Spotting a member of one of Lakeland, Florida's largest churches is easy. They are the ones wearing T-shirts with the message "I'm one of those crazy Baptists that bought the mall."
The 4,000-member First Baptist Church recently moved from a conventional church building in downtown Lakeland—where it had been for 95 years—to the former Lakeland Mall, a 400,000-square-foot complex on Lake Parker. The church also took an unusual new name: First Baptist Church at the Mall. It holds worship services in what used to be a Montgomery Ward store. Two movie theaters at the mall soon will be used for family-oriented films and seminars. Space formerly occupied by Radio Shack, Hanover Shoes, and Hallmark stores is being transformed into Sunday-school classrooms and church offices.
"What once was a retail center where people bought things is now a spiritual center where the most important thing in life is offered free," says senior pastor Jay Dennis. "Some had their first dates there. Some bought a pet there. Now we have the opportunity to take what the world offered and use it with a spiritual perspective."
The church bought the mall for $5.6 million and has since spent $2.3 million on renovations, paying cash as it goes. The congregation will not be worshiping in Montgomery Ward for long. It is building a 2,400-seat worship center in a part of the mall that used to be a Sam's Club discount store.1