A strip mall can house a tapestry of tenants. Including once-mighty churches.

About eighteen months ago I explored an isolated example of a trend that has become increasingly common: the vacating of old church buildings by their original founding congregations.  In some cases, the old church benefits from monumental architecture, making it suitable for adaptive reuse, particularly as an events planning or catering facility that can capitalize on its spacious, old, handsome sanctuaries.  Sometimes the new developers transform these old buildings into grand workrooms for service-oriented businesses, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows presiding over a grid of cubicles (or, perhaps, the “open office” concept that has increasingly fallen out of favor).  Sometimes they become atmospheric restaurants.  And sometimes they get subdivided into multi-unit apartment or condo buildings, the cheaper units claiming the rectory or Sunday school space, while the “penthouse” units each win a small slice of that glorious nave and chancel.  

Those cultural critics who predict (often with rapturous glee) the escalating secularization of America aren’t wrong: across the country, even in the Bible Belt, churches have been closing at an escalating pace.  The lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic have only exacerbated the delicate financial situations many churches were already facing.  But these statistics, grim though they may seem for the faithful, don’t reflect the full nature of church attendance or change in the United States.  Closures have concentrated in the older denominations: Mainline Protestant (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.), Roman Catholic, and (to a more recent and lesser extent) Southern Baptist.  Meanwhile, independent or nondenominational churches have opened at a rapid pace, as have smaller denominations, many of which have emerged as a response to theological differences amidst the established, formerly prominent Mainline Protestant denominations (ACNA, PCA).  It’s nearly impossible to quantify exactly how many churches operate in the US, since such an inventory requires a universal standard for what constitutes a church.  But most surveys still suggest that the rate of new church plantings slightly surpasses that of closures.  Furthermore, while church membership is declining precipitously, the trend of “church-hopping” has grown dramatically.  While this trend doesn’t bode well for loyalty to a certain ministry, many surveys suggest that new churches (the “church plants”) are better at capturing the formerly unfaithful or indifferent than are old, established churches.

Meanwhile, most metrics fail to account for the single biggest factor shaping who sits in the pews each Sunday: immigration.  It’s common for old churches with static or declining congregations to sublease their sanctuaries to a fledgling faith community, often consisting heavily of first-generation immigrants.  in these situations, the established Episcopal congregation may hold its services at 10 o’clock, while the Iglesia Bautista meets in that same sanctuary at noon, hauling in their own instruments, amps, and slide projectors.  And, in more dramatic situations where the old declining congregation can no longer justify a building, it  hands over the keys to the building (and the title and deed, through a sale) to the immigrant church altogether.  That’s precisely what I documented in that blog article from eighteen months ago (linked above), where an established Protestant church building on the south side of Indianapolis (near where I grew up) is no longer Southport Christian.  It’s now Chin Christian Church, the “Chin” referring to an ethnicity from Myanmar who have moved to Indianapolis in huge numbers over the last 25 years, seeking religious freedom after persecution by the Buddhist majority government.  Indianapolis is the epicenter of the Burmese diaspora.  The Chin Community Church has breathed new life into the 1960s-era building that Southport Christian used to occupy; for the first time in decades, the parking lot is jam-packed every weekend with Burmese Americans.  

And what happened to Southport Christian?  Well, it’s part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Mainline Protestant denomination that has been shedding congregants since the middle of the 20th century.  Incidentally, Disciples of Christ is headquartered in Indianapolis, and the Circle City unsurprisingly claims a higher prevalence of Disciples of Christ churches than much of the country, as well as a seminary.  Disciples of Christ has long been a pillar of American Protestantism, except that it cannot seem to stave its demographic decline.  As I previously noted in the old article, Southport Christian has rebranded itself as Tapestry Church.  But I didn’t really explore Tapestry that much; my interest was in the Chin community that has transformed this church (and many others on Indy’s south side).

So what has happened to Tapestry Church?  Venture a few miles further south, and there it is:

Tapestry Church (Disciples of Christ)

It now occupies a medium-sized space in an apparently unnamed strip mall in Greenwood, a suburb of Indianapolis.  The strip mall itself dates from the early 2000s, and, typical of commercial/retail construction from that time, features muted colors, ornamentations on the façade to preclude the boxy appearance, and a parking lot with abundant trees and landscaping.  The owners have maintained it well over the years. It might not be Class A commercial space anymore, but if it’s class B, it’s still probably B-plus.  That said, it’s got the vacancy rates typical of a less-than-spanking-new strip mall, and its anchor tenant, Stein Mart, closed all its physical locations, demoting itself to an online-only retailer after the COVID-19 lockdowns.  The big vacant wall on the left of the photo below used to support the Stein Mart, which was present at the inauguration of this strip mall.

