Worshipers find movie theaters to be just the ticket

Each Sunday morning, more than 200 people flock to the Regal Lake Zurich, Ill., theaters, but not to see a movie. They come to pray. Part of a nationwide trend, Northwest Family Church members transform the multiplex’s auditoriums into worship spaces.

On one recent Sunday, adults and teens sang along with a rock band as lyrics were projected onto a huge screen that only the night before had been showing “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Later, Bible passages filled the screen.

“What’s better than to be in an auditorium where great stories are told when you have a great story to tell?” senior pastor Darrin Hughes said moments before the service started.

Grade school-age children gathered for their own services in a second theater, the preschoolers were in a third, Bible study took place in a fourth and babies were cared for in a nursery set up in the Regal’s party room. The church often uses six of the multiplex’s 12 theaters.

“A lot of churches spend their resources on a building and facilities and maintenance and paving the parking lot,” said Scott Dever, a purchasing agent who attends with his wife and three sons, ages 10 to 16. “What I find attractive is that Northwest Family is more free to use its resources to benefit the community and the people of the community.”

Experts estimate that 300 churches from Hawaii to New Hampshire, many of them nondenominational, are holding services each week at a local movie house. National CineMedia Inc., which oversees non-movie rentals in AMC, Cinemark, Regal and other cinema chains, has built its church clients from only three in 2001 to nearly 200. Renting a single auditorium for 52 Sundays costs about $30,000.

“It’s a good way (for church founders) to get into an area before they invest in a building,” said Barry Brown, director of worship services for National CineMedia.

With the deepening recession, Brown said, some established churches can’t afford to carry out their expansion plans even though attendance is rising. “We’re seeing a lot of the bigger churches saying (renting a movie theater) is the way to go,” he said.

It’s also a profitable use of theater space that sits empty most mornings. Brown said churches are responsible for slightly more than half of the non-movie uses of the auditoriums, with meetings and events accounting for the rest. Some 3 million people a year attend services in National CineMedia theaters, he said.

Often churches offer movie-related incentives, such as free tickets or popcorn, to lure prospective members. And some, such as Northwest Family, advertise their services before movie previews during the week.

“We want to be in a place where church and community can cross paths and cross-pollinate,” said Joel Schmidgall, the Naperville, Ill.,-born executive pastor at the National Community Church in Washington.

It wasn’t by design, though, that National Community landed in a movie theater in 1996. The congregation had been meeting in a school, but it was suddenly closed because of fire-code violations. In desperation, the church moved to the cinemas in Union Station, site of a city Metro stop, and four blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

There it found its mission.

Today the church holds services in three theaters at Metro stops in the city and suburbs and is planning a fourth soon. Like many theater-churches, National Community takes aim at people who have never gone to church or haven’t gone in many years. Its congregation, which totals more than 1,200 each weekend, is made up mainly of single people in their 20s and 30s.

The church — whose Web site is — has no plans for a traditional steeple-topped structure.

“We’re sold on the vision of being in theaters at Metro stops throughout the D.C. area,” Schmidgall said.

Brown said that only about a quarter of National CineMedia’s congregations plan to construct a building for worship, leaving the multiplex behind.

In addition to Northwest Family in Lake Zurich, Ill., at least three other Chicago-area churches, all clients of National CineMedia, have theater operations. Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Maywood offers satellite services at the Showplace 12 Theater in Bolingbrook. A newly formed congregation called The Well meets in the Randall 15 theaters in Batavia. And the 21-year-old Evanston Bible Fellowship gathers in the Century Evanston theaters.

“We were in a basement before,” said Jason Lancaster, the senior pastor at Evanston Bible. “And it would leak like crazy — it would flood! — when it rained.”

“It’s been a blessing,” Lancaster said.

But there are drawbacks.

A lot of energy goes into setting up and taking down the signage, sound system and other things necessary for worship. And the church can use the space only on Sunday mornings.

That means that Evanston Bible doesn’t have its own place for celebrating major holy days that don’t occur on Sunday. Like many other theater-churches, it had an arrangement to join another congregation for Christmas services.

The church’s goal, Lancaster said, is to remain in downtown Evanston to serve Northwestern University students and other residents. Members would like a traditional church building, but the price of land in and around the central business district is prohibitive.

Even though such megachurches as the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., began in movie theaters, some religious traditionalists saw cinemas as less than holy.

“Decades ago, there was a Christ-vs.-culture distrust of meeting in a movie theater,” said Warren Bird, director of research for the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church think tank.

All that has changed. “With the increased use of video technology in worship, churches find increasing benefit in having the big-screen context that a movie theater provides,” Bird said.

Many theater-churches, such as Northwest Family, build services and even sermons around video and movies.

In fact, the pastors said, the screen is more than a screen.

“We really try,” said National Community’s Schmidgall, “to use the screen as a modern stained-glass window.”

In Lake Zurich, Lori Pothast, a physical therapist, acknowledges that, initially, it was odd to be hearing the word of God preached in a cinema.

“There was no organ. There was no choir,” said Pothast, who used to attend Lutheran services in Wauconda.

But her children loved the family atmosphere and the informality of a congregation rooted, as one elder said, in “friendship evangelization.”

“They were instantly comfortable,” she said. After all, she added, the movie theater “is a common cultural thing.”