When The Church Becomes a Department Store

You can drive around most neighborhoods here in the suburbs and find at least some vacant buildings. Some of them are small, and if not historic, they at least have a history.  While others are just enormous squares, nondescript, no personality or history at all. “throwaway” buildings might be a way to think about it. On our drive to take our oldest daughter to school, we drive past an old Car Dealership that is either defunct or has moved to a more “developed” part of town. In Either case these three or four separate parking lots, and multiple-unit buildings have sat empty as long as we’ve lived here and show no signs of being bought. The weeds and grass have begun their revolt, and I hope they succeed. Surrounding these vacant lots are open fields. Every time I drive by I am sad that these lots are taking up with could otherwise be open fields with trees and animals living there.

But this happens all the time. Some new franchise opens in an already over-saturated market, tries to out advertise, out sell, and out yell, with new products or looks, but underneath, we all know it’s the same story being sold just repacked with a different logo. And soon enough, everything closes down and those once wild fields of life and now empty fields of tar.

The Department Church

Earlier this week I read that a local church just bought one of these closed down mammoth department stores: from mega-store to mega-church. The cycle is the same — new logos, new “products” but the same tired old approach to “selling” the gospel.

In an article about Sacred Space in a recent edition of Geez Magazine, cultural theorist Guy Debord is quotes as having indicated that “modern capitalist society [turns] experience into commodity and repackages subversive ideas to render them marketable and benign” (Geez Fall 2011, 29).

The ready example the author gives  here of this is the explosion of popularity of Che Guevara t-shirts. And isn’t this what our “super-sized” churches fall prey too? The store and the church each sell a Gospel, and their gospels are almost indistinguishable from one another. Commodity is for sale in the one, and in the other God has become commodified. God puts on a good rock show with beautiful lights. Our modern capitalist spirituality is the justification for building edifices in our honor. Christian celebrity-ism is yet another distortion of the Way of Jesus which is quite simply anti-mega when he says, the first shall be last and the last first. The ultimate gig of a Christian celebrity pastor is to either a) have the biggest church you can possibly have and continue to franchise and extend your empire or it is to b) come to a place where you can quit pastoring so you can write books and do speaking tours telling all the world how successful you are (isn’t this what appears to be happening to Rob Bell?).

Yet, the connection between mega-store and mega-church, with one shutting down and the other moving in, shows just how close to consumer culture the church has really become and how much they rely on each other for survival. We already worship our gods in the department store throughout the week, why not Worship God there on Sunday too? Today, even our sacred spaces are the exact same kind of space as consumerisms sacred spaces.

A sanctuary cannot conjure a mystical experience, she writes, but a building “created within a cultural and religious tradition…constitutes a collective memory of spiritual insights, of thoughts of mystical moments” Margaret Visser Geometry of Love.

Now I recognize, some will respond, at least they are recycle an old building. Yes, I agree. I am happy these old buildings are being reused, but frankly there are way cooler, more historic buildings, in far more accessible areas, such as actual neighborhoods, where we could also buy buildings. Where people actually live and don’t have to drive 15 minutes to get to. Now maybe those buildings aren’t quite as big as the superstores, but then again, that’s kind of my point. We shouldn’t need airplane hangers to share the good news, since the one who the good news is about was content to do it at dining room tables, on small fishing boats, in the marketplace and out in the plains. The super-sized communities create a drain on the rest of the community, soaking up not only the funds but the people resources. When half of you church of 5,000 drives by 10 struggling neighborhood churches to go to a church that isn’t rooted in any one community (note their nondescript names that tell you neither where they are physically located or what tradition they belong too) we have disconnected the Gospel’s feet from its heart.

This is of course not to mention just how expensive these edifices we continue to build really cost. The present example raised more than 5 mil. for a new building. All this money raised in a town with historically high unemployment rates, lots of people living on the streets, and even more losing their homes and going hungry as we speak. And the best the church can do is buy a superstore. This is terribly heart-breaking to me. Look at how many people Jesus fed with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. It’s hard to imagine what he could with a baker’s dozen, let alone 5 million. These buildings are oozing theological conviction at every corner, and I doubt it’s a theology they own up to on their website’s about page.


But cut free from the roots of place and tradition, and built on the status only the weight of the complex’s own “architecture of power,” and the image whatever new pastoral celebrity these idols are fashioned after, it’s not hard to see how we get so easily engulfed in a Gospel that mirrors more of a Target mentality than a Cotton patch one.

The recent issue of Geez Magazine takes a look at Sacred Spaces, and if this interests you I’d highly recommend getting it. In it they look at a number of churches that are using their buildings in radical and creative ways. Some of those ways are creating sanctuary for refugees, others have made their pews double as beds or turned their extra space into low-income housing units. Some have ripped up their parking lots and made parks and gardens, others have built solar panels on their buildings and sell it back to the city to help break dependence from coal, while others have turned their spaces into places for “grassroots theater” or other art studios for learning, creating, and employment opportunities. What if we took what we had and instead of hoarding it, we multiplied it out for the sake of the people just like Jesus did?

A better example is River Rock in Camas, which has opened a popular coffee shop in their building that “exists not to make money but to give it away,” with 100% of their profits going to charities in the area. Another group of local churches in the area sponsor “Winter Hospitality Overflow” shelters for housing the homeless during the cold months. Our Quaker meeting hosts close to 100 AA meetings a month in our building, providing a space for groups that are often unwelcome elsewhere. These are just some of the really inspiring things that churches are doing that counter this kind of edifice complex mentality. It doesn’t take mega-malls and Costco looking “steeplehouses,” it takes a change in our understanding of the very Gospel we preach, a radical transformation of priorities, and a willingness to put our human and financial resources towards local justice issues. Oh and I suppose it will take a little humility, since you won’t be building your own personal Crystal Cathedral.


In the Sacred Space edition of Geez they offer these queries:

  • What are my feelings/impressions as I enter this space?
  • Where is my attention focused when I sit in the pews/stand at the pulpit?
  • What kind of emotional response do I sense this space was designed to invoke?
  • What sense of hierarchy or equality is naturally created?
  • How does this space reflect this congregation’s posture towards the Divine, each other?
  • In what ways does the architecture mirror or resist commercial values?
  • Does it celebrate wealth or humility, efficiency or process?
  • Does it uphold or undermine the status quo?
  • What economic class is catered to by this space?
  • Is it welcoming to marginalized groups: disabled, poor, non-heterosexuals, people of colour?
  • What historical/cultural factors influence the design?
  • What architectural features am I conditioned to admire?

Questions from Geez Magazine Fall 2011, 34-35Image above from Canton Repository, shared without permission.