Let’s Turn Empty Department Stores into Churches

During the last recession, I wrote a blog post suggesting that pastors needing a building should look at bankrupt car dealerships. During that time, car dealers were going under across the country, and many were leaving modern buildings, excellent parking, and large interior spaces that would make great sanctuaries. Since that time, a number of pastors took me up on the idea and today in many cities you can find growing churches in what used to be auto dealerships.

Now, the big news is department stores like Sears and J.C. Penny. Due to the surge in online retailing, classic department stores are going out of business. In the case of Sears and Penny, they’re not going bankrupt, but are trimming back stores in malls across the country, leaving some very high profile spaces. Forward thinking pastors and church leaders might find a real deal in taking over these financially distressed properties.

Our media consulting company – Cooke Pictures – has three church clients right now who are exploring that option in their city. In each case they are negotiating with former flagship stores in major malls which feature large interior spaces for sanctuaries, plenty of room for classrooms, high ceilings for lighting, and plenty of parking, plus, great visibility.

A challenging economy can be a positive experience for churches and ministries if we watch the headlines and see opportunities in unusual places.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Neil Werenskjold

    That is exactly what Dr. Bill Winston did in Forest Park, Illinois. It is quite a story how they took over a failing mall that was lowering property values in the area. Now the mall is thriving and the stores are doing so well that the franchise stores send representatives to see why their stores are doing so well there but not as well at other malls. Not to mention property values have risen in the area as well.

    This is an excellent plan Phil. May many more church’s see the success and be a blessing to their neighborhoods as well as Dr. Winston’s church has been a positive influence to the Forest Park area.

    One consideration that must be understood is a church taking over a large tax revenue property could face hostile city councils. Our Father is able to overcome any negative obstacles by the church being a beacon of hope in area. Not just a church full of smiley faces that keep to themselves.

    • I’ve spoken at Bill Winston’s church Neil and you’re exactly right. Not only has it revitalized the neighborhood, but it gave him the space to launch a business and leadership school. It’s been a great move both for the church and for Chicago.

  • Jon French

    We are located in what use to be a grocery store. And we love it.

    Some of the things that we love are:
    * Location… Many of these stores are located in highly trafficked areas. We are located very close to our mall.
    * Parking Lot Size.
    * Automatic Doors. I know this may sound funny but you wouldn’t believe how many people comment that we have doors that open by themselves. It’s just a little thing that makes us stand out.
    * People Know Where We Are Located. If someone is asking were we meet we can say “Do you remember where ______ was?” Most people know the old business. So they know where we are. Or many times you will here, “Aren’t you that church were _______ used to be?”
    * An Open Canvas. It is a big open space that can be used many ways. Usually have high calling and lots of power outlets.

    Those are just some of the reasons why we love our location. We actually have land to build on but when it comes up to build we always refer back to it would be hard to leave our current location because of the easy of people finding it.

    • All great points Jon. I would have never thought “automatic doors” would be a hit… :-)

  • I like this idea. I once thought our tiny Walmart was going to be building a superstore or at least on another piece of property. I wanted to look into buying it. But they didn’t build or move. Nix that idea. i pastor a church in a small town. WE looked at spaces “downtown” but with 5 church already just off the square it was not feasible. So we bought an old abandoned Mormon building and put it to good use. :) We have since remodeled it and now are adding on. We are also just outside of town on a major state highway. My first pick though is your idea.

  • Randal McNeill

    In the last 12 months, our four year old church has been able to do this very thing! We are just a couple of weeks from moving into a converted retail space on two major highways, one-half mile from I-75. It’s been an absolute miracle for a young, fledgling church like ours be able to buy and build out this space in a South Metro Atlanta suburb. All the positive factors that Jon French mentioned are the true for us, as well, EXCEPT we don’t have the automatic doors! And while we still have to manually open our doors, this retail space also had more than enough electrical and HVAC power to accommodate a church.

    Besides the location, open canvas, and community familiarity, however, we also discovered some other factors that made this property work well for us. I believe the fact that the building was an abandoned retail space has greatly helped us acquire it. First, since the property was a foreclosure, the national bank that owned it was looking to liquidate it as quickly as possible and agreed to our terms.

    Second, an empty building is a blight on the community and an invitation for vandalism. It also affects the values of other properties around it. The Director of Community Development for our city was actually the one who made us aware of the building. All of the various city officials who have been involved in this process – building inspectors, fire marshal, permitting office, community development leaders – have all seemed to be pulling for us and have been very easy to work with. While the small southern suburb culture probably has something to do with that, I also believe the city recognized that someone needed to be in the space to redeem it before it was vandalized. One official told me that one vandalized property leads to another.

    Finally, this same principle seemed to help us with our financing for the building. The local bank that gave us the mortgage and construction loan for the property has a branch and own other office buildings next door to us. While they have been very gracious and encouraging through this process, I believe they also didn’t like the idea of having an abandoned building next door to them. The favorable mortgage terms we have means we’ll be paying just a bit more per month than we were paying for rent in a space that is more than 3 times larger than our previous space. Plus, even with construction costs, we will move in with several hundred thousand dollars worth of equity!

    I would encourage any church looking to expand to at least examine the possibility of larger retail spaces. What we once thought was “just too big” or “just a dream” has turned into a dream scenario for us and we are excited about our Grand Opening in August! We’d be happy to share more details about this journey with any other church too. Thanks for the article and encouragement to The Church, Phil.

    • Thanks for that report Randal. I know a number of pastors weighing this option and your story will be a great encouragement!

  • Colleen Round Hardy

    Phil my husband and I saw you at Affecting Destiny Conf in OKC. I just wanted to let you know that we just went into contract a week ago on a Ford dealership. It too sits on I-35 and 36 hwy. We are located about 45 min. north of Kansas City, MO. I would love to see building pictures of what others have done to rehab the space. We are set to close in October.

    • That’s awesome Colleen! Congratulations! I’ll see if I can find some shots of car dealerships that have been transitioned to churches.

  • Sabina

    Or cinema halls, Phil! I am looking forward to the days when pubs, resorts, drinking holes, coffee houses, etc become storehouses of the wheat garnered in! I am envisaging the time when the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God!
    The byproduct in this process would be the gaining of time, effort & money that goes into raising edifices!

    • Sabina

      Oh btw, a church here in Chennai we partnership with actually meets in a coffee shop!☺

  • Charles A Bledsoe

    In my community, Union Lake (MI), we have a large grocery store that went out of business and was bought by Kroger’s who closed it because of their new store across the street. The closed store is on the corner of two major roads in our community and has a parking lot for about 200 cars. I told my wife it is a perfect location for a church. Your idea just confirms my thoughts. Thanks!