locations (online) instead of the large shopping malls.

  6. Ron Leonard says

    Interesting post and analogy. I think we should also consider the “Big Box” store phenomenom as well as online shopping contributing to the demise of “the Mall”; a “one stop” shopping experience for the consumer/church attender and at a lower price/commitment level, too. I do sense a trend toward smaller group interactions and this is only negative if the smaller groups are not willing to grow or if there is a limit to those willing to biblically lead such groups. The trend may also indicate a more personalized “shopping/church” experience as most online shopping and small groups appear to address. While there is the “smaller” personal interaction being desired, there is also the desire to be part of “the bigger picture” shopping around the globe. The social media trend is like a two edged sword, both extending options/influence, but also keeping it at a much more shallow and superficial level. Certainly, “the times, they are a changin’.”

  7. says

    Tom, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to read this post.

    With your permission, I’d like to do a commentary on this post on my site later this week. Giving you full credit, and linking back to you, of course. You and I have a lot in common on this idea.

    I won’t put my blog address here. I don’t like it when people use my blog comments to promote their stuff, so I won’t do it to you. But you have all my info in my Gravatar profile.

    You’ve said what I’ve been blogging about for a little while now. In fact, I just wrote a post a few days ago about the fact that I see the same trend among millennials for smaller, more intimate settings for worship.

    Thank you.

  8. says

    Another interesting thought is that this is not a bad thing. The ‘mega-church’ was not widespread until recent years. One could take the persective that although smaller and more intimate is not as outwardly “successful”, it may indeed be more successful from a Kingdom standpoint.

  9. says

    Here in the UK, where, until recently, church attentance was on the decline, we are seeing the building of churches very much like those described in this article, with multi-venues in a large building block. The church is effectively reaching out more into the community, which is what Jesus’ disciples were commanded to do in Matthew 28:18-20. The church is providing much of the provision for the poor through food banks, homeless shelters and daily activity groups for those who are elderly and have special needs. What an opportunity this is to share the Gospel in deed, as well as words, and for us as Christians to live out the servant life which Jesus showed us how to do, by His example. I was born in 1955 which (I think) makes me part of the Boomer generation.

  10. says

    Very intersting observations. I wonder if this will also force churches to be more intentional in how they use their facilities. It seems like a worship center that sits empty 6 days a week is just not a viable option (or at least not a good one) any more.

  11. Lynwood Allen says

    Malls in Montgomery! I lived in Prattville, AL for 50 years and I have a good idea about the malls you mention. The newest shopping is an open air type place out on Taylor Road near Auburn-Montgomery. I have lived in metro Atlanta for 10 years now and my hometown is attracting shoppers from Montgomery. When I go back to Prattville I can find practically everything that I can in Atlanta. BTW, where in southeast Alabama were you raised? Dothan, Slocomb, Enterprise, Troy, Brundidge, Andalausia, Goshen, Opp? Maybe Midland City? All my mother’s ancestors were from metro Pine Level or Troy. Have you had any cornbread in buttermilk lately?
    Regards from Hotlanner.
    Almost forgot, did you ever go to the Snakeatorium in Panama City?

    Lynwood Allen

  12. says

    As as a pastor of a growing church space is a critical problem but it is not worship space. We can do creative things to get people into the larger corporate worship services such as multiple services, lives streaming etc. Our problem is small group space for SS, children’s ministries etc. It is not financially feasible for us to build a mega auditorium for a few hours a week when we need smaller more useable space 7 days a week. We also live in a small geographical location with lots of people per square mile, St. Petersburg is a peninsula surrounded by Tampa Bay and buildings and land are at a premium price wise. We are praying and studying our options because right now we are out of space on Sunday mornings and Wed. nights. In fact it is possible we will give our auditorium to the children’s ministry on Wed. nights and we will move into one of our smaller meeting spaces. We are looking at renting schools, offices, whatever is available and do offsite ministry close to our main location.

  13. Drew Dabbs says

    Dr. Rainer, thanks for your post. In honor of my wife, I will also say ROLL TIDE ROLL! She’s a huge Bama fan.

    Facility stewardship has been on my heart a great deal lately; rather, “utility” stewardship. Numerically, we are a relatively small church (60-75 in SS, 90-110 in worship), and utility costs eat our lunch.

    We heat and cool TONS of space for a relatively small number of people. Downstairs classroom space is at a premium in our facilities, as many of our people can’t climb stairs. (We have 8-12 upstairs classrooms in our main church building that aren’t utilized.) Any time we heat/cool the sanctuary, we also have to heat/cool all of the upstairs and downstairs classrooms because it’s all on the same unit. We also have a family life center, which houses the nursery and two downstairs classrooms.