Lacking this prime tenant, the strip mall’s overall revenue stream has probably decreased significantly, and it may be harder for the management company to maintain the space as readily as it did in the past.  Nonetheless, Tapestry Church has an appealing enough entrance at this point.

Tapestry Church storefront in a strip mall

But it is just a strip mall.  And that means this Mainline Protestant denomination has itself opted for an unquestionable real estate demotion: from discrete bricks-and-mortar to a tenant in a space that, twenty years ago, would have been unthinkable to host a church.

I’ve explored the storefront church multiple times in the past.  I hardly want to criticize the concept.  It’s a great way for a small congregation to get started, since they don’t need the cash on hand for a down payment on a physical building, which is almost certainly any church’s greater aspiration.  But it’s a signal of a fledgling church, one that may easily fold if it can’t enough summon people to the offering plate during a six-month period (like the lockdowns).  It’s equally indicative that the strip mall itself commands reduced-rate leasing agreements, since no thriving shopping center actively recruits churches as tenants; they don’t bring cars to the parking lot during the prime hours when people shop, so they rarely help a retail-oriented strip mall appear vibrant.  It’s a partnership of convenience and frugality for both landlord and tenant.  Though this strip mall has nationally-known restaurant/fitness chains like Starbucks, McAlister’s Deli, Bonefish Grill, Massage Envy, and Pure Barre, it’s safe to assume it’s not commanding top dollar for the leasable space.

With Tapestry Church as a tenant, it’s a testament to a denomination seeking radical measures to mitigate its continued demographic decline.  I have no idea if the typical Sunday at Tapestry is bustling.  At the moment they seem capable of supporting two separate morning services, which is more than one can say about most Mainline Protestant congregations.  Good to know.  But for a denomination that first emerged during the burgeoning American frontier era, one that peaked at nearly 2 million members in the 1950s, and has long boasted a prominent role in civic society (as have all the big Mainline denominations), it’s a bit jarring to see a Disciples of Christ church reduced to a storefront in a strip mall that no longer has an tenant anchor.  If anything, instead of Tapestry, I’d expect a strip mall like this to host an immigrant congregation.  But on the south side of Indy, they understandably seem to prefer subleasing in freestanding buildings where the original, established congregation remains the landlord.  Like this:

If they grow enough, these Chin congregations build their own church.  Or they take the space vacated by Disciples of Christ, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc.  And, where new populations aren’t there to replace the old, the churches may not find a buyer to convert them to restaurants, offices, or apartments.  Then they face a grimmer fate.

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9 thoughts on “A strip mall can house a tapestry of tenants. Including once-mighty churches.

  1. AvatarJon White

    My family went to Southport Christian, but left when I was about 4 (early 70’s) to become unchurched. I’m now a minister in another mainline denomination (Episcopalian) in another state. Most of family has migrated to Johnson county, and I’ve been struck that as you move into the newer built areas, the mainline churches aren;t very apparent. My own episcopal church doesn’t have (unless newly launched) any congregations between Thomson Rd (near Keystone) and Whiteland – they completely ignored the southside and Greenwood/Center Grove while that area has grown tremendously, especially in the past 30 years.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Jon. You probably know better than me, but I get the impression that churches are fairly location sensitive, as it typical when there’s a large number of a certain land use or service offered. IOW, relatively few people travel more than 30 miles for their church, and the churches in a locality broadly reflect the demographics–thereby explaining why there aren’t a lot of AME or COGIC buildings in Johnson County, for example. Mainline Protestant churches are, to a small extent, an exception, since many of them predate tha massive urban changes that took place in the mid 20th century–i.e., they located in an old neighborhood but didn’t uproot as those areas become “the inner city” in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And the more financially endowed ones are still there as the neighborhoods are starting to gentrify again. Southport Christian is possibly an outlier: it didn’t close, but it realized as it shrunk that it could salvage it’s fortunes by selling the property and rebranding in a low-cost rental site, specifically in Center Grove, where, as you noted, Mainline Protestant churches are few and far between.

      I’m aware that one of the rectors at Christ Church Cathedral formed an Episcopal “church plant” a few years ago in Brownburg, no doubt keeping in mind what you said about the relative scarcity of Episcopal/Presbyterian/DoC/American Baptist churches in the fast-growing suburbs and exurbs.

