Popcorn with your church service? Area congregations meeting at local movie theaters

Dayton area churches are finding that cinemas hold certain allure when it comes to serving their congregations.

Leaders from three area churches launched during the pandemic said movie theaters provide a flexible and comfortable option for Sunday morning services.

“A lot of people already go there and so they feel comfortable there,” said the Rev. Jon Morgan, pastor of Hope Collective Church, which launched during the pandemic in July 2020 as an online congregation before it started holding services at downtown Dayton’s The Neon theater in September 2021. “We like it that this space is kind of neutral for folks who may have experienced church hurt in the past and they can feel comfortable going to that space.”

With Hope Collective renting space in a theater, the church doesn’t have to concern itself with much in the way of set-up or take down, Morgan said. Because the congregation only uses the space weekly, the expense is not too high.

“It’s affordable for a new church like ourselves,” he said.

Liberation Church, which launched five weeks ago, was looking to find a venue with “a fully contemporary feel,” and Cinemark fit the bill, according to the Rev. Heath Countryman.

“We’re really trying to bring a fresh approach to church, to try to reach out to the younger generations,” Countryman said. “We’re targeting that 20- and 30-something demographic that’s kind of walked away from church during the pandemic and we’re trying to reconnect into that demographic.”

The church, which is part of the Church of the Nazarene denomination, rents two theaters at Cinemark Dayton South 16 and XD near the Dayton Mall in Miamisburg every Sunday, one for the main service the other for a children’s service. It also rents a party room for a nursery.

Holding services in the movie theater also is aimed at appealing to “an unchurched, new demographic,” one that didn’t grow up with the church either because their parents never took them there or because they dropped out sometime in their youth, Countryman said.

“They just don’t have that relationship with the church to even see it as a good thing,” he said. “They see it as a bad thing or or as a foreign thing, something different that they’re not used to.

“Church is something new to them and we need to be cognizant of that and aware of that, and make our services a place where those people can feel comfortable coming in to explore the Christian faith.”

Pinnacle Point Church has been holding services each Sunday at the Plaza Theatre in Miamisburg since July 2021, right as the first batch of COVID-19 restrictions were being lifted, according to its pastor, the Rev. Brian Erisman.

Erisman said he loves that the theater is in the heart of downtown Miamisburg and the fact that visitors to the non-denominational church “seem to really embrace the atmosphere.”

But despite movie theater seating and atmosphere providing a different experience than traditional wooden church pews, “the gospel is not meant to make you comfortable,” he said.

“It’s meant to challenge you and transform you to be more Christ-like, but the atmosphere is more welcoming to people who might not feel as comfortable walking into a traditional church building,” Erisman said. “We don’t feel like God’s presence is limited to ... the building type that you meet in. It’s the atmosphere that you create in your in your act of worship.

“We’re welcoming people to come as they are, where we are, and want them to feel comfortable in that.”

The church leaders say they could have turned to other venues, retail or otherwise, for a space of their own, but attempting to convert it into a place of worship would come at an extremely high cost.

“We’d have to spend $300,000 to $500,000 to renovate (any potential) space, minimum, and even then you’re not going to get the cool factor that you’ve got with the movie theater,” Countryman said.

Movie theaters, church leaders say, also provide other benefits, such as no bills for heating, electricity or cleaning and no cost for furniture acquisition, repair or replacement.

In addition, congregants can not only partake of whatever treats a church has supplied for the service, but also take advantage of a concession stand offering a variety of items.

“They open up the snack bar for us,” Morgan said of The Neon. “It seems to be a good treat for everyone going to worship.”

The church leaders say they value the ability to use the massive screens behind them during worship to post graphic and lyrics to accompany a hymn or a song, or give a church band the ability to connect to a theater’s sound system.

Hope Collective’s two Sunday services at The Neon sometimes feature clips of interviews with community partners in an effort to highlight their outreach work in Dayton, Morgan said. It also has sponsored several movies and paid for tickets so community members could attend for free or at a minimum cost, he said.

Liberation Church uses Cinemark’s wireless connection to broadcasts brief scenes from popular movies, then expound upon each clip with a message that can be learned out from it.

“Hollywood takes the space and uses it to teach one lesson. We’re taking the space and using it to bring the grace of God into the world or to expound on what God wants to do to change people’s lives,” Countryman said. “We can actually take this space and redeem it.”

For movie theatres, which have encouraged churches and other groups for decades to use their space, it’s also a creative way of boosting their bottom lines in an attempt to recover from the pandemic’s negative financial effects.

Websites for The Neon, The Plaza Theatre, and Cinemark include information of how to rent the theater, with the latter making a direct appeal to churches by saying it offers “ultra-comfy seats,” a giant screen on which to share a message and “plenty of parking, clean restrooms and spacious auditoriums.”

The Plaza Theatre, which runs by volunteers, said the partnership with Pinnacle Point has had more benefits than just a financial one. Congregants from the church also have volunteered for the Plaza Theatre and assisted with some of its maintenance needs, according to Marti Eggers, the theater’s associate director.

“We needed some things done and we mentioned it to Brian, the pastor, and he has been able to engage his congregation to help us out,” Eggers said. “That partnership is just immeasurable.”

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