CONCORD, N.C. — On the suburban cusp of this quiet Piedmont city, the First Assembly of Concord Baptist Church has made a bold move: It's bought a whole shopping mall.
The "megachurch" recently purchased and overhauled the Village shopping center within view of the main church's imposing spire.
With its unusual move into commercial real estate, the congregation has become one of a growing number of Christian groups trying to transfer the Bible's message from the pulpit to the retail rack.
Whether it's giant Baptist churches, evangelical ministries, loose associations of churches, or even individual developers with a religious bent, Christian capitalism is taking root everywhere from small towns to the sprawling centers of Dallas and Atlanta.
The developers' pitch to busy modern Christians: Get all your spiritual as well as shopping needs fulfilled at one central location. On a deeper level, though, the Christian malls seem to be responding to a desire to establish self-sustaining what some critics call insular religious communities that extend beyond Sunday morning communion.
"This has happened before, especially at the turn of the century, where large wealthy liberal churches tried to make up for what they saw as a lack of community in anonymous urban settings," says Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "There's a concern with the whole person rather than a place to save souls, seeing church as a place where you form community."
America's Christian entrepreneurs are indeed creating minimall sanctuaries with distinctly "safe" Christian themes and values.
In Houston, a conglomeration of churches has just bought and fixed up an old Wal-Mart store, turning it into a Christian shopping mecca.
In Asheville, N.C., Ann Hardman Ministries of Columbus, Ga., is putting another spin on the church as retailer. With her brand-new ladies' boutique, Bishup's Design, Ms. Hardman is paying her staff higher-than-average wages as part of her Christian mission. "Business is great," the store manager says.
In Los Angeles, a megachurch recently took over an old Department of Defense complex. It is now part church sanctuary, part shopping mall.
And at a proposed Christian theme park and mall planned in Asheboro, N.C., the developer plans to mix biblical imperatives with some good Christian fun: Batting cages, a minigolf course with a "parting of the Red Sea" hole, and a huge pool room where a sign will declare: "No cussin', no fussin.' " Local ministers have promised to go "racin' for Jesus" on the go-cart track to raise money for charitable causes.
"It's the shopping mall monastery," says Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the co-author of the Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies. "Now, once you join the church, you don't have to go to movies anymore at the cinema, you don't have to go to the food court at the mall, and you don't to go to the Y. Instead, you can have one full-service community of faith."
More often than not, malls owned by churches seem little different from any other mall. Here at the Village, the stores are like any other, apart from the occasional LED display boards with messages like "God's love gives peace," and "Jesus saves" message at the cash register.
Critics, however, say that building a mall is akin to embracing the consumer culture, and represents a new tack for churches that have long criticized the effects of postmodern American culture.
"Many of these churches say they're simply repackaging the old gospel in a new package and moving the gospel into the culture," says Mr. Leonard. "But whenever you change the method, you at best affect and almost always change the message. The culture is still setting the agenda."
For developers of these malls, it's not money, but "the love of money," that's a sin. They see nothing wrong in prospering along the Lord's virtues, says Charles Willard, a brashly Baptist convenience store owner who is developing the Asheboro mall.
"Since bankers have seen what I've done, they're all coming to me and saying, 'Let us finance the next one,'" says Mr. Willard. "I'm having the time of my life prospering right now, because of what I'm doing for God."
Church leaders, however, insist that beneficence is the ultimate goal: to do good, while doing good for the church. Some Christian malls include government-styled social services such as childcare clinics. In Charlotte, leaders of the Friendship Baptist Church announced in June that they're reaching out to help house AIDS patients.
Already wedged between a handful of secular beauty salons and sub shops are large worship and prayer rooms once occupied by retail stores. They hold neatly lined chairs, daintily placed flower arrangements, and daises with drums and electric guitars set up plenty of room for Christian concerts, classes, and counseling.
Barely visible behind the shaded glass of a former dentist's office, a crisply dressed Christian counselor speaks in hushed tones to a bereft-looking family.
"There clearly is a need for support for people in the larger community who have fallen through the system," says Ed Holland, project manager for the 107-acre Friendship Village, which will also include a retail shopping mall, possibly a movie screen and a residential neighborhood designed for the Christian consumer.
So far, attracting other businesses to the malls is proving lucrative for church-approved stores like Subway or Hallmark. Comments a matronly manager who runs the Hallmark Store at the Village. "We're drawing a whole lot of new customers who now come over after church."