IN THEORY: Church in surround sound

The Rev. Ethan Maple of Indianapolis recently started the Movie Theater Church. His idea was not to build a physical church, but to build a worship community in a comfortable and unintimidating place, like a movie theater. Churches rent theater facilities every week for worship, paying up to $1,000 for three hours. However, some critics of this believe that holding church in a movie theater sends the message that the church is not going to be there for the long run and “not here to stay,” according to a recent CNN article.

Do you believe that holding services in a movie theater is the right strategy to bring people back to the church? Or does it do more harm than good?


Whether or not we embrace the traditional concept of a church edifice, we all must keep up with the times and be in tune with the communities we serve. It always means looking beyond ourselves, and having hearts ready to help those who find us.

The best kind of family usually fosters a caring and belonging that we call home, but the family house is not a home. It's the same with church. There are many churches with buildings in locations that serve them well. There are also churches of various denominations affected by the increasingly secular nature of society, where the community receptivity to church is no longer so apparent. Such churches are discovering ways to revitalize their organizations.

As the CNN article relates, some meet in movie theaters and have increased congregations as a result. Whether or not these arrangements endure remains to be seen, but churches will adopt ever-new ways to progress. The Bible quotes Jesus as saying, “In my Father's house are many mansions.”

My own church is also moving with the times. For example, some churches of Christ, Scientist, have installed facilities for remote participation via telephone or the Internet. Some churches have a combined church and Christian Science Reading Room (the latter essentially a bookstore) in a shop-front location, usually in a well-located position. Some others have rebuilt at new locations.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, in her book “Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures,” gives this definition: “Church: The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle [God].”

No matter what kind of physical location a church might have, it's the focus on expressing God and serving our neighbor that really counts.


First reader at First Church of Christ, Scientist, in La Cañada


In this post-Christian era, any church having any success at all is cause for celebration. I salute the Rev. Ethan Maple.

In the Episcopal Diocese of L.A., people are experimenting in similar ways. Holy Spirit Fellowship in Silver Lake ( started out in a bakery and now uses the community room of an apartment complex. Thad's, in Culver City, ( worships in a Jewish community center.

There's a lot to be said for freedom from a church building. It's easier on the budget, of course.

It keeps a congregation from falling into idolatrous “worship” of the church building, its beauty and furnishings, or obsessive attachment to the items that someone made by hand or donated as a memorial gift.

And without over-focus on property management issues, a pastor and congregation are freed up to focus on worshiping God and ministry to their neighbors.

A building does provide continuity and the comfort of permanence. I still make a point of visiting the church I grew up in whenever I go back home, and I am always healed by walking through its doors and breathing its air. And a church building offers a sense of holy space. Sit in an empty church, and you can feel the spiritual vibes of all the people who have ever worshiped there.

As T.S. Eliot said, to step into a church is “to kneel where prayer has been valid.” Old-school Episcopalians would balk at the idea of “a comfortable and unintimidating place” — we're looking for a little bit of awe and mystery. We rely on the space itself to help us draw closer to God.

But these new churches aren't there for the old-school crowd; they're trying to reach a different set of people. And I think it's fantastic that we've finally stopped wringing our hands about why those people aren't coming to church and taken church to them instead.

Hmm, I wonder what they charge at their concession stands?


St. George's Episcopal Church in La Cañada


In the early '80s, after becoming truly Christian, I attended a theater church, so this is nothing new. I was familiar with the Presbyterian churches I attended in childhood — very traditional, dress code, organ music. Such churches suit those familiar, but often intimidate the newbies who don't yet understand the nature of “church,” nor how they'll be received.

The gal that led me to Christ felt responsible to find me fellowship, and surmised a looser, contemporary venue would suit me more than what was more liturgical. I have fond memories of that Santa Monica theater church. It's where I first felt comfortably inclined to sing, and the pastor's informal preaching style fed my soul.

