- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

It’s a hot new trend - doing church in movie theaters. Last week, a first-ever national conference on such “theater churches” took place in Silver Spring’s Regal Majestic 20.

About 100 pastors were there, mostly guys in their 30s with spiky hair and dark-framed rectangular eyeglasses. A few took the time to explain why economics alone mandate starting a church in the local cinema.

“Theaters are a low-cost, low-risk and high-return option,” Jim Tomberlin, a church consultant from Scottsdale, Ariz., told me. Chairs are already in place, he added, there’s a janitorial staff at the ready and there are plenty of restrooms.

Barry Brown, director of “worship solutions” for National CineMedia, which works with more than 180 churches in AMC, Regal and Cinemark theaters in 35 states, said there’s been an “explosion” of these congregations. Anxious to jump on the trend, his staff pulled the conference together in less than a month.

Atiba de Souza, co-pastor of VisionRunners International, which meets at the Snowden Square 14 theaters in Columbia, Md., has built up a congregation of 30 adults and 15 children in the space of four months.

“People have a problem with church, but not with God,” he said. “What we do is very laid back, very relevant so you can experience God in an easy way.”

His nondenominational congregation shells out only $700 in weekly rent - way less than the typical school gym - and, he said, much cleaner.

“Plus, a lot of people don’t want to be reminded of high school,” he said. “But who’s ever had a bad experience in a movie theater?”

Then there was the Ohio pastor I chatted with who told me a third of the worshippers in his movie church are ex-Roman Catholics. Turned off by the clergy sex scandals, they drifted until they encountered the nonliturgical, ultrainformal worship at the local multiplex.

Mark Batterson, pastor of the District’s own National Community Church, based at theaters in Union Station, Ballston Common and Georgetown, keynoted Thursday morning’s agenda with stories about how his “theater church” concept began in 1996.

More than 1,000 people, 73 percent of them unchurched or dechurched, now attend eight services in four locations, the fourth being a Christian coffeehouse on Capitol Hill.

“There are 400,000 churches in America,” he said. “Most of them are invisible because they are unremarkable. I don’t know of too many churches that suffer from having too much personality.”

Seated on a director’s chair in tattered jeans - the unofficial uniform at this gathering - he called movie screens “postmodern stained glass.” Medieval stained glass communicated the Gospel in pictures to an illiterate culture, he explained. Video communicates the Gospel to a post-literate culture.

It’s very 21st century, this trend that caters to the young and those who get their theology from movies and pop music. Because of the low overhead, it can weather transient populations in locales near military bases, universities and on Capitol Hill.

Their one lack? Baptismals. Mr. Batterson’s congregation dunks new believers in the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s no reason to wall off God from the nation’s movie houses, he said, adding, “There’s a lot more theaters for us to redeem and use for His purposes.”

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected] times.com.

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