When Tim Parsons launched Center Point Church of Lexington in September 2005 ”kamikaze style“ — with just a few members, modest funding and a deluge of signs and door hangers to announce their presence — he decided to rent worship space in Hamburg Pavilion's Regal Cinemas ”as a last resort,“ he said.
The potential spaces he'd investigated at schools and other businesses had become unavailable, and the movie theater was the group's only option.
Two and a half years later, the young church is thriving in its unorthodox space and has no immediate plans to build a church.
Instead of raising money to build a worship center of their own, members have raised thousands of dollars to build and refurbish churches in Central Kentucky and in other countries.
”Church is not about a building for us,“ Parsons said. ”Buildings are important. I'm not diminishing their need. But it's not about a building for us. It's about the people. We want to free up our resources to invest in the community.“
A non-traditional house of God
Parsons knows his church is right where it's supposed to be.
”I know for God [the theater] wasn't a last resort because it's been an amazing ride. God built it how he wanted,“ said Parsons, who moved to Lexington from Florida with a background in youth ministry.
Each week, a team of church volunteers arrives with a trailer at 7 a.m. to prepare the theater space for 9:45 a.m. worship, said assistant pastor Todd Thomas. They unload sound equipment, band equipment, lighting, children's worship supplies, baby strollers and swings for the nursery, welcome tables and refreshments. They install a high-top table ”like you'd see at Starbucks“ at the front of the theater, from which the service is led.
”There are no traditional podiums,“ Thomas said. ”We're not a traditional church.“
The non-traditional worship style meshes well with the cozy atmosphere of the theater. Members pour themselves cups of coffee at tables set up near the concession area as they arrive, and make use of their seat's cup holders during the service.
The movie screen becomes a central part of each Sunday service, a place to showcase song words and PowerPoint and multimedia presentations that outline Parsons' theme for the day.
The setting makes it easy to settle in and reflect on that week's message, said church member Susan Fister.
”The darkness makes me focus on the music and Tim and the PowerPoint more. I have never been tempted to look around and get distracted by people around me,“ she said.
Meeting at the cinema also helps Center Point attract members from its target audience of non-traditional churchgoers.
”It allows people who are maybe a little uncomfortable with a church or a church building to go someplace where maybe they are comfortable,“ Parsons said.
Member Jessie Hood, who joined the church with her new husband, T.J., was one of those people.
”I was really intrigued by the idea of a church meeting in a movie theater. I found that appealing. I thought maybe they were not so tied to tradition,“ Hood said.
As young newlyweds, the Hoods are representative of the demographics of the church, where only 20 of the 180 members are over40, Parsons said.
”It's a very open, non-judgmental community,“ said member Joey Stafford, who credits membership at the church with helping him fight alcoholism.
Eighty-five percent of members take part in one of the church's 10 active ”connect groups“ — small groups of 8 to 17 that meet weekly for reflection on that week's sermon. The groups are key to helping members feel connected to the church, said assistant pastor Sergio Mendoza.
”I think if people come on Sunday and that's all they do, they're missing everything. Church doesn't just happen on Sunday. It's about being together habitually and being involved in one another's lives,“ Mendoza said.
Last November, Parsons signed his church on to raise funds to build a church in Kumarkhali, Bangladesh, through an organization called International Cooperating Ministries.
To fund a modest yet attractive church building for pastor Jaker Ali Shubo and his members, who had been meeting since 2004, Center Point was committed to raising $3,000.
For three weeks leading up to the church's planned one-time collection, Parsons' sermons urged his congregation to focus on their goal of building a church in Bangladesh.
Children in the preschool program received small coin banks shaped like globes. Elementary school kids were given $1 bills in seed money to find ways to raise more. High school members planned car washes. Everyone received a puzzle piece to put in their pocket, as a way of reminding themselves that ”every person mattered“ in working toward their goal.
Still, as the collection day approached, Parsons was nervous.
”Here we were, our little church. What would we do if we didn't have enough? We got a little scared,“ Parsons said.
But when the offering was totaled, $10,500 had come in — enough to build the Bangladesh church and another one in India, with a few thousand left over to help support the church's mission trip to Brazil this June.
”It was overwhelming,“ Parsons said. ”We've tried from the very beginning to get our church to think outside themselves. The result was pretty neat.“
Center Point is now committed to building seven churches internationally before launching efforts to build its own permanent worship space.
Even after the international goal is met, Parsons is in no hurry to break ground on a church building locally.
The church's rented office space at Regal Cinemas is adequate for now for its prayer groups, meetings and Wednesday children's and college services.
But Parsons admits it may soon outgrow its Sunday worship space at, where the church's preschool service takes up three small theaters, its nursery for babies uses the hallway, and the main service fills another large theater.
Parsons said that when that day comes he plans to find another, larger place to rent, he said.
”Church is not about a building for us. Buildings are important. I'm not diminishing their need. But it's not about a building for us. It's about the people,“ Parsons said. ”We want to free up our resources to invest in the community. We don't just want to stop doing those things by hamstringing ourselves financially“ with a building fund.
The church has an active community team, which leads members in service projects throughout the year, from helping provide Christmas gifts to local families to serving meals and helping refurbish an Eastern Kentucky church's youth building to offering free snow cones and popcorn at a booth at Lexington's downtown Fourth of July festival each year.
”Our goal is just purely to give back,“ Parsons said. ”The whole idea would be this: if we shut down tomorrow — and I don't think we're going to, but if we did — would people even know, and would they care?“
IF YOU GO
Web site: www.cpclex.org
Phone: (859) 263-9384
Center Point Church of Lexington meets at 9:45 a.m. Sundays at the Regal Cinemas in Hamburg Pavilion, 1949 Star Shoot Parkway.