"Instead of popcorn and soft drinks, church theatergoers enjoy coffee and bagels. Admission isn't paid at the door, but donation envelopes fill the cup holders. And like all conventional trips to the movies, cell phones still go off at ill-timed moments."

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Newest Forum for Some Utah Congregations Feature Comfy Seats, Casual Atmosphere

Kelly Bingham
Standard-Examiner correspondent

Layton, UT, November 2006 - Now praying at a theater near you.

A number of churches across the country and at least one in the Top of Utah are abandoning wooden pews and stained glass for plush stadium seating and silver screens showing previews of Second Coming attractions.

At least 250 churches nationwide are holding religious services in movie theaters, according to The Leadership Network, in Dallas.

"We have confirmed that churches in at least 36 states, including D.C., use local cinemas for church services," said Warren Bird, director of research. "Locations cover the country, from Alaska and Hawaii to Florida and New Hampshire."

Ryan Lind, the lead pastor of Elevation Church, an affiliate of the Assemblies of God, said his congregation started meeting at the Layton Hills 9 theaters, 728 W. 1425 North, in Layton earlier this year.

"It's got comfortable chairs," he said, laughing. "Movie theaters are generally a hospitable atmosphere. People expect to have fun when they come to the movies. Plus, it just seems to work for us. We really play it up."

Last December, congregants dressed as characters from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" because they were meeting in the theater where the movie by Christian C.S. Lewis was playing.

Instead of popcorn and soft drinks, church theatergoers enjoy coffee and bagels. Admission isn't paid at the door, but donation envelopes fill the cup holders. And like all conventional trips to the movies, cell phones still go off at ill-timed moments.

"Our theaters make an ideal, cost-effective place for churches to grow, and the unique theater environment, with its comfortable seating, is a big draw for newcomers," says Mike Schonberger, vice president of CineMeetings & Events, which leases theater space to various organizations.

"In Fact, 84 percent of our church clients report that attendance has increased since they started holding their services in a movie theater."

Creating a fun and hospitable atmosphere for congregants has been a high priority for mainline Protestant churches, most of which have experienced declining attendance since 1995.

In 2005, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reported that only 17 percent of Protestants regularly attend church services.

Leaders of cine-churches hope that meeting in movie theaters will curb this trend. Theaters are thought to be more inviting and open than formal churches for young adults and thirtysomethings seeking religion.

Lind, focusing on the 19 to 40-year-old demographic has seen his weekly congregation grow from 40 people to 100 since moving services to the AMC Theaters.

Melissa Yount, a 28-year-old Ogden resident, has been attending Elevation Church for five months.

"I liked the church because of the young atmosphere," she said.

Meeting in a theater gives Elevation Church a relaxed setting meant to appeal to the younger crowd. This is punctuated by a casual dress code and a live church band fronted by Lind that puts the rock in "Rock of Ages".

Savings on bills

Trinity Jordan, senior pastor of Elevation Church, sees monetary benefits of having a chine-church as well.

"Traditional church buildings steal funds," Jordan said. "Meeting here we don't have the bills associated with a building. We're able to put our resources to ministering to people and not to a building."

Elevation pays AMC Theaters $400 per week for use of the theater. The church must provide its own sound system for music and projection equipment for displaying multimedia sermons on the big screen.

It takes approximately three hours to convert a theater into a solid rockin' and holy rollin' church.

"Members have to come in at 7 a.m. to set up lights, projectors, our sound system and sound equipment," Lind said. "We have a pretty big production and there's a lot of energy that goes into setting up musical and other equipment. The theater doesn't let us use their sound equipment, but that's OK. Ours is better than theirs anyway."

Benefits both ways

Churches aren't the only ones benefiting from a relation with movie theaters.

The movie theater owner National CineMedia reports approximately 100 churches rent their buildings, earning the company revenues during hours their theaters would generally be closed.

Lind acknowledges there are drawbacks to not having a permanent church building. Problems include having to constantly set up and tear down equipment. The church also has to spend an hour after services to de-church the theater before it opens for regular business so there's little time for after church chat.

"The other problem is that there isn't a central point that throughout the week we can go or get together and that sort of thing." Lind Said. "Plus, right now we're running our offices from home. That's a major drawback and we're working on trying to address that, but we're not sure how yet"

Those issues aside, Lind said the church has no intention of trading in their marquee and neon lights for a steeple and church bells.

"We probably never will own a building," Jordan said. "As soon as we do that the building becomes church and the movement we're embracing is that individuals make up the church."