Movie palaces find afterlife

Hollywood marketing execs are searching for ways to bring practicing Christians back to movie theaters, but some of those auds never left. A growing number of churches are making themselves at home in the multiplex.

For a cinephile on tour through the old Broadway theater district in downtown L.A., this would hardly be news, as “Jesus Saves” and “Iglesia Universal” have assumed permanent positions on the marquees of the city’s oldest movie palaces.

But the phenomenon spreads much farther than that. According to a recent Leadership Network survey, approximately 250 churches rent Sunday morning space from operating theaters nationwide.

Aside from the benefits of size, comfort and ample popcorn, worshipping in a theater offers opportunities for outreach.

“We love doing church in the middle of the marketplace,” says Mark Batterson, lead pastor of the 1,200-member National Community Church in Washington, D.C., which holds services at a multiplex near Union Station. “A lot of churches get quarantined behind the four walls of their sanctuary, and it’s pretty easy to lose touch with people who aren’t used to going to church. A movie theater is neutral territory where people feel comfortable.”

And there’s also that giant screen behind the pulpit. With congregations in both theater and traditional churches becoming more technologically sophisticated, companies such as WingClips and Movie Ministry have emerged to provide films for church use.

“It’s a great way to provide material for pastors to tie in to sermons, and it’s a great marketing tool for distribution companies as well,” says WingClips prexy Mitchell Irion, whose company licenses excerpts from movies both spiritual and secular. (To his surprise, he says a baptism scene from mainstream comedy “Nacho Libre” has become one of the most popular clips.)

While Batterson acknowledges that some might find his services too unorthodox, he sees no reason not to utilize film for liturgical purposes, even assembling trailers for upcoming sermon series.

As he explains: “We think of the movie screen as postmodern stained glass. The medieval church used stained glass to communicate the Gospel in pictures, and we use the screen to communicate the Gospel in moving pictures.”

The Word of the Lord — coming soon to a theater near you.

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