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Going to church at the cinema

Congregation of St. Joe Community Church celebrates 10th anniversary

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 12:01 am

St. Joe Community Church marked its 10th anniversary April 21 at a location known more for blockbusters than baptisms.

Church members gather at 9:30 a.m. Sundays at Carmike 20 Cinemas, 3930 E. Dupont Road. Each week, members volunteer to set up and tear down equipment, transforming auditoriums into classrooms for children and a sanctuary.

At 8 a.m. every Sunday, a handful of teenagers constructs a worship area in front of the movie screen, while adult members arrange a sound system in the “sanctuary” and coffee bar in the theater lobby. Here, members can mingle next to movie posters of “Iron Man 3” and “The Great Gatsby.”

Greg Byman, 44, is pastor of the Baptist church and began gathering families in the fall of 2002 to consider starting a church that would attract younger people. Over the past decade, he’s seen his members move from a residential garage in New Haven to various public schools, including Croninger Elementary School on Trier Road, until their final transition to Carmike in the fall of 2008.

“We’re more focused on people, not property,” Byman stated. “The economics of renting make sense, … and it’s a great location with potential to reach a larger community, being by I-69.”

Meeting in public schools costs less to lease, but Byman said Carmike is well worth the extra expense, and not just because of the comfortable seats. Without air conditioning in the summer and with up to four hours of setting up platforms and chairs in a school location, the developing church was glad for the change. It takes about two hours to set up and tear down at Carmike, with equipment stored in a nearby trailer.

“I love the people here. … I love this church family,” said 17-year-old Chad Hunter, who began singing on the worship team last year. The worship team practices in a garage owned by fellow member, Jack Koogler, where the first members met.

Vicki and Rod Marquart, members since the church’s inception, help with child care and the set-up team, including stocking magazines and pamphlets in the lobby.

The church began with 40-50 people and averages a little over 100, said Rod Marquart. With a total of 113 baptisms, he said, “We are steadily reaching people.”

Jim and Becky Jones, another couple who has attended from the beginning, were initially drawn to Byman’s “Bible-based” preaching and “ability to tell it like it is.” Jean Koogler, a member for seven years, said many people also “come just because they’re curious.”

While Byman said Fort Wayne is a “church-hopper community,” more than half of his original members still attend. “Most churches lose their original members by year three, … so we try to help people while they’re with us.” Emphasizing the church’s practical goal to reach out in an insecure world, Byman added, “This isn’t just religion for the righteous. … We’re all hypocrites in recovery.”