By Wanda Quinnones
It’s Sunday evening in Boca Raton and the Cinemark Palace 20 theater becomes a place of worship for His Heart International Ministries, a nondenominational congregation, where its parishioners pray, listen to sermons and receive Holy Communion.
Pastors Josh and Judith Peralta have traded in the old-fashioned, high-maintenance house of worship for a portable church-in-a-box that sets up in a cinema.
It’s a heaven-sent solution – yes, God directed them to do this, the Peraltas say – for a growing number of Christian groups looking for both new members and affordable access to a high-tech, multimedia platform.
“It’s not your traditional church setting but we turn this theater auditorium into a worship place,” says Josh Peralta, who holds doctorates in psychology and theology. “The big screen is the 21st-century version of the stained-glass windows of the Middle Ages. That’s where the story is told.”
The pastors began holding services in a room at the movie house off Airport Road near Glades Road four months ago. The services, which are offered in English and Spanish, begin at 4 p.m. and usually last about two hours.
In these services, you won’t find people sitting on a bench listening. Instead, worshippers take turns sharing their testimony. They may sing or pray if they want to. Some stand stoically as they sing, others sway back and forth with eyes closed, a few have their palms raised lifted to the sky.
This ministry has a new approach through the gospel, the word of God, creative counseling, music, interactive participation.
“Everybody counts,” Judith Peralta says. “This ministry is here to help people gain trust in themselves, lift up their self-esteem, and help them find their way in the community.”
Right now, His Heart International Ministries averages eight folks on a given Sunday. But the Peraltas expects that to change as word spreads about the mission. They are also planning an aggressive campaign to reach out to especially minority communities from Lake Worth to Boca Raton.
At least 200 churches are renting theater space and holding their Sunday services at movie theaters, says officials at National CineMedia LLC, a theater-owned cinema-programming company that represents about 1,000 theaters and nearly 12,000 screens in 43 states.
“The economy has had clearly a positive impact,” says Kurt Hall, the CEO of National CineMedia, about the trend of Sunday theater rentals, “as churches have found it more difficult to raise money to build their own buildings.”
Movie theaters are perfect church venues because the facilities successfully combine location, convenience and comfort, area pastors say.
“Look at the amazing church growth which has been occurring in West Palm Beach on Clematis Street, right under the big theatre on the weekends,” says Deborah A. Gigliotti of New Port Richey, who has been involved in creating and establishing churches that now have active programs for youth and young growing couples. “I have actually participated a few times in these outreach services. This is a small subset of a much larger church; however, it accounts for the largest percentage of church growth taking place within this mega Church.”
To reach young people, you have to be where they are, Gigliotti says.
You then create “a smaller, more intimate meeting setting, like “home fellowships” for growth, learning, discussions, relationship development like: bible studies, addiction recovery, positive parenting,” she says.
Holding services in movie theaters has been going on for years, theater company officials say.
“There is a growing trend in new ministries and churches that need to have room for expansion. Churches are very expensive to build,” says Tom Galley, a former chief operations and technology officer for National CineMedia, which is owned by AMC Theatres and the Regal Entertainment Group.
For churches, renting a movie theater once a week is cheaper than owning and maintaining a church building. It costs about $2,000 per month to hold services in local theaters, church officials say.
Nine of the 70 churches that hold services in National CineMedia-owned theaters are located in Palm Beach County or northern Broward area.
A movie theatre, he adds, is a modern-day version of the marketplace where people used to gather to exchange news and stories.
To skeptics, Gigliotti says, the Kingdom of God doesn’t exist in buildings, but in the hearts of the people.
“To offset the possible concern for a church ministry being located next to a restaurant with a bar; the rural town where I raised my teen children was formerly a ‘biker bar”; and now a very successful “teen church” also hosting TV bible college classes,” she says.
Using their extensive experience as general ministers, missionaries, prison ministers, Christian counselors, elders and youth supporters, the Peraltas are overcoming today’s more radical question, “What’s in it for me?”
They are putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They are taking action by looking into short- and long-term solutions and propositions.
“It will create a positive impact on people’s lives and in the community as well,” Judy Peralta says. “We are opening our way through ministering to people using an alternative approach, more realistic and contemporary.”