Mall Ministry in California – Why and How
One of my favorite methods of Gospel outreach is shopping mall ministry. In many communities the city mall or local shopping area has become like the town square, the place where the community comes to mix and mingle and share ideas. Many large malls have 10s of thousands of people visit even on the slow day, not to mention a temperature-controlled environment, easy access to food and restrooms, and convenient parking. Why would someone NOT want to share Christ at the mall?
I’d like to share why I think malls are among the best outreach opportunities available to us. But first, a bit about me, my background and expertise, why I care about this issue, and my goals in writing this.
My name is Dan, and above all things, I love telling people about Jesus. I’ve been very active in public evangelism for over a decade, going to the streets, and to local malls, nearly every week to preach, hand out tracts, and talk to people one-on-one. I’ve also helped organize and run multiple evangelism conferences, partnered with major ministries in large outreach events, taught evangelism classes, and mentored many other believers in sharing their faith. God eventually led me to Open Air Campaigners, a ministry that focuses on sharing the Gospel in the public square, and in 2015 I joined them as a staff evangelist. So, I have lots of experience in Gospel outreach.
But, as is often the case, it took me a while before God opened the doors to step into that calling as my primary job. Before that I spent many years in private security, mostly at management level in major shopping centers. All told, I spent over 20 years in that line of work, and over 15 specifically in retail environments, frequently dealing with free speech issues. So, I have experience in the rules and regulations involved in mall free speech, and I understand it from the perspective of shopping center management.
Since I’ve dealt with this issue from both sides of the fence, I have something of a unique perspective on what to do and what not to do. My goal in this document is to pass on what I’ve learned, so that other believers in California (California has some unique rules in this aspect) can use it these principles and opportunities to give God glory and to see souls saved.
Note: I am planning to change, update, and expand this document over time based on legal challenges and questions I get, so be sure to check back from time to time! Also, please let me know what your experiences have been in other states. Though this addresses California law, I’m praying opportunities will open in other states too!
How is California Different?
Mall free speech opportunities started back in 1980 with a legal case called Pruneyard Shopping Ctr. v. Robins. Several students had gone to the Pruneyard Shopping Center, set up a table, and started collecting signatures in support of a UN resolution. They had not gone to mall management first for permission, and were soon contacted by a security officer, who told them they were in violation for the center rules and regulations and had to leave. They left but came back with a legal suit against the mall. The conclusion of the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, came down to this: Shopping centers are like the public square of our day, and the California constitution is worded in such a way that people have the right to express their views there, including passing out literature and having conversations. But in order to protect business interests, shopping centers also have some right to control time, place and manner, so that normal operation of the center is not unnecessarily impacted. Practically this allowance extends far beyond collecting signatures and it opened the door to a wide variety of free speech organizations and causes, including religious free speech, which means it’s a wonderful opportunity for us!
A Key Point: Mall Management and Security Are NOT Your Enemy!!
This is a vital issue, and one that has bothered me for a long time. I have met many believers who go to their local mall and try to secretly hand out tracts and talk to people until they get kicked out. I understand the urgency, and this may be the only option in some areas. The Gospel of Christ is the most important thing ever, and it’s hard to pass up a mall. There are few places with more people and heavier foot traffic than a mall. But particularly if you live in California, consider this. Why would you want to spend 30 minutes dodging security to hand out a few tracts when you could be given a table in a high-traffic area where you can spread out your literature and Bibles and talk to whomever you like for hours? Sadly, it seems like some people would rather “fight the man” and make a statement when they could be making a real difference. There are certainly times we need to stand up to worldly authorities in the name of Christ, but I don’t believe this is one of them.
Also remember that most employees of the mall that you will interact with are just normal folks trying to make a living. Yes, you will find the occasional manager who hates Jesus, or security guard on a power trip, but truly, they are the exception, not the rule. The store employees and managers want their store to succeed, and many think having controversial free speech going on nearby could drive people away. So, though they may not be hostile toward our message, they may question the methodology. So be patient with them.
