Designing a Mall-Like Ambience for Worship


When architect David Gilmore drew up plans for a new West Covina church, he left out a few key items: crosses, stained glass windows, flying buttresses, altars and wooden pews.

Instead, he replaced them with food kiosks, water fountains, cappuccino carts, convenient parking lots and a shopping mall feel.

Chalk up another one to the mall majority.

“Malls are a neutral place and people feel comfortable in malls,” said Pastor George Rauscher of Faith Community Church in West Covina. “So when people come into our church, they will say, ‘Here’s a familiar place. I feel safe and secure here like in a mall.’ ”

This new wave of modern-day temples seeks to attract what clerics call “the unchurched,” people who have abandoned organized worship. Religious leaders are actively competing for the souls of Sunday sports fans, couch potatoes, golfers, moviegoers and weekend gardeners. Churches that are full of modern conveniences but lack traditional religious symbols tend to comfort those who infrequently attend church or who never felt at home there, Rauscher said.

Irvine architect Gilmore is revamping an abandoned Hughes Aircraft Co. facility in West Covina for Faith Community. The nearly 5,000 charismatic evangelical Christians who make up the congregation were worshiping in an abandoned Ralphs grocery store until the first phase of their new building was completed. The final work is underway.


“All the churches are going through a restructuring in their moves to reach the unchurched and that is being reflected in their building needs,” Gilmore said. “Frankly, they are looking for places that have enough parking. That’s the driving force.”

With parking for nearly 1,100 cars, the 165,000-square-foot Hughes facility eventually will be very mall-like: wide corridors, calming pools of cascading water inside, carts where parishioners can buy cappuccino, hot dogs and popcorn. There also will be brightly colored banners hanging from ceilings.

“Cappuccino is a slam dunker for sure,” Rauscher said.

To provide convenience, Rauscher and others at Faith Community originally wanted a “full-blown food court” at their new church, where Hughes engineers once helped build parts for the B-2 bomber, but finding sufficient space became a problem, Gilmore said.

So they settled on movable kiosks offering drinks and food, none of which will be allowed into the sanctuary. Faith Community leaders hope that with such amenities and a nearby bookstore, they can entice church-goers to sticking around campus a little longer.


Founded in 1980 in the San Gabriel Valley, Faith Community has a mostly blue-collar, ethnically mixed congregation, Rauscher said. The church attempts to service the social as well as secular needs of its communities.

To plan its new church, Faith Community hired LPA Inc. in Irvine, which designed Orange County’s $60-million Tom Riley terminal at the John Wayne Airport, and a corporate center for IBM Corp. in Dallas and the Vons Cos. headquarters in Arcadia.

Throughout Southern California, religious buildings are increasingly being designed to be as nontraditional as possible.

Besides the Faith Community center, Gilmore is working on a landmark church project that includes seven buildings for Saddleback Community Church, a nondenominational church in Orange County’s Foothill Ranch community. The sanctuary is completed, and other buildings are under construction at the 120-acre campus.

Again, at one of the planned education facilities, there is a mall feel, but that of an outdoor mall, similar to Newport Beach’s Fashion Island. Gilmore likened the fabric walls used in the education building to the canvas walls and ceiling of Newport’s Twin Palms restaurant. In addition, the design reflects the church’s beginning, since it started under a tent.

“The mission is to create an environment free of religious symbols,” Gilmore said.


Gilmore’s firm just finished a K-12 Jewish school for Tarbut V’Torah in Costa Mesa that was designed to convey a feeling of being in Israel. However, the bright colors and modern design of the buildings are similar to newer shopping malls.

More typically, these super-churches such as Faith Community are evangelical in nature, appealing to a segment of the population that adheres to basic Christian beliefs, but who are turned off by traditional religion and are seeking alternatives, religion experts say.

The Willow Creek Community Center, located on 120 acres in South Barrington, Ill., about 30 minutes from Chicago, was a pioneer of a nonreligious, neutral worship space with its $15-million complex. It includes an airy atrium, a bookstore and a health club with weight room and aerobics. The idea is to give its members a sense of both a community life and a spiritual one.

This architectural shift is a “manifestation of the mall majority,” says Glenn R. Bucher, president of the Graduate Theological Union, a college in Berkeley. Because malls are a symbol of what it means to be American among some socioeconomic groups, Bucher said the design implies that “being a conservative evangelical and being an American fit like hand in glove.”

Some theologians don’t see the smooth fit. For-profit ventures and a design scheme that echoes suburban monuments to capitalism could be offensive to the traditionally religious, said Marv Meyer, a religious professor at Chapman University in Orange.

Meyer says there’s an “aesthetic loss, an architectural loss and a loss of vision” when churches are designed to reflect the secular values of a society rather than more lofty ideals of a religious tradition.

Rauscher at Faith Community likened his new church to the Notre Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral built from 1163 to 1257, pointing out that when the cathedral was built it was the most modern structure in the city, reflecting the beliefs of the time.

Claire Fisher, a professor of religion and culture at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley, sees the mall design of modern churches as a manifestation of the fears of a rapidly changing society.

“American culture is not feeling very comfortable, safe or secure,” she said. “So where do you go to hide? You go to the mall.”

“The shopping world is an apparent metaphor for the consumption of Jesus Christ,” Fisher said, warning that such easy-to-digest religion can be dangerous.

“I think to emphasize convenience over religion sends the wrong message. The easy parking lots and kiosks are seductive, and send the message that soul-searching is easy and quick.”


While this new mall church design may work for some, it may not be for everyone. And in a religious society as varied as America, religious architecture will continue to reflect a myriad of cultures, with many traditional followers such as Baptists and Jews still clinging to their familiar styles of architecture.

“It’s impossible to generalize about church architecture today,” said Ken Bascom, director of facilities planning for Biola University, a center of theological studies in La Mirada.

Bascom points out that Southern California already is home to such novel ecumenical landmarks as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, a mega-church with drive-in services, and the $24-million Mormon temple in San Diego, a building designed as a symbolic tribute to the Mormon religion, with 190-foot twin spires and a 14-foot gold leaf statue of an angel on top.

“With our eclectic Southern California population, you’re likely to see anything when it comes to churches,” he said.