    Long story short, I’ve just been burdened so much lately about the amount of money we waste on heating/cooling space we’re not even using. That’s money that could go to the CP, missions work, or some other ministry endeavor.

    But, frankly, I’m reticent to breach the issue. I know how strong emotional ties can be to a particular building, a particular classroom, or a particular way of doing things. I’d love to move everything out to our Family Life Center. I know it would save us hundreds each month in utilities, but I just don’t know if it’s a battle worth fighting.

    Do I, as a pastor, have a moral obligation to address this issue of waste, which is, I would argue, poor stewardship of resources, or do I simply need to let it go and keep praying that our receipts continue to exceed our costs?

    • Thom Rainer says

      Drew –

      I would assemble a team of about three to four people who are well respected in the church. Present the issues to them, let them meet as a task force, and see if they can present their own solutions. Sometimes it’s best to guide rather than lead.

  14. says

    Thom, Do you have any current research on this topic. I would like to provide my strategic planning group at church with research as we consider future needs for educational and other space. Thanks for any resources you can point out…

    • Thom Rainer says

      Chuck –

      The basis for this blog was anecdotal information, though I think a data-based objective study would show similar trends. Perhaps LifeWay Research will do one in the future.

      Thanks friend.

  15. Richard Meek says

    I wonder if growing churches need to look more at planting new churches in the area and less at growing their own. At the same time, I suspect that many small churches need to look at growing into larger enough congregations that they can plant new churches.

    When we loos sight of the call to make disciples and plant new churches (multiply by division), we set ourselves on a path to decline.

    • says

      Actually, you don’t even need to grow a big congregation to be able to start churches.

      Hope Church in San Diego started three churches last year, and plans to launch as many as 50 small churches in San Diego neighborhoods in the next decade – all from a home-base church of about 100 people. Frank Wooden is the pastor, and he has an amazing vision.

  16. says

    I particularly like this idea. I am wondering what it would look like for a church to take up space in a mall. A native of KY, I’ve seen many churches BUY malls, but not reside IN them.
    What would the possibilities be of being an “open storefront” for people to drop in? Have hospitality volunteers there just to talk to folks, offer financial counseling to folks that they can schedule during their shopping trips, on and on the list could go. A bigger mall lot might even be able to accomodate some small-scale corporate worship gatherings. Very interesting series of thoughts you’ve started in me… Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Nick –

      That’s a fascinating question. Like you, I haven’t seen a church as one of many tenants in a mall. I even wonder if mall owners would let a church in, since their primary desire is to create retail traffic.

    • says

      Nick, there is a church that does something almost like that. It’s called Convergence Church in Irvine California. They don’t have a permanent spot in the mall, but on Sundays they rent two theater screens (one for kids programs). They start their Sunday time outside (it’s an open air mall), with snacks that anyone can walk up and eat, while church members mingle and talk with them. They’ve also done outdoor evening events in the center of the mall, and have some church services out in the mall when weather permits.

      The pastor, Norb Kohler, spends a lot of time during the week going shop to shop, developing relationships with store owners and workers. Many of them consider him their pastor even of they’ve never set foot in a church service … yet. He’s become the unofficial chaplain of the mall.

      Kinda cool.

    • says

      Sounds like Convergence could have at least an interesting start at a model for the next generation. IN response to Thom, it would appear that the brick-and-mortar stores that are “working” are experience-driven, not retail. They are a playground in which you can “test drive” your products, but not necessarily buy. Think Apple, Brookstone (to an extent), etc. If this becomes the model, it would be interesting to see if any malls at all could sustain; I don’t see why a church would be discouraged if the world goes that way. At the very least it would bring a certain volume of foot traffic to the mall on a regular, weekly or semi-weekly basis. Anyway, it was just an interesting thought that I would love to look more into.

  17. Susan Horton says

    About 12 years ago, my church built a larger building on a bigger piece of land on a somewhat less well-traveled street. It was a controversial decision within the congregation. The old church could be seen from the freeway and was closer to downtown. But the growth of our city has brought many new businesses and homes, and now our street is the busiest corridor in the state of Idaho! The visionaries who built our present facility wanted a place dedicated to the community not only of believers but our town at large. Our “sanctuary” is a multipurpose gym. We have a wonderful library, preschool, indoor kidzone (think McDonald’s), counseling center, and many rooms used by community groups every day of the week. Our church’s doors never close! As we reach out to our community, new folks come to check out our services, sometimes surprised that we are a church and not just a community center. What would our churches look like if more attempted to make themselves available to their towns, and buildings didn’t sit empty for 5 or 6 days of the week?

