A church can locate anywhere…like a circle fits in a square.

Along a popular entertainment and restaurant corridor in downtown Indianapolis stands a community theatre building, known as Theatre on the Square (TOTS). At first blush, it might seem baffling how it got that name, since it isn’t on a square. (And, in fact, since its street address is Massachusetts Avenue, a diagonal street that radiates outward at a 45-degree angle from the rest of the grid, it’s more of a Theater on the Hypotenuse. But, as the website tells us, it originally began in another Indy neighborhood, Fountain Square, and it wisely kept the catchier name.) Regardless, it offers a pedestrian-friendly storefront, fairly typical for the neighborhood.img_6895But one of the glass doors features an unusual poster. See it?img_6895_editsObviously it doesn’t hurt to get closer.New Circle Church at TOTS

It’s an advertisement for New Circle Church, which apparently uses the space on Sunday mornings. But why would a church use a theatre building? It only seems odd if you haven’t been initiated to the post-modern religious landscape, where churches increasingly form and grow while completely untethered from, well, churches (or at least church buildings). I blog about this periodically, whether a church in a first-floor storefront along the main street to a small city near the Poconos or, more recently, a church that leases space from a senior center in South Philly. In many regards, these are the counterparts to the understandably higher-profile megachurches. While the latter need stoplights and crossing guards to manage their Sunday morning traffic, not to mention the regular bustle during the weekdays from visitors to their coffeeshops, health clubs and Zumba classes, the former—the microchurches—don’t even need a building of their own.

Therefore, we witness this seemingly unlikely pairing at the Theatre on the Square…which may, in turn, not be so unusual after all. After all, if a church is just getting started, it doesn’t necessarily need—and possibly cannot afford—its own bricks and mortar. It’s probable that some of the largest and most prominent megachurches (even from a national standpoint) began as something out of a low-key strip mall, or even a residential basement. And, the alliance with a theater most likely fits like a hand in glove: by leasing (or sub-leasing) to this tenant, the theatre company gets some added revenue, and the church only needs the space on Sunday mornings, a time when few people are attending plays. And the physicality of a proscenium largely parallels that of a chapel, with a clear stage space for a pulpit and choir or praise and worship band.

But a little further investigation suggests this partnership isn’t entirely predictable. Look more closely at the poster.img_6897It’s a “Sunday Gathering”, not an actual service. And New Circle Church—as evidenced by its smart website–is hardly scrappy: the church has multiple ministries and a staff/team of six. Maybe not gargantuan, but certainly more involved than someone’s basement. And it does seem to claim a permanent address outside of the theatre: not a church building, but a private residence on East 30th Street, a still rough but gradually improving neighborhood known as Mapleton. Here’s the home office of New Circle Church.  And if you zoom in, you can just barely make out the familiar logo in the window.  And here’s how this home looked a couple years ago, most likely vacated/foreclosed during the peak of the recession.  So the planters of this church renovated a home to use as the sanctuary; perhaps it doubles as the residence for the chief pastor, making it a home church after all. But the polish of the website and the scale of the ministry suggests the church isn’t completely lacking in capital.

A further review of the New Circle Church website indicates its affiliation with the North American Mission Board, which declares a primary goal of “mobilizing Southern Baptists as a missional force to impact North America with the gospel of Jesus Chris through evangelism and church planting”. A growing trend among select Evangelical churches is to avoid the middle-class suburbs where the demographic support might be stronger, but to seek locations in economically distressed areas for these planted churches, where they can engage in outreach to the surrounding community within walking distance. Concomitant with this goal is to work with the already affiliated: the Southern Baptist Convention does not have great representation in metro Indianapolis and particularly, I suspect, in the near North Side of town. But the much-coveted millennials will still show up, since they tend to be far less scared away by areas like East 30th Street than their parents might be.

These alliances now make a little more sense, but they still don’t entirely explain the agreement between New Circle Church and Theatre on the Square.img_6898

After all, TOTS has long featured off-off Broadway shows, often appropriately described as “irreverent”, routinely targeting the areas LGBTQ community. The Southern Baptist Convention is hardly known for its support for gay rights, or generally for approving of the sort of seasonal line-up that TOTS offers. Either I’m drawing unfair stereotypical conclusions of both of these organizations, or there’s something else to the partnership. Or perhaps not: the TOTS website makes no reference to New Circle Church, and, if the commitment can terminate as easily as removing a poster from a window, then it can get uprooted—and regrow—like any household plant…or a church plant, for that matter.