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      1. AvatarChris B

        Tapestry “launched” several years back at Sugar Grove Elementary, on Smith Valley a mile west of 135. Seems odd that they “rooted” 3 miles north and east of there. It’s rare for anything to move back toward the urban core.

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  2. AvatarSteve Polston

    Interesting! I’m familiar with this mall where Tapestry Church is located. I lived nearby in the early 2000s and was gratified to visit the SBux, the PapaMurphy, then the McAlister’s and Bonefish later in the decade that followed. In some ways, I wonder if the mall was hobbled by southward hustling families, schools and hospital groups almost as fast as the buildable space was built out. This mall is atop a ridge that drains lots of unbuildable land or unsuitable for housing development. Maybe there wasn’t enough housing density to support the mercantile, though chain food places do really well in Indianapolis.

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    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      It didn’t even occur to me, Steve, but you’re dead-on in terms of the elevations. (Needless, to say, grade changes in central Indiana are often–ahem–subtle.) The Pleasant Run creek flows just south of what I have just learned is called Meridian Meadows Shopping Center (with Tapestry and Bonefish). And, while the area is fairly built up along the standard density in maturing Midwest suburbia, it’s possible that it’s not as high income as other parts of Greenwood and Center Grove. I noticed a while back that the housing developments south of County Line Road and north of Frye Road are among the oldest in Johnson County, and some are definitely starting to show their age.

      But, in general, the area is very, very stable. I’m pretty certain that Meridian Meadows has been around since the early 2000s, and Bonefish, Starbucks, Papa Murphy’s, and the Stein Mart (which closed all bricks-and-mortar during COVID) were all part of the original tenants, which is pretty remarkable for a shopping center of around 20 years old. And the McAlister’s has been there at least a decade. The bigger factor at this point is simply two many shopping centers get constructed, and the deep-pocketed tenants (established chains like McAlister’s and Starbucks) are going to be willing to shell out the extra rent if they think the shiny new location will bring more people in. That said, lacking an anchor tenant like Stein Mart, I’d imagine the leasing rates have dropped, so expect future tenants to be fewer big names and more locals, like Red Dog Books or Tapestry Church.

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  3. AvatarChris B

    There are a few newer Lutheran (and at least one UCC) in Greenwood, Center Grove, and Bargersville. Probably related to the southward migration of Indy’s German-American population from the South Side to Perry Twp. and thence to JoCo.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Lutheran (ELCA) and UCC were two of the three most common Mainline Protestant denominations in the Lehigh Valley where I used to live. (The third common Mainline denomination was the Moravian church, a denomination almost extinct everywhere else, but a few Lehigh Valley towns–Bethlehem, Nazareth, Emmaus–were founded by Moravians, so they’re fairly common there while obscure almost everywhere else.) I’ve noticed the ELCA both in Indy, Lehigh Valley, and the Northern Virginia burbs of Washington DC does seem more prone to locating in the newer suburban areas, using more contemporary architecture and, I’d imagine, adapting to the bifurcated style of worship: one old-school liturgical service with organ, one contemporary with a praise band.

      As for Tapestry, that 3-mile move back northward does seem strange, but, facing the loss of its anchor tenant (Stein Mart), the property manager at Meridian Meadows Shopping Center may have made the church an offer it can’t refuse. At the very least, the church will place some cars on the parking lot on the late morning and early afternoon of a Sunday, which I’d imagine is an otherwise quiet time.

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      1. AvatarBrian M

        There were/are so many Lutherans in Fort Wayne that the denomination actually had two high schools, along with the more common Catholic high schools. In California, that would be unheard of. Although Napa has a Catholic high school and my town has a fundie protestant “Christian” school that is quite prosperous and successful.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

          You are once again referencing a region near to my heart (or at least to my realm of awareness). One half of my family hails from the Fort Wayne area. I’d presume that among the two Lutheran schools, one is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the other is Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. I say this because members of my family went to Concordia, the latter of the two. While Lutheran churches aren’t probably that common out west (at least not Southwest–I suspect there are some in the Pacific NW), they’re commonplace in the Midwest. In the Upper Midwest–Minnesota, the Dakotas–they’re basically the dominant Protestant church in terms of numbers, but they have less influence simply because the congregations are usually fairly small. I believe Minnesota and North Dakota are the only two states left where “Mainline Protestant” is still the largest Christian affiliation. Sixty years ago, at least half the states would be dominated by Mainline Protestant churches; they are the branch to which we get the beloved acronym WASP, and all of its attendant values.

          Reply

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