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Playing at the movies: Word of God

It's too early for a matinee.

Yet theater No. 11 at the AMC Veterans 24 in Town 'N Country is bumping with music.

People are filling up the plush loveseat-style seating, snacking on bagels instead of popcorn and sipping coffee instead of soda.

This isn't your usual moviegoing experience.

It's not Friday night. It's Sunday morning, the lights in the theater are on, and the word of God is the feature presentation.

The words "Real Life Church" are lit in red lights on the digital ticker outside the theater. The movie Fun With Dick and Jane is showing in the next theater over.

The commotion and the crowd, which includes people from Pinellas, draws the attention of passers-by.

"It's neat because people wonder what we're doing in a theater," said Real Life Church member Melinda Warner, 18, of Oldsmar. "Because it's so different, you hope that maybe next time they'll come for a service."

Real Life Church has been holding its Sunday services in this movie theater since February 2005. Its church bulletins look like playbills with a big bucket of popcorn printed on the front. Service information cards look like movie tickets.

Pastor Dan Dunn plays movie clips, projected on the screen, to add oomph to main points in his sermon.

"It's not that the message has changed," Dunn said. "It's just a different way to communicate the message . . . and you can't beat the seating."

Holding Sunday services at the movies "creates a different atmosphere, a nonthreatening atmosphere," Dunn said.

"Maybe if someone's never gone to church or has been out of church for a long time, they'll feel more comfortable and it'll be an easier transition."

Young people in particular feel right at home at AMC Veterans, assistant youth pastor Jeff Yale said. Teen attendance has tripled since the church started holding services at the theater.

"That's a hangout anyway, so it's easier for them to go from no church to a theater than to a regular church," Yale said.

Of course, sometimes the films playing in the next theater over aren't as mildly named as Fun With Dick and Jane.

Hellboy, a movie about an unlikely superhero born in hell, was playing there for a while,

making for an interesting juxtaposition, Dunn said.

Real Life is one of about half a dozen Foursquare churches in the Tampa area. Founded in 1923, Foursquare is a branch of the Pentecostal Church that believes in a fourfold ministry of Jesus Christ as the savior, baptizer, healer and soon-coming king.

This belief is represented by the four symbols that make up the Foursquare logo.

Although the church has a building of its own on W Waters Avenue, the congregation and the church's ministries outgrew it, Dunn said.

"We were at two services and looking at going to a third," he said. "It wasn't that we were that big, but (moving to the theater) gave us an opportunity to grow the congregation without doing something drastic with the property."

Real Life Church plans on holding services at the theater for at least another year.

The W Waters Avenue building is mostly being used for office space and smaller midweek services.

Just about all of the 335 plush seats in theater No. 11 were filled on a recent Sunday.

Children's church and the 9 a.m. service are held in theater No. 10, which seats 104.

Fliers to promote a sermon titled "Sex and the Church" were styled like the title for the HBO hit series Sex and the City. The same was done for a "Christian Idol" contest, with a flier designed to look like the American Idol logo.

And one group of services called "Church in 3-D" was rated "E" for "everyone curious about their existence" and destiny. That flier featured a group of kids, mouths wide with amazement, wearing 3-D glasses in a theater.

Besides being poised for growth, having church services at the movie theater also puts Real Life in a position of public exposure. "We really try to use where the world is in these times," Dunn said.