21 thoughts on “A church can locate anywhere…like a circle fits in a square.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I didn’t think about that Carl. Thanks! Guess I figured it was there on Mass Ave at one point, but I’ve only associated it with Virginia Avenue all these years. Probably, at one point in time, Mass Ave had a better “brand”, but real estate on Virginia Avenue was cheaper. Now, Virginia Ave has about the same brand as Mass Ave, and, from what various merchants along V-Ave had told me, the costs are almost as much too.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Perhaps this is more of a trend than I thought… I had never seen this before. I have heard of a church operating in a movie theater, but it was a defunct theater out by Lafayette Square. Are both of these theaters in Savannah still operating for movies/plays, but have the space reserved for the churches on Sunday mornings?

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    2. Erin Beck Culverhouse

      Yes. The Savannah Theater is owned by people that go to our church. We go to a mega church and the downtown location is located in one of the squares in the theater. They rent the space, and it has a large attendance. It’s hard to reach that part of the city without renting a large space, and it helps the theater too. Prior to being housed in the Savannah Theater, they worshipped in the Lucas Theater. A different church worships in a functional movie theater in a suburb of Savannah. I don’t know the story on that one. There are plenty of places to build in that suburb. Either way, aside from Sunday mornings, both theaters are profitable and functional.

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      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good to know Erin. Thanks for those details! Sounds like a pretty symbiotic relationship. It may work particularly well if the theater had a large parking garage attached to it. Many churches in urban areas end up buying and demolishing a building on a neighboring parcel, which is a shame from a financial and historic preservation standpoint: the church spends lots of money on a lot that only gets used a little bit each week, and a nice adjacent building gets demo’d when it otherwise could be restored. Always better if parking lots can be shared by uses that don’t have overlapping schedules.

        Reply
  1. Diana

    This juxtaposition on Mass Avenue of missional church planting and contemporary theatre is good to hear. It would be interesting to hear from an attendee of both the church and the theatre.

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    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the comment! I agree, especially if, in these extremely divided times, there’s cross-pollination, so to speak. One of my respondents is on the board at TOTS and said the church keeps a very low profile, since it’s really only present at the site on Sunday mornings.

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    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Little did I know. So this isn’t a newfangled thing. I’m not even really familiar with the building where Beef and Boards operates.

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      1. Chris B

        Beef and Boards is next door to a Quality Inn and some offices, hard by the 465 eastbound on-ramp from Michigan Rd. northbound.

        It’s across Wesleyan Rd. (one of the interior streets in the Pyramids development east of Michigan and between 86th and 465) from the former Holiday Inn, now Rodeway Inn with “Caribbean Cove Indoor Water Park” on the SE corner of 465 and Michigan. The attached restaurant, formerly an Italian fine-dining destination (before Indy’s “restaurant renaissance”), is now a Tilted Kilt. Also nearby are Texas Roadhouse and Ruby Tuesday. File this one under “moving down the food chain”. Future blog post! 😉

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    2. Oran Sands

      My grandmother’s church split back in the 60’s and her half started meeting in the Versailles movie theater. I remember my aunt getting married there and walking down the aisle.

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  2. Rk Shaffer

    When I was in grade school our church was in an old playhouse theater. It was actually pretty great as the seats angled up and you had a great view even with those bouffant hair styles or hats. (k)

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    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Russ, I’ve always found it interesting how few conventional churches (except probably for the newer mega churches) actually put their seats on an angle. Probably has to do something with the design of pews and all that kneeling.

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  3. Caille

    I love the idea of theatre on the hypotenuse! Then they can perform Pirates of Penzance and especially the Major General’s song!

    Reply
  4. Scott Moran

    Hey! That’s our church! Loved your perspective in this article–we actually moved out of TOTS just a few weeks after you wrote this post. We were packing out the theatre and had to move to another spot! We relocated back up in Mapleton-Fall Creek. We loved being at TOTS–Lori, Claire and the other staff members were so kind to us during our lease. Thanks for the mention!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, Scott. Glad you liked it!

      After learning more (including some details from “Indianapolis Monthly” magazine), I’ve come to the conclusion that TOTs did indeed see your partnership as a chance to get extra revenue. Land values have increased steadily over the years along Mass Ave, and organizations like TOTS can only raise the ticket prices so much to help cover costs. I’m sure they appreciated having you as a tenant.

      Reply

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