  18. H. D. Gillis says

    Would this also apply to Christian Publishers? Do you think the day of large Christian publishers is a thing of the past? We are certainly seeing a lot of them tighten their belts.

    • Thom Rainer says

      H. D. –

      Change is coming at a fast pace to ALL publishers, not just Christian publishers. The digital world is reshaping all of us publishers. We either adapt or cease to exist.

  19. says

    I can also see several churches in our area who are in large buildings are leasing space to businesses which can be endorsed by the ministry of the church. There is one with a child-care business and a YMCA is leasing space from another one. The economy has forced this to be, but it turns out it is a good thing.

    I was part of a mega-church here in town and saw it grow from 250 to 6000…one service to five a weekend. As the music director of that church I can see these changes you mentioned taking place. Yearning for connection and intimacy that the mega-churches promised through house churches never delivered. Small venues with smaller congregations huddling together out of necessity is going to be standard fare soon.

    Thanks for an interesting article…

  20. C Elgin says

    A very interesting concept in that large churches may be in demise just as large shopping centers are. My observations are that large stores are just moving from what used to be the suburbs to the new suburbs to escape the leftover population who are unable to support the medium and upper priced stores that once upon a time occupied those buildings. I see those facilities now being affordable to plant churches which can serve the local populations and hopefully show love and mercy to them. Even tho most won’t to admit this–Religion and Politics are closely linked. The more that Politicians try to take care of people the worse it gets, if we “Christians” can start being able to give a helping hand instead of handouts and show that being disciplined leads to better lives for all, attitudes will change. As James states-“Pure Religion takes care of the widows and orphans” but this responsibility has been foisted upon the government willingly by the Church because it is too much trouble, except for Mother Teresa. History records that it takes major social upheavals to meld societies from factions to commonality, like the fall of the Roman Empire. Pray for grace and mercy upon all of us. Read Proverbs often and absorb the wisdom contained there.

  21. says

    The article said, “The result may be that we will see our church facilities actually utilized more; greater facility stewardship could result. After all, only college football stadiums are utilized less than church facilities.”
    Not my experience at many United Methodist churches! Many are like our church in Woodridge IL, where youth programming, small groups, study classes, and pre-school fill the building all week, along with a wide variety of community groups, scouting programs, blood drives, AA meetings, ESL courses, and even other congregations. Clearly churches are already moving toward shared facilities. Finding ways to share COSTS is more challenging though, since most groups have very little financial resource to contribute.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Jim –

      Thanks for letting us see some good things happening in church facilities. I appreciate your perspective.

  22. George M. says

    Looking back twenty years to the days I attended seminary and prior to that time, I could not imagine many of the current trends. I have attended my fair share of conferences about church growth, cultural trends and the like. In light of this and other experiences I do not think any of us has the ability to see very far down the road in this rapidly changing world.
    The challenge will not be found in church structure, size, budgets, pastoral leadership or cultural insights. At the risk of sounding too pious or aloof, the risk will be where it has been for quite a long time. The challenge will be found in faith. I speak not of the faith found in preaching, seminary classes, conferences, bible studies, etc. I speak of the faith that leads us to truly be more reliant on God than on our own devices or power. As a collective body of believers (church members and churches) I cannot see Christians as even moving in the right direction not to mention being close to arriving at authentic faith that truly relies on God.

  23. Weiwen says

    It may not just be about downsizing. It may also be about relocating. Don’t forget that a lot of millennials like living downtown. That’s going to be a boon for whatever churches are left downtown, provided they can adapt their liturgies and customs. (Not all will be able to.)

    Of course, it’s not always that simple. I used to worship at an Episcopal Church that is now right in the middle of DC’s office district. Most of the members still live in the suburbs. But they’re not necessarily getting a huge influx of the people moving downtown because they are quite some distance from the residential districts. They’re just a little bit too far to walk for a lot of people living in Northwest or Northeast DC, and the Metro doesn’t run very often on Sundays (although it does run starting at about 7, and there are also buses).

  24. Ly Nguyen says

    Dear Thom,
    Can you tell me what the “church”, “church building” and “megachurch” mean? I haven’t read your books ever but i find this article is so interesting.

  25. Paul says

    How is unity among the body fostered, if the church is broken into multiple venues or locations? It seems fracturing rather than unifying and a major concern among the body.

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