Church uses Towson Commons cinema for worship

Beneath signs for "Dinner for Schmucks" and "Step Up 3D," young parishioners with the Horizon Church of Towson file into the AMC Theater at Towson Commons for their Sunday service.

The church has used the upstairs theater space for six years, attracted by its central location and proximity to Towson University. While unconventional for worship, the theater is a comfortable meeting space for the congregation of about 130 — and it's affordable at $300 per week.

But church members are concerned about what will happen to the shopping complex in the heart of Towson that houses the theater. Lenders filed for foreclosure in July on the mostly vacant mixed-use retail space.

"It raises a lot of questions for us," said pastor Mark Stephenson. "No one will say anything official."

At a recent service, church band members set up equipment while others, most in their early 20s, a few wearing jeans and flip-flops, socialized in the hallway or between rows. The service began with a performance of several songs, including one from the Christian rock band Third Day and another from Aaron Shust, a Christian artist.

The church got its start in 2000, meeting in small groups at church members' homes before moving into the AMC Theatre at Owings Mills Town Center. Members started a second Horizon Church in Towson to keep services at the mall from becoming too large.

"I started coming here because it was so small," said Ashley Francis, 23, of Towson, adding that the Commons has been convenient location that attracts "a wide variety of people."

To her husband, Dan Francis, 24, attending church at the theater seemed a bit odd — "People should have popcorn or candy bars," he joked. "But more people might feel comfortable" there, he said, noting that members come from a variety of religious backgrounds. He said most care more about worship than about the building.

Stephenson is concerned that a change in the rental situation could leave the church scrambling for a meeting place. The church rents the Towson theater through a company called National Cinema Media.

"The speculation is that the theater won't be there forever," he said. "The reality is that I'll be the last to know.

Stephenson said he hopes to keep the church in the area because many of its members come from Towson University. But Towson is expensive, he said, and the theater is one of the few spaces where the rent is affordable.

"To me, a church isn't really a building," Dan Francis said. "We will find somewhere else. We knew this would be an issue."

His wife, whom he met at the church, agreed.

"It's kind of scary, but kind of exciting," she said."You might never know what doors will open."

The church's website lists its vision as "To be a community where you can: Be yourself, belong to something bigger and become who you were meant to be."

Stephenson said he's happy where he is, all things considered.

"We would love for the church to be a part of the vibrant heart of Towson," he said, and remain at the theater, even though the occasional movie-goer might wander in with popcorn in hand.

"It's a different way to do church," Stephenson said.

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