The concession stand at the Rotunda Cinemas was closed Sunday morning and only screening room No. 3 was open, the one where Meryl Streep is starring in "The Iron Lady."
But the lights were on at 9 a.m., the left half of the screen was blank, and about 25 people in the audience were singing along to the words projected on the right side with a portable projector:
"Your love, O Lord,
Reaches to the heavens ...
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains."
Strumming guitars at the front of the room were Ben Malmin, pastor of City Bible Church, and Dr. Sam Hui, a parishioner and surgeon doing his residency at Union Memorial Hospital.
City Bible, a nondenominational church, started renting the theater on Sunday mornings in the Rotunda mall last Easter and now is coming up on its first anniversary.
"We started with our family — my wife and two children — and one other couple," said Malmin, 37, of Hampden, the congregation's full-time pastor.
Now, people of all ages and ethnicities are coming to services, drawn mostly by word of mouth and promotional posters around the mall that say, "You're invited."
"Now, we have a mix," Malmin said. He said people are coming from as far away as Towson and Owings Mills.
"I saw the ad (while) walking to Giant and thought I'd check it out," said Hui, who lives in the Hampden area.
"I shop at the Giant," said Sonjia Travers, of Cylburn. She attended the service with her daughter, Loren Brown, and grandchildren, Kyle Layton, 17, and Jade Brown, 9. "I've been seeing the sign and every time I see the sign, I say I should stop in."
Travers, who is black, acknowledged the culture shock of a folkish, bare-bones church service with no altar, crosses or choir, just some lights strung at the front of the room and a small bookcase containing a few leather-bound Bibles, a box of tissues, and literature about the church.
"It's different. I think that is the appeal," said Travers, manager of a dialysis foundation..
City Bible Church does no advertising except for posters in the mall, promotional cards and door-hangers, and a sophisticated and catchy website, http://www.cbcbaltimore.com, which states as its goal "that our ministry approach be scriptural and simple. We want people to find, in following Jesus, a shared life that works. Our heart is that people make time to love their family, serve our city and enjoy life!"
Malmin, an ordained minister, wears no religious robes or clerical collar. In an interview two days before the service, he wore a gray striped shirt and said, "What you see is what you get."
City Bible Church is affiliated with Ministers Fellowship International, a Portland, Oregon-based network of about 1,600 churches, Malmin said. Fewer than 10 of the churches in the network bear the name City Bible Church, he said. The home church is in Portland, and the network is much better known in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
The congregation skews young and stresses what Malmin calls "contemporary worship."
Down the hall from the screening room is a converted storage room that the church uses as a play area for children while their parents are praying. A sign on the door says, "City Kids."
The church is "focused on Bible-centered doctrine," Malmin said.
And he said people needn't be afraid that the church is cultish. Although its doctrine embraces speaking in tongues as a prayer language, "you're not going to hear people speaking in tongues (at services). It's not going to weird you out."
Malmin and his wife, Rebecca grew up in Portland, and as newlyweds moved to Richmond, Va., where he took a took a position as a youth pastor. They celebrated their first three wedding anniversaries in Baltimore and grew to like the city so much that they eventually moved here.
"We felt the mid-Atlantic was a better cultural fit for us," Malmin said, adding, "I'm a sucker for a city on the water."
He also believes in "church planting" and that God called the couple to come here and start a church. For now, they are content "taking time to meet people and learn the city and its issues," Malmin said.
He wants to know, "How can we help?"
And he stressed, "We're here for people who don't have a church."
Initially, City Bible Church met at the Malmins' house, but he got the feeling that some minority members "didn't feel comfortable in our neighborhood."
He reached out to Ira Miller, co-operator of the Rotunda Cinemas, and reached a lease agreement to use the church for 90-minute services on Sunday mornings. Beginning this Sunday, the service will start at 10 a.m..
"Most people in this neighborhood aren't awake at 9.," Malmin said. "Let's be real."
The audience at the most recent service was wide awake and laughing as Britany Marsh, 23, a downtown Baltimore resident, shared a story about having to train her puppy constantly because it keeps making the same mistakes.
"God keeps coming back to us, no matter how many times we fail," she said.
Or as Malmin put it, "Even when we make a mess on the floor, you forgive us."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun