The following is a report I wrote after visiting National Community Church at Union Station in Washington D.C. I did this little exercise for one of my classes at Union-PSCE.
I would love to hear from others about innovative churches that they have visited or are affiliated with in some way.
Church at the Movies
National Community Church (NCC) in Washington D.C. has taken a novel path to reach the “unchurched and the dechurched” in the nation’s capital. NCC meets in movie theaters and coffee houses that are located near metro stops. These public spaces are out in the marketplace; people are willing to visit these places even though they might never set foot in a traditional church building. Renting public spaces is a long-term part of the church’s outreach strategy, not just an interim solution before the church builds its own megachurch complex.
I visited NCC’s flagship location at Union Station near the U.S. Capital. The service was easy to find and access from the metro stop in the basement of Union Station. A pleasant, young woman warmly greeted me at the door and handed me a bulletin. Portable signage at the front of the theater indicated the church location. Signs were located throughout the theater complex letting visitors know where to go for various things, such as prayer, visitor information, childcare, etc.
Just inside the door was a table where greeters warmly interacted with people who desired to know more information about the church. The refreshments stand served free coffee and doughnuts.
Outside Union Station is a large parking deck. The only problem is that it costs $1 to park if you get your ticket validated by the church. A few blocks away are a lot of parking places on the street. According to NCC, 25% of its regular attenders ride the subway to church. This is quite intentional because NCC as a community encourages people to use public transportation as much as possible.
Currently, NCC meets in four locations and is launching a 5th site to serve the Kingstowne, Va. area. NCC uses a multi-location model where each site has a lead pastor who runs the service and handles pastoral care for that particular area. The sermon is either preached live or presented as a video message. The worship is always conducted live by a praise band dedicated to each location. Running so many simultaneous services requires a lot of coordination.
The Union Station theater is a neat location with kind of an art deco feel. Bathrooms were easy to find. The chairs were almost too comfortable although the service moved along quickly, and I never once nodded off to sleep.
NCC does not own a church building. Instead, it operates one of the top coffee houses in the city, and its offices are connected to that facility, which is located only a block from Union Station as well as one of the largest office buildings in the city. NCC bought a dilapidated crack house in 2002 and turned it into Ebenezers Coffeehouse four years later.
The church decided to develop Ebenezers because coffeehouses have become the gathering places for our postmodern society. Ebenezers is designed to be “a place where the church and community cross paths,” according to NCC. It really is a neat facility with a large multimedia room in the basement that serves as one of the service locations as well as the space where the weekly messages are recorded for distribution to the satellite churches.
From the unique way that NCC does its service to the coffeehouse to the media and modern music used in its service, the church comes across as very creative and innovative. Actually, it was recently rated as one of the top 25 most innovative churches in the country by Outreach Magazine.
I attended the 11:00 a.m. service which was packed with probably 250-300 people. Visitors were not identified in any way or made to feel uncomfortable. The site pastor did greet visitors and ask for them to see the information booth and/or fill out a very brief form to put in the offering bucket.
NCC appears to be attracting the young, urban professional set in the D.C. area. There was a mixture of races in attendance although 65% were white. NCC has 1,300 in weekly attendance last year. Here are some interesting stats about NCC’s community:
· 66% of NCCers are single twenty-somethings
· 76% of NCCers invited someone to NCC last year
· 54% of NCCers visited theaterchurch.com before visiting a service
· 55% of NCCers are involved in a small group
The worship service started off with a quick introduction video explaining the church and its mission. This was shot to look almost like a movie preview. Then there was time for greeting a few folks seated around you. The site pastor then said a beginning prayer before an “indie rocker chick” accompanied by a full band led in three modern worship songs. The words were put on the giant screen. I knew two of the songs – Everlasting God and Take My Life. The worship music was relevant, tasteful. It certainly created an inviting atmosphere to encounter God. The worship mixed two upbeat songs with one more solemn song.
The entire service was very informal. A lot of people walked in a few minutes late. Some came in with coffee and doughnuts. The flow of the service was easy to follow. Instructions were either given verbally or provided on the screen. The site pastor gave some announcements, welcomed guests, handled the offering and then talked about a recent missions endeavor in Malawi by the church. He introduced the speaker who spoke to us via video, which was recorded the previous evening.
At first I thought this video approach would seem too distant to be effective for a sermon, but the communicator was skilled, relevant, vulnerable and interesting. Mark Batterson, NCC’s lead pastor and main teache, did not speak this week. Instead, Margaret Feinberg, the author of Sacred Echoes, spoke on hearing the voice of God.
Feinberg’s main text was 1 Kings 19:4-13 where Elijah hears God in the gentle breeze. Although her comments were not rocket science, they were honest and theologically provoking in a non-combative manner. She shared a lot about her story and told about one time that God impressed something clearly on her mind. She said that God told her, “If you don’t wear your crown, I will give it to someone else.” She then explained her journey as she tested this word and explored its meaning for her life. She closed by challenging the crowd by asking, “What is the crown that Christ is calling you to wear?” She identified a number of possibilities from reconciling with someone to serving the poor to living with less so that other can merely live, etc.
