You don’t live near a pier…or a popular park…or even a Starbucks. And by the time you’re able to go witnessing the colleges are closed and no kids are walking home from high school. Where is a people-lovin’ saint to go when wanting to reach out? The answer is—the local mall. We occasionally get asked questions about mall witnessing, so I thought I’d tackle a few of the toughies, such as “How many times can you get a free sample from the food court before you blow your witness?” I led a witnessing team every weekend for over a decade, mainly to malls, and below are some of the things I discovered.
“This isn’t a football game, so don’t paint ‘John 3:16’ on your forehead. You’re most successful in mall witnessing when you don’t draw attention.”
Pretend you’re an international spy deep undercover.
Witnessing at a mall is quirky. Malls generally are not public property, like a beach or park, but are privately owned. That means, while it’s not illegal to witness in a mall, if the management doesn’t like it, they can make you leave. (Think of being invited to a friend’s home and wearing out your welcome…but this homeowner has a taser and 911 on speed dial.) So engage a bit of common sense. This isn’t a football game, so don’t paint “John 3:16” on your forehead. You’re most successful in mall witnessing when you don’t draw attention. Pray for invisibility to security and be prudent. Some practical advice:
- Go up to a group of a similar size. Having three people approach one person on a bench looks abnormal (and will freak out the person on the bench).
- Limit your witnessing groups to two or three. A few people chatting is normal; a big group facing another big group looks like the start of a gang war.
- Spread out. Don’t have your entire team witnessing outside of the Chipotle. Split up to different ends of the mall.
- Blend in. Dressing up for church: great idea. Going witnessing at the mall after church in tie and slacks: not so great an idea. I’d also never use a survey or questionnaire at a mall as that will make you stand out (but I sure do love to use them elsewhere).
- Buy something. While I haven’t done this, a friend suggested you could purchase something at the mall (a drink, gift, etc.), and then carry your tracts in the shopping bag (along with your purchase). That makes you a legitimate shopper, and mall security will be less likely to ask you to leave.
Don’t pass out tracts in bulk.
I nearly broke into a twitching fit as I typed this. Going to a place with a bajillion people and not camping out and handing out tracts in rapid-fire mode is like seeing someone eating french fries and not offering the ketchup packets in your pocket. It’s just cruel. But remember the rule of thumb: it’s private property and if they don’t like what you’re doing, you get the boot and nobody gets reached—not just that night, but in the weeks to come too. (Once you’re on security’s radar, they’ll keep an eye out for you.) So, no, don’t distribute tracts in bulk. However, you can use one to initiate a conversation, and after you’re done chatting, giving that person a tract and invitation to your church is perfectly fine. It’s unlikely to draw attention.
Clean up your crumbs.
If you happen to see someone you witnessed to dropped one of your tracts, pick it up and reuse it (or place it in the trash if it’s crumpled). If there is a trail of bread crumbs, you’ll get on the no-fly list quicker than yelling “bomb” in an airport (okay, slightly slower, but you get it). Security will know you’re there, see that you’re a litter-promoting pest, and be on the lookout to show you the sliding glass doors.
Check your state laws.
There are a handful of states that have legally deemed malls as free-speech zones, which means the mall has to allow you a place to share your political or religious beliefs. (Currently it’s CA, NJ, CO, OR, MA, and WA.) The mall determines the specifics of where and how you can exercise those rights. Generally, that means they will allow you to set up a tract table, so long as you fill out a short application and schedule a time. California is one of those few states, and I’ve had several friends set up tables in malls and give out tracts or DVDs with great success. Last Halloween I set up a table in Downtown Disney and gave out kids’ tracts all night, with Mickey’s blessing. With state laws always changing, it’s worth looking into the possibility in your area; a quick online search should give you what you need to know.
“If you’re snarky with mall security, you’re not the one who loses, it’s all the people you could have reached in future months who lose—lose on the chance to hear the gospel.”
Don’t get your picture on the security office wall.
I totally get the desire to stand up for your First Amendment right, but if you’re snarky with mall security, you’re not the one who loses; it’s all the people you could have reached in future months who lose—lose on the chance to hear the gospel. If security says, “You can’t do that here,” I’d recommend that you respond with a very gracious, humble, and soft tone (Proverbs 15:1; 2 Timothy 2:23–26). Just mention that you didn’t mean to stir up any problems and that you’re not selling anything; you’re chatting about the Christian message of love and forgiveness. If they still tell you to stop, courteously let them know that’s not a problem and you’ll be heading out right now. What you’ve done is diffuse a volatile situation quickly, which means you’re now likeable and forgettable. Lick your wounds and head to the car for an early night. Then in two months you can come back to the same mall and they won’t even remember you. In the meantime, find an alternate mall or other venues that have a lot of foot traffic, such as outside movie theaters, to go to during those unofficial blackout dates. After years of witnessing at the same malls, there were a rare handful of times we were asked to leave. We used this approach and didn’t have any issues returning. Also, don’t forget to liberally sprinkle this with prayer. At some malls security knew exactly what we were up to, but God granted us favor, and they were supportive and friendly so long as they didn’t get complaints.
Look for campers, not 5K runners.
Trying to get people to stop and talk is a lot harder than approaching people who are already hanging out. When looking for the next person or group to talk with, scan for people who are stationary, whether standing outside of a store chatting or sitting on a bench.
Window shop, but don’t walk in.
When walking around the hallways of a mall, you’re just keeping an eye out for a handful of security roaming around a football-field-sized building that has a lot of interference. But as soon as you walk into a small boutique, you become a goldfish in a very small bowl. There is no hiding what you’re doing, and you’re much more likely to get kicked out of the mall. It’s far wiser to witness in the common areas outside of the shops.
Teens are the best!
I admit it: I love everyone, though I love teens just a little bit more. I spent a decade and a half serving them in youth ministry so I realize I’m fully biased, but they are my favorite group to witness to. However, at a mall, they’re also among your best audiences. They tend to loiter with no purpose other than fellowship—aka, instant captive audience. They’re not there to shop; they’re not walking around with a goal to do something; they’re there to laugh and chat and brood together. Since they have no purchasing mission, unlike many adults, they’re extra easy to get into a conversation with. If you happen to be older than they are, there is often an inherent respect for you as an authority figure, so they’ll be even more inclined to listen up. (It’s the only plus I’ve found since balding set in.)
Malls are a fantastic hot spot for evangelism. They’re cool during the summer, warm during the winter, and normally filled with people, and you can get in your week’s walking exercise while trying to find folks to talk with. May God use you wonderfully as you seek to reach the lost there!
P.S. Don’t think I forgot about the free samples question. It depends on two things: how many different children you have to get food for you, and how many disguises you brought. (One time I may or may not have switched jackets with a friend to look like I was in a biker gang.) My personal best is five samples from the Chinese place.