From a movie theater church, pastor Mark Batterson blends orthodoxy and innovation

February 25, 2012

Packed sidewalks are part of weekend life on Capitol Hill’s Eighth Street, a gentrifying half-mile of sleek pubs and high-end comfort food restaurants. But in recent months, the biggest sidewalk scene has been at 9 a.m. on Sundays, when hundreds of people pour into a retro movie theater with a huge, white cross over the door.

The mostly 20-something crowd looks like a bushy-tailed version of the people who might have been — and probably were — on Eighth Street the night before or who during the week do partisan battle up the street as congressional staffers or lobbyists or White House aides.

Many members of this unusual church are on Capitol Hill for the same reason as their pastor, Mark Batterson, a one-time University of Chicago basketball player who felt God called him from the Midwest to the District in 1995 to “influence the influencers.”

Batterson, 42, seems to be doing just that.

His seven-site National Community Church is one of the fastest-growing ministries in the city, having ecently purchased $15 million worth of real estate properties — that it owns debt-free across Capitol Hill at a time when it’s rare for a city church to expand. Close watchers of the evangelical pastor scene say Batterson is among the most promising leaders for the next generation.

“I’m not sure if anyone could make a bet as to whether he’ll reach the rare echelon of the top two or three pastors, but he’s clearly putting himself in the hunt,” said David Kinnaman, president of the evangelical polling and research firm the Barna Group.

Batterson’s typical Sunday crowd is hardly typical. In a back row of the movie theater, which the church is restoring, sits an aide to a Republican presidential contender. With the place packed to overflow, as usual, a jeans-clad member of President Obama’s faith-outreach team sits cross-legged on the floor. Leaders of national advocacy groups from across the spectrum dot the audience.

The type of people whose days are jammed with partisan power politics, they love Batterson in part because he has embraced a credo that is gaining popularity among younger conservative evangelicals: Lay off the politics, particularly of the divisive kind.

The no-politics rule

Beyond his no-politics-in-church rule, a key hallmark of Batterson’s is how he blends orthodoxy and innovation.

Raised in the Assemblies of God denomination, he has created a nondenominational megachurch that actually has no church, in the conventional sense. His 3,000 members meet in movie theaters, coffee shops and, he hopes soon, a large concert venue.

As an aspiring filmmaker who came to faith through a movie, he thrives on popular culture, from the arts to the slickest marketing. His staff includes pastors for visual story-telling, or multimedia, and branding. Outreach magazine, which covers growing churches, named the National Community Church one of the country’s most influential.

Walking into church one recent Sunday in jeans, a cowboy-style shirt and a stubbly goatee, the 6-foot-3 former shooting guard hugs people left and right as he walks to the front.

In sermons, even after thunderous contemporary Christian rock from a live band and even with ushers gathering tithes in faux popcorn boxes, his style is casual but intimate, sort of like it was his turn to talk at a 12-step meeting.

No judgment, no talking down, no politics, no policies, except one: This worshiping God business is no game, no metaphor. His best-selling books and sermons are filled with people who listened to what they believe were direct orders from God: to drive to a friend’s house in the middle of the night, or to get on their knees in the Cleveland airport (that one happened to Batterson). The point is to obey God.

“Prayer is not about letting God know your will; it’s about completely submitting to him. You die to yourself,” he said one recent Sunday.

A wide reach

Batterson is already a popular author and blogger who speaks before tens of thousands of evangelical pastors each year. His new book, “The Circle Maker,” was picked by Christian publishing giant Zondervan as one of its top three to promote this year to tens of thousands of churches. The book, a how-to on prayer, debuted as a New York Times bestseller in the advice category and sold 50,000 copies in its first two months.

The devout from both the Obama crowd and the Liberty University crew seem attracted to Batterson’s focus: finding a way in a secular culture to have an intense, submissive relationship with God. In a town filled with strivers, Batterson teaches that if you pray deeply and specifically, God will provide that job, that piece of real estate.

“God is for you,” he writes in “The Circle Maker.” “If you don’t believe that, then you’ll pray small timid prayers.”

Batterson came to Washington to take over a church of 19 people after a small church he tried to start in Chicago failed. Five years later, the church, using the theater at Union Station, had grown to 500 followers.

Batterson and some experts think his business model may be the future of urban Christianity: Make “church” the places where people already are. He has been known as the icon for the “theater church movement” for a decade.

“In an urban environment, a church building is a thing of the past. We’ll approach this like a developer,” he said in an interview.

Prayer circles are another Batterson trademark. He talks about walking around neighborhoods or buildings in prayer, meditating on things he thinks God is calling him to do in those places. Sometimes the prayer circles are in his mind. The concept is to keep prayers, and goals, specific. “The Circle Maker” tells of a 4.7-mile prayer walk he did one sweaty August day in 1996, a route that now encompasses all the properties the church would eventually acquire.

This is classic Batterson: an orthodox concept — a real God, who intervenes in your life if you seek His will — presented in motivational language. The church’s core values and beliefs include the literal truth of Jesus’s resurrection and the inherently sinful state of humans, as well as self-helpy axioms such as “Everything is an experiment” and “Do it right and do it big.”

Many churches have “small groups” for prayer and support; National Community Church has a “free-market society,” encouraging people to form groups based on shared interests, from the Book of Job to milkshakes and stopping sex trafficking. Congregants can put the group together. If it flies, great; if not, kill it.

Batterson is known for pithy sayings: We don’t brainstorm, we praystorm. Coffee shops are post-modern wells, like the ones where biblical characters would gather. If Christianity was a company, his church would want to be R&D.

Kinnaman said it’s this merger of faith and communications skills that make Batterson a pastor who can thrive in today’s culture.

“No one is quite putting the package together quite like he is,” Kinnaman said. “He has this extra optimism and hopefulness at a time when people are really struggling.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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