The service ended with the song God Reigns followed by a standard prayer of benediction. During the song, the worship leader encouraged the community to reflect on the key question that Margaret asked. The entire service lasted approximately 65 minutes. Although the service clearly reflected the Gospel, there was no direct Gospel presentation or call for people to begin a relationship with God. You could see the Gospel in how things were done more than what was said in this church.
The name of Jesus was not mentioned in any of the songs. While the cross was a prominent part of Feinberg’s talk, the name of Jesus was only spoken a few times. The style seemed to be a cross between an emergent gathering and a seeker sensitive approach. I felt that one thing that could have been stronger would have been a Gospel appeal to the unchurched as well as a non-intrusive way for people to receive immediate prayer. There was a prayer card in the bulletin, but I generally think that most churches should do a better job of encouraging prayer and follow-up immediately after the service.
NCC has developed a discipleship map with ports of call to encourage spiritual growth in its congregation. This usually starts with the Alpha program, a series of discipleship classes, retreats, and small groups. NCC has developed a great Discipleship Map that details the programs, service opportunities and spiritual formation activities of the church.
The Website (www.theaterchurch.com) has detailed information on the church, its beliefs, small groups, programs, etc. Sermons are made available on the site as well as broadcast via a podcast. Mark Batterson writes a regular blog on theology, culture, his life at www.evotional.com. NCC’s Website is top notch including lots of resources and ability for members to connect with each other.
Starting with an existing core group of about 19 people in 1996, NCC grew significantly over the next few years. A key to the church’s growth has been its creativity and willingness to try new things. Mark Batterson said, “There are ways of doing church that no one has thought of yet…The church ought to be the most creative place on the planet.”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would feel visiting a church in a movie theater. It seemed awkward for the first few minutes. Once the music started, I forgot that I was even in a movie theater. The atmosphere and content were engaging. It was kind of cool how they created a sacred space right in the middle of a normal movie theater.
I talked with Clay at the visitor center. He said that many people like the movie theater atmosphere because it seems less churchy. Some people will visit theater church when they would not visit a traditional church building. Clay said that many people come into the service because they are curious about a church that meets in a movie theater or they just happen to be in the train station while traveling. Union Station is one of the most visited destinations in the nation’s capital.
Overall, the experience was favorable. I would go back again if I lived in the area. A few things could have been better. I would have liked for the service to have included some element of traditional Christianity, such as a hymn, a responsive reading, a congregational prayer, communion, etc. While the greeter and Clay were nice, no one else really spoke to me. I got the feeling that it might take a while to get noticed there. It might be a good place to hide if you happen to be between churches at the moment. A lot of people seemed to quickly leave the theater once the service ended.
Although there was a room designated for prayer, there was no mention about the staff being available to pray with those in need. There was no altar call or quick Gospel presentation for anyone who happened to be unsaved in the room.
NCC meets right next to a big food court. I think that would be a great opportunity to bless the merchants and ask the church and visitors to fellowship there after the service. This could be done in some coordinated way to provide a deeper opportunity to connect directly after the service.
I heard Margaret Feinberg share the exact same message a few weeks earlier at a major pastor’s conference. Thus, the message was not necessarily new although it was challenging.
The day after my visit, I had an opportunity to talk with Chris Jarrell, the NCC campus pastor for Union Station. Chris said that NCC doesn’t have membership per se. Instead, the church’s members are small group leaders or ministry leaders. Thus, you can’t really become a member until you take an active role in the church. In order to be a leader, you have to attend a small group for a semester, be involved in a ministry, attend periodic leadership summits, etc. Currently, NCC has about 150 leader members with 1,300 in attendance on a weekend.
Chris said, “Our mentality is that outreach is about serving the community not filling chairs.” He added, “We don’t use the term evangelism.”
However, the church is very active and visible in the community. It just finished this fall a city wide outreach effort with the Convoy of Hope at RFK stadium where 10,000 people received groceries, medical treatment, resume assistance, family/fun activities, etc. Every year, NCC sponsors a big Easter Extravaganza on Capital Hill. In December, the church offers a live nativity to the community as a way to celebrate Christmas.
Homelessness is a big problem in the D.C. area. NCC has a group that goes out and feeds the homeless every Sunday morning. Much of this ministry organically sprung out of concerns that arose in small groups. Ebenezers offers a free meal and a Bible study every Wednesday for the homeless in the area. Chris added that a number of homeless people attend NCC’s Union Station location on Sunday morning.
One of the reasons that NCC has tried so many different things is the energy and leadership style of the lead pastor. Chris said, “Mark (Batterson) is an entrepreneur sort of guy by nature. He always pushes us to branch out.”