Bethel Fellowship/The Church at Franklin Mills
By: Frances Putman
If there is one word to describe Bethel Fellowship/The Church @ Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, it might be unconventional. The contemporary services--with a live worship band, drama and video productions--is unconventional. The way they tell visitors to come as they are and leave their wallets at home is unconventional. And, the fact that members and visitors worship each week in a converted movie theater is especially unconventional. But church leaders wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, their motto is “We do church differently.”
There are few rituals that would make anyone unfamiliar with a traditional church feel uncomfortable. The central goal of the church is to reach out to the “unchurched” or those who haven’t attended religious services regularly in the past. The idea is to make worship more attractive and less threatening.
“We are a seeker ministry,” said Al Rossi, associate pastor of administration and teaching at Bethel Fellowship/The Church @ Franklin Mills. “We do a lot of things that are seeker-friendly, like casual dress and having a friendly approach to ministry.”
A few years ago, the non-denominational Christian church needed more space and began looking for just the right situation. Since building a new structure would be expensive and time-consuming, church leaders were looking for an existing building that could be renovated. After all, at the time, the church was meeting in a facility it had converted from a funeral home in 1987. But with more than 250 people attending each week, the church was up to four Sunday morning services, and there was really no place for the children’s ministry to meet.
When they found the vacant, 54,000-square-foot, 10-ciniplex movie theater in the Franklin Mills Mall, the largest mall in the Philadelphia area, they knew they had found the place they should be.
“We are in a place where the people are, which falls in line with Scripture,” Rossi said of the church, which opened in its new location in 2004. “Jesus went where the people were.”
Each year, more than 20 million people come through the Franklin Mills Shopping Mall, which covers more than a mile in length, to shop in the many stores or visit one of the restaurants located inside. The church sits in a popular area, between a Sam’s Wholesale Club and Bally’s Health Club. A movie theater-style marquee outside runs LED messages, telling of the week’s activities and inviting all to come in.
“Everyone has been to a mall, so the atmosphere is non-threatening,” said Rossi.
In fact, many people he talks with recall visiting the movie theater when it was in operation. Today, about 900 people attend services each week, including two on Sunday morning and one on Wednesday evening. Throughout the week, various small groups meet as well.
The architectural firm of Whitehead, Phillippi and Harris, Inc., located in Penndel, Pa., designed the renovation. In many ways, the movie-theater layout of the facility has worked well for the church, just as it is. The large lobby has remained intact as a fellowship area. What was once the snack bar was redesigned as a welcome center, where drinks and refreshments still are served. Not only is the lobby a great hospitality area for people coming into the church, but tables and chairs can be added for banquets or meetings. Rossi said the area will seat about 300 people.
“The theater lends itself naturally to an auditorium of a church,” said Todd Phillippi, president of Whitehead, Phillippi and Harris, Inc.
Five of the 10 theaters were renovated into a new, 36,000-square-foot church, while five others will allow for future expansion. Two theaters were combined to form a large, 600-seat worship center in the middle of the present church. Though it seemed like a simple process, removing the wall between the two theaters turned out to be one of the biggest obstacles of the renovation project.
The central wall was a soundproof, weight-bearing structure, so it had to be carefully removed, and large, steel beams were installed in its place to support the building. In this area, the screen was removed and a large, platform stage was put in to accommodate drama productions, the worship band and singers. State-of-the-art video, light and sound systems were installed to meet the needs of this multimedia church.
Another theater is used for the youth ministry. In this area, the stage and screen were left in place and are sometimes used for showing movies or holding Christian music concerts. TVs were mounted on the wall in the game area, where youth can play X-Box, Gamecube and other video games, as well as sit with friends and enjoy refreshments.
A fourth theater was transformed into the children’s area, where the sloped floors became a real safety issue. In the worship center and youth areas, the floors were built up but still sloped in some areas. In the children’s area, however, the floors had to be leveled, which turned out to be a larger-than-expected cost.
“The floors had to be raised to be flat floors, so new floors had to be built on top, and you were building on slopes, which was more difficult,” Philliipi noted.
The children’s theater area, marked by an eye-catching entrance, includes nursery and preschool areas, as well as the K-5 “Adventure Bay.”
The final theater area was converted into church offices, meeting rooms and storage.
“We’ve gotten a great response since we moved in,” Rossi said, noting the church has been a curiosity to a lot of people. “It looks beautiful, and it’s inviting.”
Phillippi said he has been impressed with the way the church has grown, not by bringing in Christians from other churches, but by reaching people who in the past had not gone to church.
“When I first (became a Christian), I went to a church that met in a public school,” he recalled. “A church in a mall is more comfortable for some people.”
Because the theater sat vacant for several years, there had been quite a bit of vandalism. Phillippi said the theaters were covered in graffiti, and the roof had been peppered with bullet holes from small caliber firearms. Each hole had to be found and repaired, which was a bit of a challenge.
“You discover if you found them all when it starts to rain,” Phillippi said.
Mechanical and electrical systems also had to be replaced, but he said the cost was still less than building a new facility the same size, and the church was able to move in much more quickly than if it had been a new building project.
One last challenge to overcome arose when union leaders in Philadelphia objected to the church’s use of volunteer construction labor. Since the church facility is inside the city of Philadelphia and a part of a commercial property, there was an issue of whether or not union labor was required.
“In Philadelphia, you don’t do a job without going union,” Rossi recalled. “But, we knew God wanted us to use volunteers, so we didn’t give in to the system.”
In the end, he said, there were no picket lines, and everything went fairly smoothly.
Rossi suggests that other churches considering an unconventional building project not be afraid to try something different, even if some people doubt it will be successful. He recommends church leaders talk to those in other churches who have done something similar. Finally, he says, pray and listen for answers.
Phillippi also suggested that churches get a good inspection of an existing building and find out what problems might exist. If a church is taking over a former commercial property, he noted that it might receive opposition from those in a city’s government who don’t want to see the property taken off the tax rolls.
But, both agree, if it’s in God’s will, all will work out.
“Trust God and go ahead with your plans,” Rossi said.
WPH Architects for Ministry has been devoted exclusively to serving Christian churches and ministries through master planning and architecture since 1985. Church leaders seeking to grow with purpose can find more information about this company and their services at www.ChurchArchitects.com. They also provide a comprehensive resource for churches of any size dealing with planning and facility needs at www.ChurchPlanning.net.