The distinction between secular and sacred space continues to blur as a small but growing number of churches meet in movie theaters and consider eschewing traditional church buildings altogether.
Currently 180 churches are renting movie theater space under one-year contracts with National CineMedia, which manages rentals in 1,400 theaters nationwide. That's an increase from three churches six years ago.
"Movie-theater screens are postmodern stained glass. We're using moving pictures to tell the gospel to a post-literate culture," said Mark Batterson, lead pastor of National Community Church, which meets in Washington, D.C., theaters and hosts a conference for theater churches. "There are ways of doing church that no one has thought of yet. We have to live with the tension of being biblically true and culturally relevant."
While most of the congregations eventually want to own a building, experts suggest about 10 percent plan on long-term portability — and the number is growing.
"In the beginning, a lot of people viewed portability as a means to an end," said Kendra Malloy, marketing director for Portable Church Industries. "Now people see portability as a way to go and be part of the community."
The majority of Malloy's church clients rent schools, but about 15 percent rent movie theaters for worship space.
Although a LifeWay Research survey last February suggested that people who don't go to church may prefer traditional, cathedral-style buildings to modern sanctuaries, the hope is that theater-style buildings will draw those who might not feel comfortable entering a traditional church.
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, began in a movie theater in 1975 with 125 attendees. Today the church has 20,000 attend each weekend.
The Willow Creek Theater fit the church's criteria: it was a low-cost, easily accessible facility with no religious symbols, giving it a neutral appeal, said Scott Pederson, who directs local missions at Willow Creek. Yet he said the theater presented unique problems, including makeshift arrangements such as Sunday school "rooms" partitioned out with burlap in the lobby and a nursery in the women's restroom.
"I don't know how many other churches are starting out in theaters, but I feel their pain," Pederson said. "It's a tremendous facility, but it does take quite a bit of work to make it go because … there's a movie that's going to show just as soon as the church service is done."
Meanwhile, some churches are requesting buildings that feel like black-box theaters. Others are buying theaters to renovate, said Dennis Ehrman, president of Church Building Consultants. Existing theaters can work well because they are zoned for group use and built so the congregation can easily see the stage.
Greg Snider, project developer for the Aspen Group, an Indiana-based church building company, said he sees two developing trends. Out of the 40 churches under contract with Aspen, 10 are interested in theater-style auditoriums and seating, while four want smaller, chapel-style second buildings for extension services instead of expanding existing auditoriums.
"Everybody is looking for the next wave. We went from cathedrals to churches with pews and vaulted ceilings to the Willow Creek model — the theater seats and big screens and big production — and for me, the biggest movement right now is the intimacy issue," said Snider. "How do we do 'big' small? If we have to get 500 people in a space, how do we get it to not feel like 500 people?"
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