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Don't call it a trend just yet, but as thousands of retail stores have been forced to close across the nation in recent months, many churches are becoming the main attraction at shopping centers. And for both congregations hoping to connect more with non-churchgoers in their community and commercial landlords stuck with empty stores, a move into a strip mall can be a win-win situation.

"Vacancy rates are high, and they need to fill those spaces," said Erin Hershkowitz, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC). "If it's a big box, like a Circuit City, that's a perfect venue for a church."

Although the ICSC isn't specifically tracking the number of churches moving into shopping centers, Hershkowitz says the shift is noticeable throughout the country.

"Through 'adaptive reuse,' churches have stepped in," said Matthew D. Messier, a broker and principal for CNL Specialty Real Estate Services. "Because of what's happened with the economy, there are more options for churches now."

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This is especially true for churches tweaking their primary focus and wanting to free up resources. Parkway Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., underwent such a transition in 2007 when it changed its name to C3 Church (which stands for Connecting the Community with Christ) and sold its steepled-sanctuary property. Rather than find another permanent church campus, C3 Church went mobile, leasing movie theaters in one of the region's biggest shopping centers.

"We knew early on that our facilities were a hindrance to what we were trying to accomplish," said C3 Church's senior pastor, Byron Bledsoe. "We had a ton of resources locked up in bricks and mortar."

The move into a strip mall hasn't been seamless by any means—Bledsoe says the church lost almost 1,400 of the 1,500 who regularly attended at the old campus. But he also says that C3 Church is beginning to see fruit from its redefined mission, as almost 90 percent of its current 700 members were not involved in church prior to finding their current fellowship. And as the church is now debt-free, Bledsoe says they are now able to pour more directly into the community with their freed-up resources. [orlandosentinel.com, 8/29/09]

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