Church in the Mall: Shop and Be Saved

Jun 12, 2003 10:58 AM EDT

Cleveland--Attention, Randall Park Mall shoppers: Your one-stop shopping place for clothes, food and electronic gear is adding praise and worship to its Sunday offerings.

It's a bit of divine intervention for a mall suffering because of an exodus from urban to suburban shopping centers. Mt. Sinai Baptist Church is moving in with a satellite facility that will offer Sunday services in a new Church 'N the Mall.

No stained glass. No pews. No problem. Just contemporary music and preaching in a converted store next to the Magic Johnson Theaters and across from Jeepers restaurant. Church services began last Sunday (June 1). But that's not all. On Saturday nights, the church plans to offer hip-hop, rap and other urban music to attract young adults. On Fridays, it will be a makeshift club offering entertainment from karaoke to jazz groups. The church also hopes to offer ministries such as computer education classes and summer camps during the week.

"I still believe the Bible says, `Go ye into the hedges and highways,"' said the Rev. C. Jay Matthews, Mt. Sinai pastor. "Now, inside a mall, that's pretty close to the hedges and highways."

In a corner of the mall near an abandoned department store, where sparrows fly amid largely empty hallways, the hope is that Church 'N the Mall will provide an economic as well as a spiritual boost for what was once a shopping showplace.

As some 100 people gathered holding hands in a large circle around the Church 'N the Mall on May 25, they prayed that the center of commerce would become holy ground. "We believe, God, for this place to become a mighty place of revival and resurrection," Matthews intoned. "Where others are leaving, you send new opportunities in Jesus' name."

The idea for the mall church came from Matthews, who said he was searching for ways to reach young people whom they are not likely to see at the main Woodland Avenue church on Sundays.

Relying on his own experience as a father of a teenage son, and all the time he spends at the shopping center, the idea of the church in the mall began to take shape.

As he continued to pray about it, Matthews said, "It just rang out in my heart in ways I could not let go to put a church in Randall Mall." The idea was embraced by people at the 2,000-member church and by mall operators.

For the first couple of months, services and some concerts will be held center stage at the mall to make people aware of the church. Sunday services eventually will be moved into the facility across from Jeepers on the upper level of the mall.

This is a difficult economic time for what once was considered the world's largest shopping mall. The 1.6 million-square-foot mall, built in 1976, has been hit hard by the closing of its Dillard's and J.C. Penney anchor stores.

When others are moving out, now is the time for the church to move in, Matthews said. "From our perspective, we see ourselves as giving life to this community," he said.

The pastor said he hopes church programs will attract more traffic to the mall and give young people constructive ways to spend their time at the center. In one immediate boost to a mall business, the church plans to have its children's ministry at kid-friendly Jeepers restaurant. "If there was a way God can help us to save the mall, that would be wonderful," Matthews said.

But Mt. Sinai officials said their primary motivation is to serve the community outside the traditional sanctuary -- to get out of the seats and into the streets. "We cannot stay inside the walls of this church. It's not `build it and they will come.' You have to take it to the people," said the Rev. Toni Morton. "We want to go to where the people who need Jesus are. That's what Jesus did."

One church member who came to bless the mall site said it is a great idea to provide positive activities for youth. "Instead of sitting around here doing nothing, they can come here and get their prayer on," said Charles Mitchell, 61.

Young people at the mall last Sunday generally supported the idea. "That'll be cool, putting a church in the mall," said one young man who declined to give his name.

The church has the right idea in offering rap music to attract young people, said Mike Melton, 19, of Cleveland. He said he would check it out. Some young people said mallgoers might not have much more than shopping on their minds. "I think it would be nice to have a church in the mall," said 19-year-old Jonathan Teague of Cleveland. "But I don't know if that means people will come."

Chris Stark, 26, a manager at Jeepers, said he thinks the church will help the restaurant. However, he wonders how many young people will be attracted to the mall by the idea of going to church. It could turn out to be a handy excuse to give to their folks to get permission to hang out at the shopping center. "I think they're going to say they're going to church in the mall, then just go to the mall," he said.

By David Briggs