Summit Trace, Frederick, MD
What was your first impression as you entered?
Summit Trace meets in a movie theater in a large surburban shopping center. Parking is shopping center style, which was very easy at 10 am on a Sunday morning. We made our way to the entry and were pleasantly surprised to see lots of people standing in line! As we inched forward in line, I was asked, "Are you sure this is the church?" There were no explanatory signs that we could see. As the line entered a door without pausing at the box office, we saw nobody enter any other door, the crowd was demographically as we expected, so we stayed in line. Slowly our confidence eroded... And someone finally wandered off to inquire. Ooops... We were standing in line for the special early showing of the new Star Wars film.
So we left the Star Wars line and entered the lobby. The lobby was conveniently partitioned into two: one for Star Wars, one for church. Inside we found lots of friendly people, eager to help, eager to answer my questions. They had up a number of tables for information, organization and refreshment. They used inexpensive, portable, fold up partitions to create an enclosed, safe and convenient nursery area in a corner of the lobby.
As the service began we entered the theater and found seats. The rock band was very loud near the front, but we found a comfortable volume level about half way up the rows of seats.
How long was the service?
An hour and 20 minutes.
How was the service structured?
It followed the typical Protestant, 3-part "sermon sandwich" structure:
1) about 25 minutes of music, led by a rock band, designed to set the tone for the teaching time;
2) about 45 minutes of teaching, including a short video clip to introduce the subject;
3) about 15 minutes for closure.
The service was clearly centered on the teaching: the purpose of gathering was for the "audience" (as it was called by the pastor) could hear and understand the Christian message, and then begin to believe and follow it.
Our impression was that they did not gather to worship, but that they gathered to hear a message.
What did you like best?
3 college students who visited with us answered like this:
Carey: "the 'top ten list' and the scriptures that went along with it"
Lindsey: "the scripture"
Liz: "the use of scripture"
I liked 3 things a lot:
First, I liked looking around the room and seeing so many teens and young adults. Although the congregation appears substantially smaller than the one to which I belong, it had many, many more teens and young adults.
Second, the pastor was very intentional about overcoming one of the chief limitations of the venue: theaters are designed for passive hearing and seeing, and make participation or interaction very difficult. They used several intentional methods for getting interactive participation, which were quite effective.
Third, i really liked the pastor's creative use of the audience to contribute to and participate in the sermon. Someone with a roving mic went around to people who told short stories of their experience, in response to the pastor's invitation. This was surprisingly effective and delightful.
What did you dislike?
The 3 college students answered:
Carey: "Well, it wasn't for people like me; it was for people who weren't yet Christians. There was no diversity -- it was too white."
Lindsey: "I felt it was too dumbed down. The message wasn't really about God, but about how to feel better about yourself."
Liz: "The music was terrible (that is, unsingable and unfamiliar). It didn't feel like church, it felt like a youth group. It was too shallow for me... It failed to challenge my mind or stimulate my thinking. I've been going to church for 21 years, and everything he said already knew. He gave me nothing new to aspire to or to think about. Except for the comment about worry -- that was helpful to me, and I hadn't thought about it like that before."
The theater venue made singing all but impossible. Theater technology is designed to dampen all sound except what comes through the sound system. So if the congregation was singing, I could never hear it. I felt quite alone in what should be a group experience. In a service devoid of all liturgy apart from congregational singing, this makes for a pretty terrible, empty experience. All that's left is the onstage performance. On the other hand, it is a bit unfair to criticize the worship, because clearly, worship was not their intention. This service was clearly intended not for worship of God by christians, but to encourage young adults who are not yet followers of Jesus to consider becoming Christians.
What were its greatest strengths that you'd like to import?
The focused intentionality to attract teens and young adults to Christianity, and the commitment of the voluteers to do that to the best of their ability.
If you were looking for a church, would this be it?
Obviously not... However...!
Obviously not: Summit Trace is clear about its mission: to communicate the Gospel of Jesus 1) to young adults 2) who are not yet committed Christians, and 3) who say they are turned-off by traditional settings. Since I am not part of their target group, it would not be what I would seek in a church.
However: if I had sons, daughters, or young friends who wanted nothing to do with traditional church, I would hope they'd come here. What they do is consistent with and true to their mission, as stated in their welcome literature, "Our hope is that our Sunday morning service can be a comfortable, interesting, and inviting environment for people who might be otherwise turned-off in a more traditional setting." I thought they hit those goals spectaculary.
What did you learn from this visit?
1) A number of people told me that they found it much easier to invite people to church in a theater than to a church with a traditional church building. Their enthusiasm about the venue surprised me.
2) Inexpensive partitions (cloth over fold-up frames) quickly and easily create convenient, functional areas in corners -- good for nurseries and other functions.
3) every venue has strengths and weaknesses, whether a permanent church building, a school, or a theater. There are tradeoffs, and there is no one right or best option.
4) Movie theaters are easier to use than i expected them to be, and relatively inexpensive, although more expensive than elementary school space.
5) It is imperative to rope off the rear portion of the theater unless the crowd actually fills it. Otherwise, people naturally scatter throughout the theater, so that one feels alone rather than in community. Crowding the congregation closely together would undoubtedly improve the experience of congregational singing.
6) The huge screen offers lots of creative possibilities. However, one should avoid the temptation to string out text all the way across the screen. Longer lines are very difficult to read than shorter lines.
7) You can definitely do church in a multiplex theater complex, even when the complex is showing films in other theaters. However, the logistics must be thought through carefully. Signage and out-front greeters are essential. The greeters must have tags or hats or t-shirts or something that clearly identify them as church greeters. That identification must be possible from at least 30 feet away.
Is there anything else you want to say?
1) Signage (something i harp on) is even more important than i thought.
2) Singable, familiar tunes (something else i harp on) is even more important than i thought.
3) I liked the idea that they gave a free movie ticket in exchange for a completed "new visitor" card. Since we didn't fill out cards, Liz was very disappointed to not get a free ticket. Star Wars was playing after all.
This is my opinion; I could be wrong.
The Lord be with you,