Church finds needs are met by theater

Video: Greenbrier Church worships in a non-traditional setting: Evans 14 Stadium Cinemas on Towne Center Drive.
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On Sunday morning at Greenbrier Church, a greeter points the way to the sanctuary.

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Churchgoers listen to the band during Greenbrier Church's service at Evans 14 Stadium Cinemas. The church started services there Easter Sunday.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Churchgoers listen to the band during Greenbrier Church's service at Evans 14 Stadium Cinemas. The church started services there Easter Sunday.

"First theater on your left," she says, referring to the one marked for a 1:20 p.m. showing of Fast & Furious .

It was Greenbrier's second Sunday at Evans 14 Stadium Cinemas on Towne Center Drive.

Six years ago, National CineMedia, which operates AMC, Cinemark and Regal theaters, rented to just three churches across the nation. Now, Greenbrier is one of more than 190 churches that hold services in its theaters.

Greenbrier started its theater services on Easter Sunday.

About 100 people showed up for worship on a recent Sunday. The Rev. Chuck Gordon preached about a man's call to "warriorhood" as verses from Joshua scrolled up the theater's screen, mimicking the opening crawl from Star Wars .

The music is contemporary; the service, heavy on technology. The church is Baptist, but none of its signs or its Web site says so.

The Rev. Gordon, a former student pastor at Warren Baptist Church, started the church five years ago as The Church at Greenbrier.

The church met in a rented high school and built a denominationally diverse congregation. Some members are Baptist, but others have Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran roots.

"Most of the people who are active in our church haven't been to church for five to 10 years, if at all," the Rev. Gordon said. "It is our purpose statement to connect the disconnected."

The unorthodox theater setting helps reach that goal, he said.

"People want to be in a theater," the pastor said. "We want this to be the best hour of their entire week. People shy away from the word 'entertain,' but God wants people to be captivated with himself."

Three-quarters of pastors who lead movie theater congregations report an increase in attendance, according to National CineMedia, whose director of worship solutions is Barry Brown. He says four churches in South Carolina and nine churches in Georgia meet in theaters.

"We've been helping churches to move into movie theaters for about eight years," Mr. Brown said. "It's a multimillion-dollar building sitting empty Sunday mornings. They're located in the middle of the marketplace. Everybody knows where the theater is."

Theater rental rates are comparable to that of a school, "up to 50 percent off standard retail price," said Mr. Brown, although he declined to give exact figures.

Greenbrier had to purchase staging and lighting to fit the theater, not just for the worship space but also for a theater rented for its children's programs.

"When they started talking about staging and all the things they could do, I just couldn't imagine how it would work," said Brian Weeks, who started attending Greenbrier with his wife, Bunny, and their two kids a year and a half ago. "I was blown away when I saw it."

Mr. Weeks and more than a dozen other crew members arrive at 6:45 a.m. to set up. They're done in plenty of time for the 9 a.m. service. The end-of-service breakdown brings a real time crunch. The 10:15 a.m. service ends at 11:15 a.m. The entire set must be packed up by 11:45 a.m.

"It's like we load a house in 30 minutes," the Rev. Gordon said.

The transformation is huge, said church member Kim Rogers. "When I walked in there our first Sunday, I just started crying. It was just so moving how they transformed it," she said. "The last time I was there, I was there to see a movie, and now I was standing in a place of worship."

When the congregation files out, concessions workers are already making popcorn for moviegoers who arrive at noon.

"It's a lot of work, but no doubt the work is worth it," the pastor said. "A movie changes a person's life for an hour, an hour and a half. What we're doing can transform people's lives for eternity."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

Learn more

For more information about Greenbrier Church, see www.GreenbrierChurch.tv or call (706) 922-8224.


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