As for mall management, their purpose is to provide as ideal a selling environment for their stores as possible, because tenants need to make sales to pay rent, and they often get a percentage of store sales if their tenants do well. In addition, if stores are doing badly, they may ask for rent reductions and will often point to anything they can as the reason for their poor sales. If they can point at “disruptive” activity, like, say, a free speech table, as part of the cause, they will. That means the mall gets hit in the pocketbook, which doesn’t make management look good.
As far as security, they are there to do a job, which means enforcing policy. Yes, some are want-to-be cops with a chip on their shoulder, but most are just trying to earn a living. If a member of mall management tells them to remove someone, they will attempt to do so, because they want to keep their job too, and due to poor training, they often don’t know the distinction between what is law and what is policy.
So, before you go on the attack against mall representatives, consider the situation from their perspectives. Most are not your enemy. And they need to hear the Gospel too, so try not to unnecessarily antagonize or alienate them!
So, how does one go about setting up a free speech table? Here are the basics.
- Scout the mall first – Every mall is different, so spend some time getting to know your local mall before you contact their management office. When is it busiest? Some are busy all week, and some primarily on evenings and weekends. Determine the time when you can make the greatest impact. What about demographics? Are people older or younger? Are there different ethnic groups? Those details will help determine which types of tracts you will need, and in what languages.
- Contact mall management – Ask about their Free Speech or Expressive Activity policy. They will generally give you an application to fill out. It will ask for your personal and contact information, information about the organization (Church or ministry) you are associated with, what you will be doing (handing out literature, talking to people), who your target audience is (customers, store employees, etc), and sometimes will ask for samples of your literature. Some malls may ask for a cleaning deposit or liability insurance as well, though in my experience most will not push the issue for the kind of work we are doing. If they do, it may be wise to leave the deposit or to check on liability insurance, if you plan on doing this type of ministry regularly. If you have principled objection to doing so, there are legal organizations that specialize in religious free speech cases who are available to help. Personally, I’ve never had problems getting such requirements waived.
Note: They can NOT require a fee! I have seen churches rent space to share the Gospel for extended periods, which is fine, but they cannot legally charge you for exercising your basic free speech rights. If they do so, they are violating the law.
- Pick your location – Most shopping centers will give you multiple locations to choose from for setting up your table. Look for a map in your Free Speech Application packet. You want to pick an area with good foot traffic, and where people will come close to your table. I prefer a hallway to an open courtyard, where people can choose to avoid you more easily. You want a space where people have to come close enough to see your materials or hear your greeting without you having to yell, but where there is still enough room for people to gather without blocking the flow of foot traffic completely.
- Wait to hear back – Generally you want to try to schedule your free speech table at least a couple weeks in advance. That will give you time to encourage other people to join you, and you’ll have a lower likelihood that all free speech locations will be taken (though that’s rare). Also, it may be wise to contact mall management if you don’t hear back in a few days. Free speech issues generally are not a management priority, unless there is an unexpected protest happening on property. They may need a friendly reminder.
- Application is approved (or not) – In my experience, it is rare that a free speech application is denied, but it does sometimes happen. Most frequently denials are due to extra-heavy foot traffic in the mall due to a holiday or special event. Some malls will not allow any free speech from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, for instance. If your application is denied for another reason, please let me know. I’ll try to help you work through it, and we can add more specific circumstances and how to deal with them later. If it is accepted, you’re set to go! Gather your Christian friends and church family and go tell someone about Jesus!
There are a wide variety of ways to set up a literature table. Here are some of my preferences:
- Keep it neat and tidy – I am not a fan of literature scattered every which-way. I often use subject-specific tracts, and I want people to be able to find them.
- Use brightly colored, high quality tracts – Some folks try to save money by printing tracts on a home computer and cutting them apart by safety scissors. If that’s all you can manage, don’t let that stop you. But Gospel tracts are not too expensive these days, and quality and color shows people you have thought about what you’re giving out, and that their souls are worth your money. That’s a good message.