That church understood something which many do not — that “church” is not some religious-looking building, it's the people of God themselves. Everyone in legitimate, biblically faithful assembly, in any Christ-honoring denomination worldwide, comprises “The Church.” So when referring to an edifice as “church,” we're merely using shorthand for the place where the church-people meet.

I'm saddened when communities so neglect their neighborhood churches that they can't afford to operate, and close.

I've seen churches that close, only to have restaurants buy them for their beautiful locations for business. Happily, thriving new theater churches may spring up nearby! Stained glass and pretty tapestries do create spiritual aesthetics for worship, but many unspiritual people attend for just those, having no genuine relationship with God. They substitute form for substance yet “religiously” occupy the pews. Is that what Jesus had in mind?

What counts is that God's word is faithfully embraced here. We believe. Join with us.


Montrose Community Church

I feel that it is critical for a congregation to have a permanent house of worship. No temporary location can truly provide the full range of programming, worship services and other long-term activities necessary to sustain a viable community.

A congregation can only benefit when their spiritual home has secure roots in the local area and provides a sense of stability and continuity. Using a movie theater or renting another temporary location can certainly work as an interim solution that allows members time to find the necessary support and funding for a home of their own. Still, it is imperative that people not get too comfortable in these transitional settings since there's a risk that they may abandon their ultimate plan for a permanent home.

A temporary setting requires fewer responsibilities and demands less monetary commitment, which can unfortunately become an attractive option to members — and can endanger the goal of establishing a lasting place of worship with a full slate of programs. I also believe that when a congregation is ready to make that important leap to build or purchase a home of their own, it is essential that the needs and opinions of congregants be incorporated in the final design.

If using this formula dictates that the aesthetics depart from the standard look of a traditional house of worship then — as long as it does not compromise religious teachings — so be it. It can only be positive if our spiritual centers take on new, welcoming appearances that attract more members and increase attendance.


Spiritual leader of Chabad of Glendale and the Foothills


Here's a brief overview of how God has used buildings of worship.

For more than 400 years the place to worship God was a tent called the tabernacle. It was used by Israel in the wilderness and during the 40 years of wandering the tabernacle was frequently moved to different locations. Even after Israel was established in their land, tabernacle worship continued until the reign of Solomon, who built the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. God allowed this temple to be destroyed and then rebuilt. A thousand years after Solomon, Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well near Mount Gerazim, “Believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father?.?.?.?true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:21-23).

Jesus warned His disciples that on a future day, not one stone would be left upon another in the temple.

Today the church is not a building, it is a body made up of every follower of Jesus Christ. Renting a movie theater as a place of worship may not appeal to everyone (what does?) but I believe God is using this strategy for His glory.

It reminds us that no building on earth is “here to stay” and that God cannot be contained in any building, as Solomon acknowledged.


Valley Baptist Church in Burbank


Whatever works is what I think. Keep in mind that the early church met in people's homes, and I'll bet they didn't even serve popcorn!

But seriously, we have all heard the Sunday school saying that the Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. Who says God can't work in or through a movie theater? Also, in some ways, I've read that theaters have become the new “churches.” When we go to a movie, we are urged to keep quiet, right? That's similar to the Bible verse, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).

Also, while in the darkened theater, we are waiting for the great light to appear on the screen, right? Well, when we're in worship we are anticipating some sort of communion with the Light of the World (cf. John 1:9).

Now I'm not suggesting that going to the movies and going to church are the same, but there are some similarities. As to the concern that a certain transitoriness is built into the concept of a theater church as opposed to a more traditional building, I would tend not to worry. If you think about it, we are all simply passing through, and nobody is going to live forever, regardless of how firm the church's foundation is.

Also, keep in mind that we worship the living God, not a cold, stone building. And just maybe the living God is trying to get us out of our cold, stone buildings, no matter how beautiful they are, in order to reach those who would never darken the door of a traditional church, but would be open to seeking the living God in a different structure, such as a movie theater! “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).


La Cañada Congregational Church

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