- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

While most people move through Union Station to board trains or visit the shops and eateries, others make a beeline for Phoenix Theatres, where the sounds of a five-piece Christian rock band echo through the halls every Sunday.

The National Community Church, based on Capitol Hill but without a traditional church home, is among a growing number of congregations across the country holding services amid the aroma of popcorn. Church leaders say worship in movie houses is a way to reach people that incorporates the best in audio and video technology and provides entertainment to help spread the Gospel.

“Theaters have always been a starting point for churches,” said Jim Tomberlin, an Arizona consultant for congregations seeking alternative sites. “In the past they were seen as a last resort or worst-case scenario. Now they’re a first option.”

People have worshipped in theaters at least as far back as the 1970s. But the idea spread in the late ‘90s as a low-cost way for churches to expand their capacity as real estate prices soared, Mr. Tomberlin said.

There’s no firm estimate of the number of U.S. congregations meeting in theaters or other nontraditional sites. But the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church-consulting group, estimates that 300 Protestant churches hold services in theaters.

National Cinemedia LLC, a Colorado-based in-theater advertising firm that also helps link congregations and cinema sites, says it now provides live and recorded network services to 189 theater churches, up from 20 in 2003. The company even has a special “worship team” that helps churches like National Community launch theater sites and learn how to use the surround-sound system and other technology.

Some churchgoers may not be thrilled by the idea of worshipping in a dimly lit setting next to signs for “High School Musical 3” and “Twilight.” But others say they have grown accustomed to - and even appreciative of - the nontraditional religious services.

Colin Murphy, a D.C. resident, says he worships at National Community’s services at Union Station and at a local coffeehouse. The offbeat sites have a more open feel, compared with the long pews of his family’s Catholic Church in Smethport, Pa., where he was raised, he says.

“At my church at home, you might be seven or eight feet from the people next to you, so you won’t talk to the people around you,” Mr. Murphy said. “In the movie theater, the services are pretty full, so it’s easier to meet people and say ‘hi.’ ”

Theaters also have several advantages over alternative church sites, such as community centers and schools. They come equipped with plentiful, auditorium-style seating, digital projection screens and surround-sound systems. They can also accommodate Internet-streaming so services can be broadcast to other sites.

National Community’s Sunday service, for instance, is recorded Saturday night before a congregation at Capitol Hill’s Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse. The next morning, pastor Mark Batterson, atop a small performance stage at the coffee shop, appears in high-definition on screens at the Phoenix Theatres, AMC Loews in Georgetown and the Regal Cinema at Ballston Common Mall in Arlington.

He likes to keep it light. During the church’s election-themed series, the jeans and sweatshirt-clad Mr. Batterson sat at a small table with smiling cardboard cutouts of the candidates propped up behind him. As he delivered his sermon, people in the crowded theater laughed as though they were watching a comedy.

The entertaining style is key to delivering the message and has helped his interdenominational church come a long way from just 19 members gathering at a school in Southeast in 1996, Mr. Batterson says. After only nine months of meeting there, the church was forced to find a new home when Mr. Batterson learned the school would be closing as a result of fire-code violations.

Since then, attendance has swelled to about 1,300 visitors, and the church now has four locations with eight services. Mr. Batterson plans to expand the church’s reach by launching a fifth site in February.

“You can’t really reach the next generation by doing church the way it’s always been done,” he said. “We need to know what kind of world we live in and be relevant to the culture around us.”

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