By Alice Hines
Stroll through White Oaks Mall in Springfield, Ill., and you'll see the usual suspects: Spencer Gifts, Panda Express, Gap Kids (GPS). If you're preoccupied, you might not even notice iWorship. The low-key illuminated "iWC" sign, flat-screen TV, and a welcome banner splashed with what look like '90s-era tech-company logos give it the appearance of a computer repair shop. Only if you look closely -- or happen to be there on a Sunday morning -- might you realize that iWorship is a church.
iWorship Center isn't your typical Christian congregation. The self-proclaimed "media-driven" church opened in the space previously occupied by the White Oaks Mall Cinema in 2010, when membership at its first location had reached capacity. Sermons are preached in the theaters, with portions simulcasted onscreen. Originally, two of the theaters were to be converted into the aptly named "Paintball Heaven" in a deal struck with mall management to help the church pay its lease.
Malls and churches may seem like an strange combination, like Auntie Annie's pretzels washed down with communion wine. Still, over the past decade, congregations in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, among others, have taken advantage of cheap suburban retail space to expand.
Store Purgatory; Seeker Paradise
As malls across the country empty out, it's no wonder their remains are being scavenged. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a third of America's indoor malls are currently in "financial distress." Retailers are leaving indoor and strip malls for popular outdoor "lifestyle centers," those cutesy, mixed-use developments that resemble the Main Streets their predecessors helped destroy.
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