Movie Theaters and Church

May 23rd, 2011
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I love going to theaters. Check that. I used to love going to theaters. It was always a form of escape. I often went alone because I could be immersed into the world that the actors and director were creating. It was a great escape from my thoughts.

The theater experience is now becoming rarer in my life. One reason is that the theater business hasn't kept up with changing times. And I'm seeing a lot of similarities between the movie theater business and my local Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

I believe the two biggest factors of the theater experience that turn people off are the prices and other people. Letʼs face it. Itʼs expensive to go watch movies. It can cost nearly $100 for a family to go see a movie in 3-D including purchases from the concession stand. A small popcorn and drink can run you 8 dollars or more, which, as a pastor, always brings the moral dilemma of, how big of a sin is it to sneak my own food into the theaters?

And some of the people who go to the movies? You wonder if their mothers ever taught them manners growing up. No, itʼs not okay to talk on your phone during the movie. And must you constantly check your text messages in the middle of a dark theater? No matter how many times, or how loud you talk to the characters on the screen, they canʼt hear you! Plus, you donʼt know whatʼs going to set someone off. You might get stabbed with a turkey thermometer  by telling someone to be quiet.

But whatʼs hurting theaters more than anything is the advancement of home entertainment. We can get an awesome theater experience in the comfort of our homes without the excessive price of snacks or rudeness of other people. At least the people in our homes are people we know, and if we happen to tell them to hush, chances are high we wonʼt get stabbed. (I keep asking, why in the world is anyone carrying a turkey thermometer with them, to the theater of all places?)

Movie studios have been tossing around the idea of having their movies distributed straight to peopleʼs homes, sort of like a pay-per-view or video on demand. Itʼs tempting isnʼt it? If the studios offered a movie, like the upcoming Batman movie in 2012, for $30 to watch at home with my wife, I donʼt think Iʼd think twice about it. Iʼm in! Of course, the theaters would be left out of the process, and theater executives have shared their anger over this idea. Some theaters are threatening not to screen some big blockbusters of the studios that are considering this “straight to home” idea. Going to the theaters, with all the features a home theater system can offer, seems so.... yesterday.

For many people, so does going to church. We live in a more secular culture, and our churches seem so out of place. Many remember how church was when they were little kids. Decades later, they step back into the church and see that nothing has changed. Some churches are perfect time capsules of our childhood.

As with theaters, churchgoing experiences can be ruined by other people too. There are eager beavers who are so excited that you are here to worship with them, that their eagerness is a bit overwhelming, and truthfully, creepy. At least for me. No one smiles like that, all the time, right? And being an introvert, I donʼt need 5 people coming to me all at once to tell me the same thing. But other people love that. Or we have people who have been badly damaged by the church. They come to look for acceptance, only to find rejection.

Theaters have a monopoly when it comes to food service in their establishments. Iʼve come across some pastors and churches who feel they have monopoly over where worship can occur and how worship has to be done. It has to occur on church grounds, where it is sacred, where God is in the midst. It has to be done this way, the way it has been done for years and years, because there's sacredness in rituals and tradition.

Iʼm not saying that churches will be obsolete like the way movie theaters might. But we have to stop getting in the way of ourselves. There are ways to adapt to the ever-changing culture without compromising the everlasting God and the Gospel. I believe that a church can be reverent AND relevant. But we do an excellent job of standing in the way of being relevant and powerful. We have a knack of letting preference rule over purpose. But if weʼre not careful, we could find that we're no longer needed within our community. Or worse, find that the words God spoke through Amos (6:21-24) are aimed directly at us.

I know the church is (and can continue to be) the source of hope, love and grace. The church can still be a place where lives are transformed and where revolutions begin. The theaters are too concerned about the dividends and the possible loss of money. Perhaps, many of our churches are too concerned about surviving and maintaining. As Mike Slaughter has said, the mission of the church is not the maintenance of a building. Both are affected by fear. But we have the perfect love that casts out fear. And if we really do trust in God, we can allow ourselves to be shaped and used to do Godʼs mission and bring the kingdom of God ever closer.

Joseph Yoo is pastor of youth and spiritual formation at Valencia United Methodist Church in Valencia, CA. He blogs at Step by Step.

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