Is National Community Church’s Mark Batterson the Most Innovative Pastor in America?
Mark Batterson’s churches are in movie theaters—and his ambitions are as big as the silver screen.
It could have been a cold winter’s day and hundreds of people might have still shown up at the beach, because Mark Batterson asked them to.
And he really wanted them to. When he published his recent book, The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears, he included a list of life goals. One of them was to baptize 3,000 people at the same time.
Fewer than four dozen people are waiting for him to lead them into the water at Sandy Point State Park, near the western end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. But for Batterson, 43-year-old pastor of Washington’s National Community Church, there are no failures, only baby steps toward achieving big dreams.
He trudges waist-deep into the Chesapeake, leading a line of five men and women plus two cameramen—church staffers, their equipment held aloft. Everything must be documented: tweeted, Facebooked, Instagrammed, Final Cut Pro’d. Later, the baptisms will be featured on the church’s website, intercut with personal stories.
“I really want to love Jesus and love other people,” says one woman in a finished video as the camera pans in and out, dramatically adjusting focus. Cut to Batterson in a T-shirt and a huge grin, dunking her underwater.
This is church at the frontier. Religion experts and people just looking for a path to God agree: NCC might be the most innovative church in America.
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Name a trend in American evangelical churches and NCC has been doing it for years. Podcasts? Batterson started that nearly a decade ago. Coffee shops? The church opened one, Ebenezers, in 2006. Rock bands have replaced choirs, and movie trailers tout Batterson’s sermons in NCC’s sanctuaries as though they’re teasers for the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Batterson began preaching in a movie theater in DC’s Union Station in 1996 because his congregation didn’t have anywhere else to go. Now the church has six sites—including Georgetown, DC’s Columbia Heights, Arlington, and two in Alexandria, all in theaters. Its most recent purchase is a century-old former movie house, renamed the Miracle, on Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row. Batterson rotates the location of his Sunday sermon, but he always preaches from there on Saturday night and the other locations get video. This summer, the church hopes to begin showing mainstream, family-friendly movies at the Miracle. Says Batterson: “We think of the screen as postmodern stained glass.”
NCC owns undeveloped property on DC’s Virginia Avenue, Southeast, which Batterson hopes will be key to retail expansion connecting Barracks Row and the Navy Yard area. He’s considering leasing space for restaurants, maybe shops, and of course a theater. “If the kingdom of God had departments,” he says, “we’d be research and development.”
About 3,000 people claim NCC as their church. Batterson’s staff is known for inventive methods to attract people, says Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. NCC isn’t the only church with a technology-and-social-media-focused staff, Thumma says, but Batterson was ahead of the curve.
A blog, a Twitter feed, and videos of sermons keep him in view of influential churches and people. Batterson speaks of well-to-do Washington visitors stopping by to donate money, sometimes $1 million or more. He sums up such gifts with exclamations such as “A miracle!” and “What a blessing!”
After he spoke at Covenant Church, a Dallas-area megachurch, in June, the pastor, Mike Hayes, joined Batterson onstage. As Batterson tells it, Hayes asked the crowd who would join him in giving $5,000 to NCC. A handful in the audience raised their hands. Then he asked who would donate $1,000. More hands rose. Then $500. Moments later, Batterson had the promise of $100,000.
When God is ready to work, Batterson says, money rolls in. Last year, his church bought a rundown DC building east of the Anacostia River for $38,000, with the goal of building a community center for single moms and their children. Since then, it has raised $3.8 million. Batterson calls those who donate “shareholders.”
He gives out his cell-phone number and texts directions to church picnics. His office, above Ebenezers coffee shop—where the homeless mingle with Hill staffers—isn’t guarded by so much as a receptionist.
When Batterson beams at you with his full-face smile, he seems to like you—that much feels true. Perhaps even more disarming for a megachurch pastor, he seems to hope you like him, too.
“It’s not showmanship,” says Dana Brooks, a lobbyist who attends NCC. “It’s real.”
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Batterson was raised in a Christian home in Naperville, Illinois, west of Chicago, and professed his personal faith as a child. He played basketball in high school and dated the preacher’s daughter at the Assemblies of God church. Batterson was a leader among the teenage set in town, thanks to his likable personality and athletic prowess, says Steve Pike, the church’s youth pastor at the time. The University of Chicago offered him a scholarship, and he took prelaw classes and played basketball there. He planned to go to law school until his life took a turn.
On vacation, Batterson went for a morning walk in a pasture to talk with God. By the time he rejoined his family, his mind was made up: He’d leave the University of Chicago and enroll at Central Bible College, a small school in Springfield, Missouri, that trains pastors.
He married Lora Schmidgall, his high-school sweetheart, and earned an undergraduate and two seminary master’s degrees before moving to Washington to, he hoped, preach. The nation’s capital had a gritty inner city, and he craved a proving ground. He found it in a struggling DC church with a controversial mission.