NOTE: I’ll be adding a list of my favorite tracts to this page soon. In the meantime, for normal tracts, I recommend Living Waters or Custom Tract Planet. For foreign language tracts check out World Missionary Press
- Tracts should cover major topics – There are certain key issues that people are likely to ask about when they think about the Christian faith. It’s good to have tracts dealing with some of those issues. They can catch people’s attention and start conversations. It’s also great, after a good discussion, to put literature regarding that topic into their hands to keep them thinking.
- Bibles? – I go back and forth on this one. I generally have Bibles on my literature table, but since many people read largely on a phone or computer, I’m not sure how many that are taken are actually read. But at the very least, write down at least one web site to recommend where people can read the Bible online or download a smart phone app. Gospels of John are always a good option, so people have a place to start. Definitely have those.
- Contact Information – Have a way people can get in touch with you. I always carry business cards with my name, phone number, email address and web site. If you don’t feel comfortable giving out your personal information, consider creating a separate email address just for this purpose, or carry information cards or pamphlets from your church. But prayerfully consider this: is that soul worth some possible personal inconvenience? Is it worth an unexpected call? What about an afternoon or evening off wrestling with spiritual truth over a cup of coffee or a meal? If you don’t think so, perhaps you’re not ready for this, and need to spend some time getting right with God.
What To Do and Not To Do
- DO arrive early – You generally need to sign in with management or security when you arrive, and you may need to ask someone to set up your table. Once again, free speech is not always an operations priority, and facilities staff in malls can be VERY busy!
- DO be polite while distributing tracts – Give people a friendly smile and hold up the tract so people can see what it is. Say “Hello! Did you get one of these?” Make it look like you’re happy to be there (you ought to be) and would be a pleasant person to have a conversation with.
- DO be polite to mall staff – This should be obvious. Be polite and respectful. Yes, the Gospel is essential, but you are still on someone else’s private property. They can often find a reason not to allow you back. Don’t give them a reason.
- DON’T block foot traffic – There is nothing better than a good Gospel conversation. But if your conversation involves a dozen people who spill into the walkways near you (yes, praise God, this does happen) then mall management and security will get complaints. Be respectful of your space, as much as you can.
- DON’T stray far from the table – A big problem in some malls is “hawkers”, sales associates, often attached to center-aisle kiosks, who are very aggressive in their attempts to make sales. They can be loud, will follow people, block their way, or even take people by the arm and attempt to lead them back to their place of business. There is nothing that gets customers, and thus mall management, more upset, and you DON’T want to be associated with that kind of behavior! So, stay within arm’s reach of the table when at all possible. Taking a step out to hand a tract to someone requesting one is fine, but be careful not to step in front of people.
- DON’T get into loud arguments/discussions – Remember, if you are disruptive to mall business, you will not be allowed back. If someone gets aggressive and loud, do what you can to calm them down. Intense spiritual conversations can be very good. God frequently uses them to impact people. But don’t let that intensity get so loud that people walking by are trying to avoid you or are drawn away from nearby stores.
- DON’T open-air preach! – Open-air preaching is a great tool for sharing the Gospel, if it’s used appropriately. I’ve been open-air preaching for many years, and still do so regularly. But we need to use the methodology that’s going to be most effective for the venue. Raising your voice a bit if you get a larger group of people is OK, but be considerate of the people and businesses around you. If you want to work at the mall ONCE, go ahead and let loose. But if you want to keep coming back to share Christ, control your passion and think long term. One of our local outreach teams has been visiting two local malls for nearly 15 years. Now THAT’S an impact!
So, those are the basics. I will continue to update this document over time, based on questions or changes in the law, so be sure to check back regularly. If you have a question, please reach out to me at my contact page, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to spend time helping you or your church set up for this kind of ministry. And please forward this to other believers and churches so they can use their free speech rights to reach their local community. Thanks, and God bless!
Open Air Campaigners – Bay Area Branch