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Now playing at Sandy Cinema: Church

Movie theater a good fit for Fellowship Bible
by: Marcus Hathcock, The Fellowship Bible Church worship team plays in front of the silver screen during service Sunday, March 18.

There's a dedicated group of local residents who show up at Sandy Cinema every weekend. The group - about 50 people strong - isn't there to see Hollywood's newest releases or even for the popcorn.

They are going to church.

On Feb. 18, Sandy's Fellowship Bible Church moved its Sunday services from 5 p.m. at the Community Presbyterian Church to 9 a.m. at the cinema, a switch that Senior Pastor Gregg Chastain says holds a lot of promise for the 25-year-old church.

'This (new facility) puts us in a place where we can actually grow,' said Chastain. 'I think lots of people are just happy to be meeting in the morning again.'

For just under $300 a month, the church has full run of the cinema, taking over two theater auditoriums. The main service meets in Theater 8, which has more than 80 seats. Sunday school for children is held in a 40-seat theater, and younger tykes ages 2 to 5 have a special space in the hallway between the theaters.

Services start at 9 a.m., giving church members enough time for their service to be out of the cinema by 11, when it starts showing movies.

Chastain says the unorthodox setting works well for the church and creates an exciting atmosphere.

'Ultimately, church is about the people and their recognition and worship of God,' Chastain said. 'That can be done in a living room, a movie theater or out in a field somewhere. The building just becomes a tool.'

The church brings its own instruments, projector (although it could use the theater's) and portable tables for communion, complete with real-looking battery-operated candles. Plus, the brand-new theater seats make the makeshift chapel ideal for coffee drinkers.

Fellowship follows a service format not unlike many evangelical churches throughout America. The worship team plays in front of the big screen - where song lyrics and projected - and afterward, Pastor Gregg gives his message.

The church covers movie posters that could be deemed objectionable, and the most 'Hollywood' the service gets is when Chastain uses movie clips to augment his sermon - something he does sparingly despite the state-of-the-art multimedia technology available.

'It's definitely different having church in a movie theater, but I really like it,' said churchgoer Beth Twist. 'It just feels like we're starting out fresh, like it's a new church.'

'It's working out well for us,' said Janelle Dyal, another Fellowship member. 'It's really roomy for visiting, and the people at the theater have been very accommodating for our group.'

The church, which was founded by two pastors from Multnomah Bible College a quarter-century ago, has never had a home of its own. It started out in people's houses, eventually moving to Sandy High School, the Sandy Adventist Church and, for the past seven years, evenings at the Presbyterian church.

When Chastain was looking around for some possible new venues for the church, he thought a movie theater might be a good fit - an assumption quickly confirmed by Jan Smith, district operations and marketing manager for Prestige Theatres.

'Elie Kassab (the owner of Vancouver, Wash.-based Prestige Theaters) is a Christian, and his faith is deeply important to him,' Smith said. 'To have churches in his cinemas has been something he's always wanted.'

Letting Fellowship move to Sandy Cinema has caused the theater to rework its staffing, bringing projectionists on duty at 7:30 a.m. when they would not have come until noon in most cases. Janitors also have to come in early, and the heat has to turn on at 7:30 a.m. so the congregation doesn't freeze.

The rent that Sandy Cinema charges pays just enough to cover staffing, Smith said. The theater absorbs all other costs.

But it's a labor of love; according to Smith. Kassab believes that letting churches use the movie theaters is not by any means a business decision; it's 'one of those things you do with the heart.'

Smith said the church has access to just about everything at the cinema, including restrooms, the digital projector, the sound system or any special need.

They could even have some a.m. popcorn if they wanted.

'If they ask us, we'll do it,' Smith said.

Before the church could change its time and venue, Chastain had to convince the congregation, something that took several months to do.

'It was initially a hurdle for our congregation,' he said, noting that some of the initial concerns were that the theater wasn't a 'church building' and perhaps 'some latent fears about Hollywood.' But the church eventually rallied around the idea, and now Chastain says he's been encouraged by the response of the church.

'I feel like there was a season where there wasn't a sense of direction,' Chastain said. 'I'm encouraged by the fact that there's a lot of enthusiasm for this church again and that people are there and desire to see it grow.'

If that growth happens, the church could soon find itself in the 150-seat theater auditorium - which would be a blockbuster start to the church's ultimate dream of getting its own building.

For more information about Fellowship Bible Church, call 503-201-4666 or visit www.sandyfbc.com.


A nationwide trend?

Visit www.leadnet.org/news_03142006.asp to read an article about how more and more churches nationwide are moving into movie theaters.