Christian Groups Capitalize on Faithful Consumers

With its restaurants and retail stores, The Village Shopping Center looks more like a mall than a church. But it is both.

The nearby First Assembly Church purchased the 250,000-square-foot mall in March 2001. Since then, familiar commercial businesses, such as Big Lots, Hallmark and Subway operate alongside prayer rooms, Christian counseling services and a daycare center.

Traditionally, evangelical Christians have focussed their efforts on bringing people to church.

But developers say The Village brings the church to the people, especially those who may not feel comfortable in a traditional service.

"We don't want it to look like a church. We don't want it to have that church feel," said Sam Farina, First Assembly's pastor. "Everyone's used to going to shopping centers. They'll be able to come there, feel comfortable, but still receive what they would at a church."

Rent collected from The Village's commercial tenants fund the mall's religious and social service programs. Farina said the church plans to add more programs in the near future, including a free dental clinic.

The idea of "Christian capitalism" first took hold in the 1980s, when Praise the Lord Ministries built a religious theme park near Charlotte, N.C. Since then, several large churches in North Carolina, Texas and California have opened large commercial centers that combine worship and shopping.

As with private businesses competing in the free market, these new churches are adapting to the changing needs of their consumers, 21st-century Christians. But some observers worry that society is changing the church when the church should be changing society.

"There really is a question of how much the medium affects, or even changes, the message," said Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"One of the great dilemmas for Christianity from its very beginnings in the first century has been how to be, and this is a biblical phrase, 'in the world, but not of the world.'"

But for Pastor Farina, the benefits far outweigh the risks. Capitalism allows his church to provide religious and social services to many more people than it would be able to serve on funds from the Sunday collection plate.

"And what is wrong with there being some retail that underwrites what is being done for the Gospel?" Farina said.

Leonard and other religious scholars caution it is too early to predict whether Christian capitalism will become an oxymoron or the standard for conducting church business.

Ultimately, faith and the free market will decide.