Movie Theatre Meetings: Pros and Cons
My church, The Meeting House, meets in movie theatres (other than the production site which is in an old warehouse). We’re even known as “the movie theatre church” to some outside of the church. Recently I’ve been thinking about the good and the bad of this approach of meeting in movie theatres instead of in traditional church settings. This could be extended to other contemporary meeting places like malls, pubs, or schools but my own experience is in movie theatres and only a couple in schools so I’ll stick to the movie theatre example.
Movie theatre churches are easy to find. You usually don’t need to give an address when telling somebody where it is; you can just cite the theatre. I found this a lot with the Downtown Toronto Meeting House. “Where do you go to church?” “The Meeting House Downtown” “Where’s that?” “Scotiabank Theatre.” They didn’t ever need directions or the address or even to Google Maps it. In short, it’s geographically accessible.
Consequently, it is easy to invite people. Along with being able to find it easily, people generally feel comfortable walking into a movie theatre and sitting down in pretty comfortable seats. For the “unchurched,” it is a lot more comfortable to do this than to walk into an old building – even a beautiful one – and sit down on hard wooden pews. In Canada at least there are a lot more people who have little to no experience with church than those who have had enough to be intuitively comfortable with it. For example, I remember in high school a teacher asking the class who had been to church (he wanted to compare our religious experiences with the experiences in a book). He was shocked to learn that I was the only one out of about 15-20 teenagers in the class. The movie theatre experience definitely helps bridge the gap to that majority.
The third major argument in favour of meeting in movie theatres is that it is a lot cheaper. There are no mortgage payments or property taxes. There are no repair fees to keep aging buildings functional. There are no utility fees, keeping heat on all week even though the building gets little use the rest of the week. The pastors just work from home or in coffee shops instead of requiring an office throughout the week. This money can go into a lot of other things instead: compassion initiatives, having more staff to make sure people are cared for, better equipment, better programs throughout the week, etc.
No Sense of Sacred Space
There is something to be said for liturgy of presence. Where you are definitely changes the vibe of a worship gathering. In some ways it can be good, especially for those who aren’t used to churches, as I mentioned above, to be in a non-traditional building. At the same time, though, I definitely think there is a degree to which people approach going to church in the same way that they approach going to see a movie because that is what the setting is obviously reminding us of.
Let me be clear: like other Anabaptists, I do not believe that any space is actually more sacred than any other. What I do believe is that we inevitably bring all our senses into worship with us and that is a good thing. When our sensory perceptions are saying “this is a setting where you kick back and be entertained,” it is harder on a subconscious level to be focused, to be open to hearing in what ways you need to work hard at in following Jesus, and in general to be in a worshipful state.
This effect really shouldn’t be ignored, even in the unchurched generation. If you’re doing worship gatherings in a theatre or other non-traditional venue, do what you can to still make sure it feels different, as a place of spiritual growth and strong community rather than individual entertainment.
There is lots of work needed every week to set up. I have worked as a sound tech in 3 different churches. In the first, a traditional church setting (old building, basic equipment, semi-liturgical service), I would show up at 9:15am for a 10:00am service. I would have to plug in the mics and do a quick test but that was it. In the second, I would show up at 9:00am for a 10:30am service, but this was pretty much only so that I could turn on the monitors for the choir to practice and about 45 minutes of that time I ended up reading before actually having to do anything else in preparation. In other words, it was easy and didn’t intrude much on my Sunday sleep-in.
In The Meeting House, I was one of about 15 people to show up at 8:00am for a 10:00am gathering, plus there was the driver who picked up all the gear before that. Of those 15, most were general setup team all the way from unloading the truck and did everything including the Kidmax room, the information table, and a whole lot of other stuff we have going on every Sunday. Then there was me who went straight to audio and another guy or gal who went to video. It would take at least half an hour just to get all the band equipment set up. Then of course the tests need to be more comprehensive since there is more room for something to break when it is always being wrapped and tucked away in a storage bin. In other words, of that 2 hours I was there, I was doing pretty stressful work for almost all of it.
The theatre setup simply could not work without a lot of volunteers who are willing to give up an extra good chunk of their Sunday morning. This has to be considered a huge practical drawback because most churches simply don’t have that kind of community engagement.
Worth the Trade-Off?
Ultimately I am thankful that some churches exist in traditional worship settings and others exist in settings like movie theatres. I think we need both. In a culture where most are unchurched, those advantages of the non-traditional meeting places are vital, but we also can’t just abandon the beauty of over a thousand years of liturgical traditions (depending on the liturgy, some going back to the apostles). Sometimes at the end of a worship service at The Meeting House, I leave wishing they had incorporated some well-placed liturgies, but then there are probably others who would run away from the church at the first sign of liturgy. Seven years ago when I first away to university I was pretty close to that end of the spectrum myself. And then there are many who immediately feel less connected to a church if they meet in a building at all, even if it isn’t a traditional building that they own, preferring HomeChurch-only models like the early church. While there are certainly commonalities in our experience, we will all respond differently to different worship elements, including location.