Rob Schenck, a well-known antiabortion activist, had come to DC from Buffalo in 1994 to start a church that he hoped would become a frontline battalion in the war against abortion. Schenck envisioned senators and judges experiencing dramatic repentances and dedicating their careers to the cause. With help from activist friends, Schenck organized an event to launch the church, which he says drew more than a thousand people. A gospel choir and Christian singer Larnelle Harris performed. New York state Supreme Court judge William Ostrowski, an abortion opponent, spoke. From that start, about 40 people formed the core of NCC, meeting at United Methodist Church on Capitol Hill.
Inspired by churches formed in the 1800s to oppose slavery, Schenck wanted to start a similar church to fight abortion, but it never attracted senators or judges. NCC got the boot from United Methodist for its vitriolic rhetoric—Schenck was arrested multiple times during demonstrations—and wound up in a dilapidated school.
Schenck longed to leave the pulpit to lobby Congress full-time. (The organization he formed is now called Faith and Action.) But he needed a replacement.
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When Mark Batterson came to Washington in 1994, he was 24, with a failed church attempt in the Chicago area under his belt. He’d seen an ad in a Christian magazine for a job at the Urban Bible Training Center, an inner-city institute then located in DC, for people who wanted to be pastors but couldn’t afford seminary. When he called, he was told it needed a director. He got the job.
It was a testing of mettle for Batterson and his wife, both far from home. He taught classes during the week, and on weekends he hit the road, preaching at churches as far away as West Virginia in a bid to collect donations that made up his only income.
Schenck can’t quite explain it, but he knew that Batterson was the right fit for his pulpit. Both men were affiliated with the Assemblies of God, and Schenck had preached at Batterson’s hometown congregation in Illinois. They knew the same pastors and churches and occasionally ran into each other. Says Schenck: “The fact that he came to Washington impressed me as a very brave thing.”
Schenck had once carried a preserved fetus in the presence of abortion-rights protesters, and the NCC congregation wanted a leader with that sort of conviction. Batterson, on the other hand, didn’t think a church should be involved in politics.
The entire congregation—30-odd people—abandoned the church when they saw that Batterson didn’t intend to carry on Schenck’s activism. Batterson was left with two people huddled together one cold Sunday morning: his wife and infant son.
Of Schenck’s legacy, Batterson says: “We buried that history pretty quickly.” He wanted people to feel embraced, not judged. The old crowd would have been welcome, but he didn’t want a congregation that would scare people away. Some of his flock might even have had an abortion in their past.
With Batterson behind the pulpit, the tone changed. In the first few months of 1996, he attracted about two dozen people with sermons filled with encouragement about how much God loved them. He never mentioned abortion. But later that year, the school that housed the church was closed due to code violations. The only space Batterson could find was Union Station’s theater.
As he grew used to preaching beneath a giant screen with the smell of popcorn in the air, it occurred to him: A theater is perfect. It’s designed to bring people together and focus their attention toward the front of the room. And the site held personal significance: He’d first professed his faith as a child in a church room transformed into a makeshift theater for a screening of The Hiding Place, about Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian woman who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
NCC grew slowly. No senators or judges, but there were college students, Hill staffers, law clerks. Twentysomethings—many, like their pastor, far from home.
Batterson avoids hard-line edicts and punctuates many statements with “I think …” and “It seems like …” and “That’s kinda how I feel.”
“You don’t have to change the world, but you can make a difference in one person’s life,” he said last year in a sermon on encouragement. “God is only good, always good,” he has preached. “He is good all the time, and he is good in every way imaginable.”
Batterson says he shied away from lightning-rod issues in the early years but doesn’t anymore. He points to a sermon in which he included homosexuality in a list of sexual sins. “We ought to be more concerned about being biblically correct than politically correct,” he said then. “So here is the biblical bottom line: Sex outside of marriage is wrong. Sex is a sacred covenant between a husband and a wife. Period.”
But that sermon was five years ago. Since then, Batterson has hardly mentioned the issue. Nor has he publicly discussed abortion often.
“We’re not called to say what’s right or wrong,” says John Cissel, 21, who is five months into a yearlong unpaid internship at the church. “I don’t personally believe that we have the right to say, ‘If you’re struggling with homosexuality, you’re living in sin.’ ”
Cissel calls the church a place where people with differing views on abortion can sit side by side. He draws an analogy to styles of worship: “Some people believe you should raise your hands and some people don’t”—a reference to the way some Christians lift their hands when they pray or sing.
For his part, Batterson says it should be easy to walk into a church and enjoy singing and a sermon. He hopes that if people keep attending, they’ll eventually hear what he believes is truth: that people are sinners in need of Jesus’s love.
Officially, he rejects some of the big ideas that drive many of the country’s largest evangelical churches, such as the teaching that God wants his followers to be wealthy (often called the “prosperity gospel”) and that if one of God’s followers simply prays for something in the name of Jesus, he or she will receive it. NCC attendees are urged to “fast,” giving up either a type of food or another indulgence such as technology. He speaks of personal sacrifice to clear one’s mind to focus on God.
To Batterson, self-help is “nothing more than idolatry dressed up in a rented tuxedo.” Adding any word to “gospel,” such as “prosperity,” he says, isn’t the gospel at all.
