ELKHART, Ind. - Starting a new congregation in a movie theater is nothing new. It's been done many times in the past. Even one of Indiana's largest United Methodist churches, Granger Community, began in a Mishawka movie theater 22 years ago.

Now Granger Community Church is pushing a new concept in Christian worship at a movie theater. Worship without a live leader in the theater. No live musicians or song leaders. No live sermon. Granger has done just that at its newly launched Elkhart campus which meets at the Encore Theaters located 20 miles east of Granger's main campus.

There are many churches in the nation that hold services with the sermon presented on video, but to do the entire service in this manner is unique. The Rev. Dr. Mark Beeson, founder and senior pastor of Granger Community Church, says that he knows of no other church in the nation using this format.

Is it working? If numbers are any indication, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" The Elkhart Encore Theater campus location, which meets on Sundays at 9:30 a.m., had 780 worshipers attend its Oct. 5 opening. Since then according to Beeson, it has successfully retained about 70 percent of the original figure. This number is equivalent to establishing nine average-size United Methodist congregations in Indiana.

Other new church starts beginning in Indiana

Granger Community may have the most unique recent new-church launch, but here are some other churches to make note of when it comes to launching new ministries in the Indiana Conference.

  • Newburgh UMC near Evansville has built a new multi-purpose building, in part to launch a new worship service aimed at being an "emergent" worship experience to reach young adults.
  • Sonrise UMC at Aboite near Fort Wayne recently launched a new worship service in the elementary school in Roanoke, Ind. The first Sunday brought a worship attendance larger than the current attendance of any other church in that community, including our two current UM congregations which have cooperated with and supported this new effort.
  • First UMC of Noblesville launched a new Spanish-language service, designed to reach the growing population of Hispanics in Hamilton County. This is the church's sixth worship service on Sunday mornings. Senior Pastor Jack Wolfe reports that this was his first experience of preaching with the help of a translator, and it went well.
  • Grace UMC in Hartford City launched a worship service in its local high school several years ago, and it went so well that they are getting ready to launch a new worship service in Dunkirk, Ind., across a district line, with the support and cooperation of both district superintendents.

If your congregation is adding another worship service or beginning a satellite or new congregation, we would like to hear about it. Write to the editor.

Granger worship leaders have carefully thought out how to accommodate this many people. Because everything is recorded the night before during one of the main campus services, the Elkhart campus is able to present the same service simultaneously in three different theaters within the same movie complex. At the same time, the Elkhart campus also offers three age-level opportunities for the children of worshipers.

Although the worship presentation is virtual, there are certainly a lot of real people helping out. As one drives into the movie theater's parking lot, there is a team to guide worshipers to a parking space. There are volunteers - the "Guest Relations" team - to greet guests both outside and inside. There are volunteers to sign in children, volunteers to answer questions, and volunteers to sign up those interested in Sunday evening gatherings taking place around the city.

There are volunteers to serve refreshments and ushers to assist people to a seat and receive offerings in popcorn containers. The theater campus has a "site pastor," Jeff Bell. Although he greets everyone on the theater-sized screens at the beginning and ending of the service, he is in the lobby following the service to greet people in person.

Earlier this year, Granger Community Church announced that it would be pursuing a multi-campus strategy, and the Elkhart campus is its first such effort. The church, which averaged 5,500 worshipers each week this past year, envisions a number of such campuses. Granger Community's plan is to take the church to the people.

These campuses are not just about worship either. They make it clear that their intent is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to transform the local community.

Ed Fenstermacher serves as an associate director of church development and revitalization in the North Conference Center based in Marion, Ind.