Praise the Lord, then pass the popcorn

During services, no sin inside these cinemas

July 24, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Early on a Sunday morning at the Muvico megaplex at Arundel Mills mall - long before the theater floors are littered with popcorn and sticky from spilled sodas - the Rev. Brian Racer stands at a lectern below a movie screen, preaching to his congregation about how Jesus reaches the world.

Across the hallway hangs a poster for the horror movie The Devil's Rejects, complete with a severed, bloody hand. Soon, moviegoers will replace Racer's congregation in Theater 24, munching snacks and slurping drinks as they await the matinee of Batman Begins.

But for two hours or so this morning, the Open Door Bible Church congregation has the plush red stadium seating to itself. The members nod along to Racer's sermon and sing a song by Contemporary Christian artist Michael W. Smith as lyrics are projected on the screen.

"Not everyone can say they have a theater-size screen," Racer says after the service, picking up a stray piece of trash and leaving the theater clean for the coming patrons. "And it's no extra charge."

This Jesus-meets-Hollywood story is playing at theaters across the country as churches - mainly non-denominational Christian congregations - seek alternatives to what some see as stuffy white-steeple buildings or generic rented community centers.

Theaters, meanwhile, jump at the chance to make a bit of extra money amid dwindling ticket sales - and link up with a demographic that might not have crossed a movie theater's threshold since The Passion of The Christ.

"It's actually quite a new trend," says the Rev. Toney Salva of Discovery Christian Church, which meets in a movie theater in Cranberry Township, Pa. "It works out well with movie theaters because the movie theaters are empty in the morning, and with movie sales down, I think movie theaters are looking for sources of new revenue."

The phenomenon seems most popular among small, community churches and evangelical congregations, says Bishop Kenneth L. Carder of Duke Divinity School, who studies how congregations are formed.

Some congregations meet at theaters while a church is being built. Others go there because "they have seen this as a means by which they can attract people who have a less than positive feeling toward a traditional church and assume that the traditional space itself is detrimental to reaching these people," Carder says.

More than 75 churches nationwide worship at one of the theaters owned by Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater chain.

Tom Galley, chief operations and technology officer for National CineMedia, a venture of Regal Entertainment and AMC Entertainment Inc., says that while renting space to churches is not a huge money maker, it offers a use for otherwise empty theaters on a Sunday morning while exposing more people to the movie complexes.

"And we don't charge for the smell of the popcorn," Galley says.

At first glance, it might seem like an odd relationship - Holy Scripture in the morning, R-rated movies in the afternoon. But some church leaders who worship in movie theaters say they were called there by God to serve a greater purpose.

The Annapolis Assembly of God went so far as to leave its traditional brick church, change its name to Church at the Mall and move into Crown Theaters at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis two years ago.

"We felt that the Lord wanted us to move from where the property was and be a ministry that met where people typically go ... into the mall, and specifically into the movie theater inside the mall," says Jason Palmer, a church advisory board member.

That divine directive has helped build the church membership from about 20 to around 100, Palmer says. The congregation has since sold its 1960s-era church building and plans to stay in the theater indefinitely, attracting "people who may not feel like the white-steeple church is their kind of church."

That philosophy is shared by other churches meeting in movie theaters.

"There's no pretense about it," says Terri Stone, director of outreach at Christ's Church of the Valley in Collegeville, Pa. Her church meets in seven theaters at a Regal cinema, and she says a movie theater is "not that church building, stained glass, omigosh, I have to be this super-holy church person. It's kind of a come-as-you-are atmosphere."

It's also a way for churches to connect with a younger crowd. Salva's Discovery Christian Church - whose members primarily are in their 20s or 30s - offers a live band and shows clips of movies, ranging from Saved! to Spiderman 2, to illustrate spiritual overtones.

The theaters also are accessible. National Community Church, for example, meets in movie theaters at Metro stops throughout the Washington, D.C., area. The theater screens are viewed as "21st-century stained glass," says the Rev. Mark Batterson.

"We think the church ought to be the most creative place on the planet," Batterson says. "Unfortunately, churches aren't known for their creativity. ... Creativity in the place you meet, the movie theater is a reflection of that."

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