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Hollywood homilies: Pastor bases his messages on what's popular at the movies
Fistfights, crashing helicopters and gun-wielding guerrillas flashed across the screen. The auditorium filled with the sounds of the jungle as Senior Pastor Rob Seagears clomped onto the stage in camouflage and combat boots, toting a rifle, canteen and machete.
"Good morning, Mountaintop!" he growled to the congregation before launching into his Sunday sermon based on the R-rated, curse-filled Hollywood hit "Tropic Thunder."
The audience chuckled at his grizzly soldier act, and gave him some loud "Amens!"
If there were an Oscar for sermons, Seagears would be a contender. There's his "Dark Knight" performance, when he roared up to the pulpit astride a Suzuki motorcycle, dressed like Batman. And his whip-cracking Indiana Jones, and his green-suited Hulk.
Perhaps most memorable was when he bumbled out wearing a ratty wig and a blood-red smile across his face, ranting like a maniac.
"When I went into the church as the Joker, there was complete silence," Seagears recalled fondly. "People were stunned because I was acting as if I was evil."
Since June, Seagears, senior pastor at Christ Chapel Mountaintop in Manassas, Va., has based his sermons on the summer's blockbusters, drawing life lessons from the most unlikely subject matter. The Summer Cinema Series, which ended last month, sought to attract those who don't ordinarily attend church while making the experience more fun for those who do. The four-year-old church averages about 20 visitors a week, in addition to members, which is significant considering that attendance usually lags during the summer, he said.
"We try to make church and God applicable to people's lives," said Seagears, 47.
Seagears bases each week's message on the highest-grossing movie the previous weekend. He sees the movie, then prays about how to extract a biblical message.
He has had to see movies with violence and language he would otherwise avoid. Last month he saw "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," in which an evil prince seeks to resurrect an indestructible army to take over the Earth by assembling pieces of a magical crown.
We, too, have invaluable crowns, Seagears preached, rewards God has prepared for those who love and serve him faithfully.
"It's kind of risky to be watching to see what the No. 1 movie is going to be and figuring out how to flip this thing for God," he said.
For his "Dark Knight" sermon, Seagears drew from the movie's bleakest point, when Batman is struggling with demons both real and personal. Seagears preached on the faith needed to "endure" in hard times.
Researchers say more and more churches are trying nontraditional ways of attracting congregants, with some holding services in bars, on hiking trails or online. Creative services can provide an edge in a tight "religious marketplace," said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.
"There's a lot of experimentation going on in worship these days," Roozen said.
It's about seeming relevant and standing out in the crowd.
"How are we different from the church down the street? Well, you have to bring your 3-D glasses when you come to our church," Roozen said.
To enhance the cinematic feel, Seagears' staff hangs movie posters in the auditorium at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, where the church meets. There is popcorn, candy, and sometimes nachos and hotdogs.
Church members said Seagears has a gift for finding godly themes in unlikely movies.
The series has been especially popular with teens.
"Some of the movies, I've been like, `How is he going to preach on this, because it has nothing to do with God?' " said Nikkisha Walker, 17. "But he always manages to find something."
Said Kendel Montgomery, 15: "Before they did the cinema thing, I was like, aw, I have to go to church. But now I'm like, OK, it's going to be interesting."
"Younger people my age, instead of, like, wanting to fall asleep, you're more focused and tuned in," said Kiara Morrow, 19.