- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

By his own estimation, the Rev. Mark Batterson has preached about 1,000 sermons in his makeshift sanctuary at Union Station’s Phoenix Theatres, where his congregation has met for the past 13 years.

Last week’s was one of the most difficult: In his remarks he told his congregation it would be the final service at their unconventional church.

The train station’s movie theater closed abruptly last week. Mr. Batterson said that for the past two years he had been hearing rumors the theater would close, but he had been assured they were not true.

So it came as a shock when his nondenominational National Community Church (NCC) got six days’ notice that it would no longer have the space for services.

“There is certainly a degree of sadness amongst our staff. And we’re going through a grieving process,” Mr. Batterson said. “I think that is normal and natural because Union Station has been a special place for us as a church.”

Amanda Giobbi of Anacostia has been attending NCC for 2 1/2 years.

“It will be extremely sad to leave the theaters at Union Station,” Ms. Giobbi said. “Union Station is where I first started attending NCC, and I have many fantastic memories there.”

Widely known as the “theater church,” NCC built a niche focusing on meeting the needs of young professionals in the city. From a congregation that numbered 19 in the 1996 when services started at Union Station, the church grew to serve more than 600 people and expanded to four other locations in the District. NCC owns and operates Ebenezers Coffeehouse on F Street in Northeast Washington.

NCC also has sites in movie theaters in Georgetown and in Virginia, in Kingstowne and Arlington. Those theaters are affiliated with National CineMedia LLC (NCM), a Colorado-based in-theater advertising firm that in 2002 created a division to recruit churches and businesses to hold services, meetings and special events in its theaters. The company works with 190 churches in 35 states.

Barry Brown of NCM said the Union Station incident seemed to be isolated. He said other theater churches have been thriving in movie theaters.

“We work closely with our circuit partners to ensure that churches have adequate time to find new space if a theater decides to close,” Mr. Brown said. “We have only had something like that happen once or twice in our history, and the church was given at least three months’ notice.”

Many churches across the country are finding that renting a movie theater once a week is cheaper than owning and maintaining a church building. It costs about $2,000 per month to hold services in local theaters, church officials said.

Movie theaters are perfect church venues because the facilities successfully combine location, convenience and comfort, said area pastors hosting services in movie theaters. The churches utilize most of the space and the audiovisual capabilities that theaters have to offer - employing multiple auditoriums for adult and children’s services, creating videos to go along with sermons, and projecting hymn lyrics onto the big screen.

Mr. Batterson, who has likened movie screens to “postmodern stained glass,” said he still thinks movie theaters are appropriate for church services. He said he continues to see theaters as a great opportunity to cut costs, giving the church the ability to fund other world relief and religious groups around the globe.

“The theater is a safe place to seek God in the shadows,” he said.

Mr. Batterson and NCM are actively looking for a replacement site. Mr. Brown hopes to have a list of alternate meeting spots for NCC soon, and said he will be looking to other theater churches in the area that will be willing to share their space.

Leaders of NCC hope to have another theater or coffeehouse ready by January.

“Remember, the church is not a building,” Mr. Batterson said. “We are the church. And God is going to lead us through this.”

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