What's Tony Thinking

Church Replaces Hooters


In the last year I’ve done a couple posts about “churches for sale,” or more accurately church buildings for sale. As some denominations and congregations have shrunk, their buildings have become more albatross than advantage. Or they have closed altogether. Many old church buildings are being sold. Sometimes they are torn down. Other times re-purposed.

But that’s not the only trend in churches and real estate.

Because churches are not the only place dealing with shrinking numbers. Where else? Shopping malls. And here the trend, for churches, is the reverse. Growing churches taking over retail space.

And there’s a story from the Spokane Valley that’s just too good to pass up. A church taking over the property once occupied by a Hooters.

That’s not all. The name of the church is “Uplift.” To be fair the church had that name for five years before its new location in the former Hooters. It was taken from that part of the Gospel of John where Jesus says that when “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”

Still, the pastor, Joe Pittenger, gets the jokes and takes them in stride. “We’re not going to take ourselves too seriously,” says Pittenger, 52, chatting over coffee recently in what used to be the restaurant manager’s office. “We take Jesus seriously.”

Author Jacob Fries, the editor of The Inlander in Spokane writes that the trend of churches taking over retail space is widespread.

“Churches like Uplift are popping up in surprising places all across America — in abandoned big-box stores, empty mega malls, strip malls, storefronts and, yes, in a failed Hooters next to the highway.

“Nationwide, exact figures on these building conversions don’t exist. But the phenomenon, driven in large part by contemporary evangelical Christian churches, is clearly visible well beyond the Bible Belt. Locally, you’ll find churches in old movie theaters (Southside Christian Church in Spokane), hardware stores (The Cause in Coeur d’Alene) and supermarkets (Victory Faith in the Valley). And in one of the wilder examples in America, a long-dead shopping mall in Euclid, Ohio, was revived for a time by 24 churches that jointly came to call it home.”

What interests me is the message a church’s building or space gives. What is the message of church in a shopping mall? How does it differ from the older church buildings of prior eras?

Supporters of the trend to retail space argue that the church in a former Best Buy or movie theater means accessibility for the unchurched. The space is “user-friendly.”

I can see that. Not only are former retail spaces user-friendly by virtue of their prior uses and design, they usually have lots of parking!

Another upside of using former retail space is flexibility. Generally the space is open and can be configured in a variety of ways.

Contrast this with the neo-Gothic brick or stone structures of many mainline congregations with rank upon rank of fixed pews, all wrapped in stone and stained glass. Those buildings have often become cost-prohibitive as maintenance bills soar and heating (and cooling) costs rise.

But there are some losses in this trend too. Many of those older and grander church buildings were not only sacred space but a kind of public art, a beautiful building, that enriched a community and even gave a community or neighborhood a sense of identity.

The move to retail space may be more accessible and less forbidding, but it also less rooted and less a part of some neighborhood or larger community. You might even say church in the mall is part of an increasingly rootless culture.

Then there’s the “mysterium tremendum” factor. That’s what the German scholar Rudolph Otto famously called the human encounter with the holy, with God. It was an experience of the mysterium tremendum, something grand and a bit overwhelming. Those older church buildings often, though not always, had that. Higher ceilings!

But maybe part of what this trend is saying is that we don’t think of God, or the holy, in that way any longer — as mysterious or overwhelming.

It does seem that we tend increasingly to think of God not as distant but close, not as demanding but comforting, not as awesome but accessible.

That could be seen as part of an overall cultural trend toward less hierarchy, formality and authority. The fact that such words are mostly viewed today as negative makes the point. But perhaps those qualities are not only negative. Can religion be too accessible? Too user-friendly? Another aspect of a culture of convenience?

When former church buildings cease to function as sacred spaces there is usually some kind of service or ritual for “de-commissioning.” At such a service there is a formal declaration that the space is no longer sacred in the way that it had been, no longer set aside for divine service.

Which makes me wonder, what does the decommissioning of a Hooters look like? Okay, don’t go there.





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