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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > September-October 2009 > Lights ... Camera ... Worship!

Every Sunday at 7 a.m., a team arrives to convert a cinema lobby into The Movie Theater Church. Photos courtesy of Ethan Maple
Lights ... Camera ... Worship!

Indiana church flourishes
in a movie theater

By Joey Butler

On Sunday mornings in Indianapolis, people crowd into a movie theater, settle into their seats with sodas and popcorn ... and have church.

The Movie Theater Church began as an offsite ministry of Old Bethel United Methodist Church. Old Bethel had the desire to share the message of Christ to those outside of their church building -- on Sundays as well as throughout the week.

"We believe strongly that the gospel message is too important to just set up shop and invite people to come to you. The Movie Theater Church is us going to them," says the Rev. Ethan Maple, associate pastor at Old Bethel who leads worship at the Movie Theater Church.

Maple says the plan was to reach people in "third places" -- the first being home, the second being work or school and the third being where they go for entertainment or socializing. So the church leased space from a functioning local theater about five miles from Old Bethel.

The Rev. Ethan Maple

"Our target audience is people who have been jaded and turned off, for whatever reason, by the traditional church setting," says Maple. "Our hope was that they would feel more comfortable in the movie theater setting and from there we would have an opportunity to share God's love with them."

The worship style is very contemporary, with live Christian rock band Deeper Roots providing praise music and multimedia messages flashing across the big screen. Congregation members eat popcorn and drink soda while worshipping; the offering is collected in popcorn buckets. Both congregants and clergy dress casually. Maple often crafts sermons around themes from popular films. During normal theater hours, church ads are included in the movie previews.

The first service in March 2008 drew 60 people, but now attendance averages more than twice that number.

Every Sunday morning, the worship team arrives at the theater at 7 a.m., trailer in tow, to transform the lobby area and theater in time for worship at 9:45. They have to be torn down and out of the theater before the matinees start at 11:30.

Maple says the only drawback to the nontraditional setting is that, by having to be out of the theater so soon after worship, there is no time for fellowship. The congregation addresses that by having numerous prayer groups, meeting groups and Bible studies, either at Maple's house or in various local restaurants.

The Christian band Deeper Roots has been integral to the success of The Movie Theater Church
The Movie Theater Church has been so successful that in January it will be chartered as a United Methodist congregation, with Maple appointed as its pastor. But he is quick to point out that the relationship with Old Bethel is still strong. The two congregations will continue crossover ministries such as Vacation Bible School or mission trips.

"We want to model what two churches in the same community can do with each other," Maple says. "We're not competing. We have the same goal; we just deliver it in different ways. We're reaching more people for the kingdom by working together."

Maple says he thinks The Movie Theater Church is a model of the denomination's Rethink Church campaign.

"The traditional church setting is a big building that says, 'Come to me.' We said, 'That's not good enough; we're going to where people are.' We believe it is our duty to grab hold of the community and partner with it and remind it that God is here in the midst."

--Joey Butler, managing editor, Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine

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