The end of an era has arrived. Northland Center in Southfield, Michigan, an inner-ring suburb of Detroit, was the nation’s first regional shopping mall. When it opened in 1954, Northland Center Mall was also the world’s largest shopping center, including a four level Hudson’s with a ring of stores around it. Yesterday was the final day of business for Macy’s, the one remaining anchor store. By April 1 all but a handful of tenants must close their stores, and the Farbman Group has a contract to market the 121 acre mall site for redevelopment opportunities.
Malls all across the United States are experiencing similar challenges. A week ago a headline in USA Today read, “As Anchors Close, Aging Malls Fizzle.” The article highlighted that Macy’s and J.C. Penney, two of the four anchor stores in the Upper Valley Mall in Springfield, Ohio, a small city northeast of Dayton, Ohio, announced their imminent closure.
The Upper Valley Mall opened in 1971, the year before I became a freshman at Wittenberg University, which is located in Springfield. I don’t remember shopping at the Upper Valley Mall even once, but it was a popular destination for college students. Today the mall is mostly quiet. Deb Shops and Radio Shack, which filed for bankruptcy on February 1, are also closing, and the only anchor left will be Sears. Deb Shops is one of 300 stores shutting down this year. Macy’s is closing 14 stores and J.C. Penney is closing 30 stores. One person who works at the Upper Valley Mall described it as “imploding.” It is not alone.
In the early 60’s my mother often took us four kids shopping for school clothes at Strawbridges’s, a large department store in suburban Philadelphia. Fall clothes shopping was an “event,” and my mother was a hero for putting up with us. Our family shopping patterns changed forever, however, when the first mall opened at King of Prussia in 1963, just thirty minutes from our home. Today it is the largest shopping mall in the U.S in terms of leasable retail space with over 400 stores.
Malls all over the country are struggling to survive. The average net operating income for U.S. malls has gone down each of the last four years. In 2014 it declined 4.8%. In the past, malls have been built around anchor stores, so when they no longer bring in shoppers, the other stores suffer. A representative from Urban Retail, which specializes in overhauling depressed shopping sites, including the Springfield, Ohio mall, was quoted as saying, “If you just stay with what you have, eventually you become irrelevant… So it’s important to look at ways to repurpose and re-energize your shopping center.”
Malls and churches in the United States – they’re more alike than you might think. All organizations have a lifecycle, and if they do not continually reinvent themselves, they will one day die. Why do some malls and churches make it and others don’t? Because if you just stay with what you have and what you’ve always done without repurposing and re-energizing, you simply won’t survive. What factors affect the vitality and sustainability of both malls and churches?
1. Malls and churches are often located in communities that are trying to revitalize in the face of slow job growth, declining population, changing neighborhoods and economic setbacks. When population shifts take place, malls and churches can’t simply pick up their buildings and move to where people now live.
- Malls must adapt to current demographic contexts and offer shopping experiences that are attractive to their clientele.
- Churches that are not able or willing to engage their changing neighborhoods by rethinking ministry and doing a new thing will not remain vital.
2. Buying patterns have changed over the past fifty years.
- Enclosed malls are facing stiff competition from strip malls and big box stores. Target, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Home Depot, Costco and Sam’s Club are usually located in these areas and focus more on necessities.
- In the same way, people seeking out a faith community today are consumer-oriented in their desire for quality, spiritual growth and relevance. In addition, the current well-attested decline in Sunday morning attendance in churches of all denominations demands a rethinking of how we “do church” during the week.
3. Many consumers find new malls and churches more attractive than existing malls and congregations.
- New and redeveloped malls attempt to create destination environments, which can include gyms, health spas, play areas, spacious atriums, varied dining options and specialty retailers who sell items that cannot be bought online. The King of Prussia Mall served as the home of the Philadelphia Freedom tennis team and constructed a temporary tennis stadium in the parking lot in 2008-2009 whenever there was an event.
- New churches understand that families today are seeking a variety of worship and small group experiences, vital children’s and youth activities, and many opportunities for mission and outreach. They also expect attractive spaces, welcoming faces and the opportunity to take part in leadership. Long established churches that cannot “see” the drabness of their building, cling to power and refuse to consider the needs of “outsiders” are doomed.
4. “If you just stay with what you have, eventually you become irrelevant… So it’s important to look at ways to repurpose and re-energize your shopping center/church.”
- With the right leadership and the will to be relevant, existing malls and congregations can sometimes reinvent themselves and start a new lifecycle. When local churches are honest about their inability to reverse their decline yet desire to keep ministry alive in that location, they might choose to gift their building and assets to a larger congregation that is able to repurpose the site with a new worshipping community. Still another option is to close the church, sell the building and property and allow the proceeds to be used for new ministry in a more desirable location.
Gary and I walked into a brand new mall a few weeks ago in Sarasota, Florida with our six-year old grandson. University Towne Center made a huge splash with its fall 2014 opening, and it is amazing. As we explored the entire mall, Ezra pointed out the cars displayed in the center of the mall, the playground for children (“I’m too big for that”), and was particularly fixated on a store that sold the “best smoothie I ever had!” The mall was filled with light, lots of attractive seating and one-of-a-kind stores as well as several anchors.
Of course, we dare not forget that churches and malls are different at the same time as they are alike. While both malls and churches hope that we will part with our resources to support them, what we are ultimately selling in the church is not success, wealth or status. What we offer is the opportunity to practice radical love for all, lose our life in order to save it and bring in the kingdom of God where all people can become who they were created to be.
And, unlike malls, people don’t want the church to be too slick. They want to be challenged to grow in their love of God and one another. They want to find compelling preaching and a place where they can repurpose and re-energize their spiritual life. They also want the church to be relevant to the 21st century by offering online giving, social media, attractive and engaging websites, intentional community and honest dialogue about difficult issues.
Yes, many churches will not survive because of their location, history and congregational culture, but many more are able to become vital again and reverse their lifecycle decline. So what will it be? Just staying with what we have? Or having the courage to reinvent ourselves? The future of our malls … and our churches is at stake.