Sports Arena Churches — Trend or Exception?

There's a long tradition of building churches that look like sports arenas.

c. 2004 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Stop by a typical church on a weekday night and you might find an Alcoholics Anonymous group or Boy Scout troop meeting there. At Faithful Central Bible Church, you just might find Madonna.

That’s because Faithful Central is among a small but growing number of megachurches using sports and entertainment facilities as their houses of worship.

This spring, the pop star spent six weeks rehearsing for her “Re-Invention Tour” at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers, now owned by Faithful Central. Madonna also used the church/arena to kick off her tour with a May 24 concert.

For most of the time, “Madonna’s set was on one end of the Forum and ours was on the other,” said Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, pastor of Faithful Central, which bought the Forum in 2000. The church had been planning to build a new building when it became available.

“To build a new, 5,000-seat church would have cost $18.5 million,” Ulmer said. “To buy the Forum cost us $22.5 million, and we have unlimited space to grow. It’s not a bad investment.”

Worshipping in unique settings is nothing new for Faithful Central. Since Ulmer became pastor in 1992, this predominantly African-American church has moved four times _ from a 450-seat traditional building to a high school and two converted warehouses before settling at the Forum. About 6,000 people attend the 10 a.m. Sunday service at the stadium, with another 1,000 attending a 7 a.m. service at “the Tabernacle,” a converted warehouse. (The two services will be combined to one later this year.”

“Our church wouldn’t know what to do in a stained glass, padded pew structure-we haven’t been in one for so long,” Ulmer said.

The Forum isn’t completely converted to a church space. It still hosts concerts and sporting events when not being used for worship. Ulmer said that the building is a “tool for ministry” _ offering the public positive forms of entertainment while employing “500 to 600 people at each event.”

Besides, he said, what else do you do with a building that seats 18,000 people on the other six days a week?

Faithful Central is not the only church to take over a sports arena. In Houston, the Compaq Center _ former home of the Rockets _ is being converted for use by the 30,000-members Lakewood Church. It’s scheduled to reopen next spring after a $75 million renovation. Lakewood has signed a 30-year lease on the building, which will seat 16,000 for worship.

Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research doesn’t think many other churches will follow in the footsteps of Lakewood and Faithful Central.

Instead, he said, most megachurches build “a sanctuary that looks like a stadium,” complete with giant projection screens and stadium-style seats.

At least two churches, he adds — Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., and the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles _— meet in buildings that resemble the Astrodome. Crenshaw Christian Center’s building is called the “Faith Dome.”

Arena-like megachurches are nothing new. In the 1920s, Amy Semple Mcpherson built the “Angelus Temple,” which drew crowds as large as 7,500. The Mason Temple, built in the 1940s by Charles Mason, founder of the church of God in Christ, looked like an arena from the outside, Thuma said.

Still, Thuma said, there is something fitting about a former stadium becoming a church.

“It’s not that much of a stretch to go from one national religion _ football, baseball, and basketball _ to another,” he said. “The stadium space, in some sense, already has a sacred feeling.”

Ulmer admits that it feels odd to be preaching in the same venue where he once watched the Lakers play. But what makes worship sacred, he said, is not the place _ it’s God working in the lives of people.

“Theologically,” he said, “we emphasize that the church is the people. The building has been sanctified and consecrated when the people of God are gathered and the presence of God fills the place.”

Worshipers at Faithful Central can’t escape the Forum’s past. Some of the banners from Laker championships are still in place, Ulmer said.

“The memory of the Lakers still lingers in that place,” he said, adding that the church has used that memory in its ministry.

“We say that we are still building champions,” he said. “We are continuing the legacy of building champions.”


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