For years, the Rev. Rickey Nelson Jones went from church to church, looking for a place where members lived like Jesus, but he always left frustrated.
At each community, church leaders were actively involved in sin, he said. "Instead of me running around looking for leadership, striving to live holy," he decided to start a ministry in December: Living Exactly Like Jesus Baptist Church.
And that, Jones insists, is what he does.
"You have wandered into a ministry where a true Christian stands before you," he said at a recent Sunday service at United Artists Theatres in Columbia.
Jones, 41, a civil lawyer and sports agent, said he does not claim that he never sins. Rather, he truly repents for sins he commits and strives to prevent such actions in the future, he said.
"What is perfect about me is my focus to live exactly like Jesus," he said. He is not asking members of his flock to don sandals and sell all their possessions. Rather, he implores his congregation to talk to people the way Jesus would, deal with people the way Jesus would and love people the way Jesus would.
Early in the history of the church, which has eight members, it is not an easily received message.
"People don't mind you preaching and teaching Jesus' word on the surface," he said, but changing the way one lives is more difficult.
Lifestyle is more important than anything else, Jones said - more important than prayer vigils, retreats and conferences that, although fun, can distract people from their goal.
"Tragically, we are emphasizing everything but living holy," he said.
It is a lesson the New Orleans native learned from his mother. "On Sunday mornings, we got up and shut up," he said. "The seeds of seriousness about Jesus were sown into me then."
Deborah Knight of Savage was drawn by the pastor's promises of "no clowning" when she heard an ad for the church on a religious radio station.
At Living Like Jesus, "you have to have a Bible. You have to be serious about learning," Knight said. "This is not a service for folks looking to be entertained."
In the past 20 years, many emerging and established churches have focused more seriously on the Gospels and other biblical narratives, said Mark Lau Branson, professor of congregational leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "It's something that Christian churches would always claim they do, but it certainly does get lost," he said.
Branson cautioned that focusing on the Gospels is not a new trend - the Bible is full of stories of God's people re-engaging God's narrative. But rather than focus on sermons, Branson said, he is seeing "churches put more time in the longer narratives and asking, 'What kind of people do we need to be for that text to show up in our lives?' "
St. Paul used the metaphor "Body of Christ" to show that living like Jesus was a form of evangelism itself, Branson said. "It's the sense that the church is really to be the embodiment of this narrative in a way that nonbelievers recognize it" and are attracted to join as a result, he said.
Knight is confident that her pastor is a man of God. But neither sports agents nor attorneys share the reputation of being holy, Jones acknowledged. Still, he finds ways to make his work fit his beliefs. "I never represent anybody that doesn't have the truth on their side," Jones said.
The pastor, who deals mainly with civil rights and family cases in his law office, said he often finds himself counseling clients. "Practicing law actually became a kind of ministry," Jones said. "Many times I will literally need to pray with them and calm them down."
Jones said those who seek his assistance to become professional athletes often have similar needs - instructions on how to bring order to their lives. But it is a difficult burden to bear, he said.
"Many of the young men who have come to me have left me," Jones said.
"When they call me, they think I'm the prototype NFL agent," he added, but most walk away when he explains that he is interested in saving their souls.
Although none of his clients has landed spots on professional teams, only one prospective professional has stuck with the program, Jones said. That player is also the only one who has had a tryout, Jones said.
During their first meeting in 2000, Jones "was down to earth. He was straight up," said Kevin Graham, 27, of West Baltimore. "The first thing he was telling me was that I gotta accept Christ as my savior before he can accept me as an agent. I was religious before, but I wasn't living right. I was going to church, but I was still being out in the world."
With Jones' guidance, Graham said, he has made a change and regularly attends services.
Early one recent Sunday morning, church patrons entered the movie theater to the gentle hum of refrigerator cases. Easels held signs spelling out the church's vision.
Since last year, more than 40 church groups nationwide have reserved theater space for services, said Ray Nutt, executive vice president for business development for Regal CineMedia, the sales and marketing arm of Regal Entertainment, which owns the Snowden Square theater.
With reclining chairs arranged stadium-style in the auditorium, congregants have a good view of the sanctuary area.
Each week, Jones answers "questions to God" from church members, using references from the Scripture. On this Sunday, no questions were posed. So Jones recalled a question from a woman who attended a free dinner for the poor held by the church.
"Can white people attend Living Exactly Like Jesus Baptist Church?" Jones quoted the woman. The pastor used texts from the New Testament to show that God does not restrict people by race.
Sermons are the last part of the service, Jones said, "so people will leave with Jesus in their heart."
He dismisses the congregation with an admonition: "May God bless us to be more like Jesus and less like ourselves."