Nine months after starting a new church in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Mark Batterson got the bad news: The public school where his congregation of 20 met on Sundays was closing down. As they scrambled to find an alternative site, intensive prayer, he says, led them to an untraditional setting - the movie multiplex at Union Station.
Seven years later, they are still there - with a congregation of 700. And last Sunday, they opened their second location at a cineplex in suburban Virginia.
"I went into church planting with the traditional mindset - rent until you can build a building," says Mr. Batterson of the National Community Church (NCC). "But after a short time at Union Station we felt it was too strategic of a spiritual beachhead to ever vacate it. Now our goal is to be in additional movie theaters in the metro area as years go by."
Increasingly, churches nationwide are choosing multiplex cinemas as their worship homes - seeing the comfortable theaters as well located, easily accessible, and attractive to people who might not otherwise attend church.
And theater chains are happy to accommodate them. AMC Theaters, which holds a long-term lease with NCC, has arrangements with churches at 50 theater locations, says spokesman Rick King. Regal Entertainment Group, the largest US movie-theater chain, "started the year with less than 10, but currently has over 60," says Ray Nutt, executive vice president for business development.
While congregations enjoy the benefits - plush, stadium-style seating, ample parking, and space for Sunday school, child care, and refreshments - the theaters are making money during previously "dark" times. So enthusiastic is Regal that it has developed a marketing strategy for churches to boost utilization of its 560 theaters. "My goal is to have a church service in almost every one of our theaters," Mr. Nutt says.
Riverside Baptist Church in downtown Denver, for example, chose to fight traffic congestion by starting a second "south campus" in the city; it rents five auditoriums at Meadows 12 Theaters, for a church service and Bible classes. "This venue has served us well," says the Rev. Duane Arledge, South Campus pastor. "There are challenges that accompany doing 'portable church'.... Lighting and child care were the biggest hurdles." They set up light trees and lease a learning center two blocks away that allows a fully graded children's ministry.
For Batterson, the theater venue puts NCC "right in the middle of the marketplace of ideas, and positions us to reach people not connected to a church." More than 75,000 people pass through Union Station every day; about 20,000 come to the theaters every week.
"NCC has its own subway stop, bus stop, and train depot," he laughs. The congregation gets many walk-ins, and one-third of members come regularly on the subway.
NCC is also reaching the very demographic that often drops away from church and that most religious groups are struggling to attract. Some 85 percent of its members are 35 and under, and 80 percent are single, including many young professionals who work on Capitol Hill.
Melissa Coffey, who works at the commission on the 9/11 attacks, says, "What attracts a lot of students to NCC is that it's on the Metro." She started attending five years ago while at George Washington University. Also, "meeting in the theater enables us to use a lot of multimedia - movie clips, lyrics on the screen, video to other locations."
But what appeals to her most, she adds, is how they "welcome back people who may have had a bad church experience when they were growing up." Members are plugged into "community groups" for Bible study, which meet during the week in homes or at NCC's coffeehouse in a building nearby. "A community group has really been instrumental in my walk with the Lord," she emphasizes.
NCC's experience has attracted the attention of other pastors, several of whom have spent weekends attending its services. "Some are actually selling their churches and moving into theaters; others are taking on that long-term perspective that maybe a building isn't everything," Batterson says. An Assembly of God church in Annapolis, Md., for example, has left its 35-year-old church building to move into the local cineplex as the Church at the Mall.
"It's that difference between the temple and the tabernacle in the Old Testament," Batterson adds. "When the cloud moved, the Israelites would pack up the tabernacle and set it back up where the cloud stopped. We see ourselves as a tabernacle."