Christians have divine help in every moment, he explains. In a recent sermon, he recounted a trip he took with Parker, the eldest of his three children, now 17 (daughter Summer is 15 and son Josiah is 10), to Machu Picchu. The pair hired a porter to carry their bags and meals ahead. “Holy Spirit is like our Peruvian porter,” Batterson told his congregation. “This is a tour guide!”
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When Joel Osteen—a Texas pastor who preaches that God wants to shower his followers in money and material blessings—spoke at Nationals Park last year, he compared God to a fast-food clerk offering to “supersize anything in your life.” Batterson and other pastors sat in a place of honor on the field.
Yet NCC is a far cry from Osteen’s Texas megachurch, where men strut in suits and the sanctuary is converted into a fashion-show catwalk for women’s events. “We believe that a supernatural shift is going to take place for you this year, that a tidal wave of God’s favor is going to overwhelm your circumstances!” Osteen recently wrote with his wife on his church’s website. “Get ready!”
Batterson preaches in plaid shirts and jeans. The money talk that works for Osteen is considered gauche by Batterson’s crowd, which includes a mix of nonprofit, start-up, and government workers. The worship leader is a former Nashville singer/songwriter. People come in weekend clothes, as though they’ve stumbled in after brunch on Barracks Row.
Even so, Batterson’s message—that God wants to bless people in big ways and small—is similar to that of Osteen and other preachers who overtly prize wealth. And despite his dismissal of self-help, NCC’s 12 “core values” feel pulled from motivational posters: “Playing it safe is risky.” “Go the extra mile.” “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Only two of them mention a deity: “You cannot out-give God” and “Pray like it depends on God, and work like it depends on you.”
Batterson’s book The Circle Maker, billed as a guide to praying powerfully, is basically a spiritual how-to for making dreams a reality. His own goals include running with the bulls in Pamplona, learning to surf, going on a safari, and bench-pressing 250-plus pounds in his fifties. Other goals assume future wealth: give away $10 million-plus, live off 10 percent and give 90 percent by the time he and his wife retire, pay for his grandchildren’s college education.
Batterson takes a cue from Honi, a first-century bc Jew whose story isn’t in the Bible but is mentioned in other historic texts. During a drought, Honi drew a circle on the ground and stood praying in it until rain fell.
Batterson has since drawn circles, both literal and figurative, around anything he believes God wants him to have. In NCC’s early days, he walked a loop around Capitol Hill, praying. He now believes that that walk, long before he’d heard of Honi, created a prayer circle and is one reason his church has been successful. He draws circles around family, staff, even ideas and dreams. Before he renovated a building near Union Station and opened Ebenezers, he paced circles around it, “getting a few funny looks from the security guards at the building across the street.”
People tell him about their own rituals: teachers who walk around classrooms, coaches who circumnavigate stadiums, a congressman who circles his office building. It’s not magic, Batterson says, but it harnesses the power that took down the fortified walls of Jericho when the Israelites circled it.
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Some blogs and online message boards, mostly populated by conservative pundits, liken Batterson’s circle doctrine to witchcraft or New Age beliefs. In The Circle Maker, Batterson writes: “Don’t let what you cannot do keep you from doing what you can. Draw the circle. Don’t let who you are not keep you from being who you are. You are a circle maker.” At times, it’s unclear whether he believes the power is in the person, the circle, or God.
When I suggest that The Circle Maker comes off as a religion-laced guide to getting what you want (“We have not because we ask not,” he writes, “or maybe I should say, we have not because we circle not”), Batterson protests. The key to prayer circles, he says, is that your will must reflect God’s.
“I don’t think he’s ever preached that God will give you what you want if you pray for it,” says Mandy Vida, 32, who works for an online company. By circling something in prayer, she explains, you’re connecting with God.
When her mother had cancer, Vida prayed she would be healed. After her mother died two years ago, Vida began using Batterson’s circle method. Since then, she says, God has answered prayers she didn’t even know she had. She has gone on two mission trips to Africa and had a hand in starting an advocacy group for orphans she met there. Says Vida: “Even though my biggest prayer wasn’t answered, I circled my grief in prayer.”
Steve Pike, Batterson’s former youth pastor, believes that Batterson speaks to people in ways they can best understand: “There will always be people misunderstanding or misinterpreting, but if you stay with it, stay with Mark, hang out with Mark, you’re going to find a person who passionately follows Christ with all of his heart.”
Batterson wants to bring his approach to faith to places other than Washington’s wealthier neighborhoods. He hopes to begin work on the Dream Center, the facility for single moms east of the Anacostia, this year. Plans are in the works to launch an NCC campus in Berlin . When a missionary there suggested NCC build a coffee shop in the German capital, Batterson couldn’t think of a reason not to, given that city’s cafe culture.
He hopes the church will one day produce feature films, probably based on his future books. Maybe they won’t be overtly Christian, but they’ll have a positive message. And if they’re successful, he says, someone will have an experience like he had when he saw The Hiding Place.
Batterson can’t explain what happened that day, but watching that movie he felt compelled to commit his life to God. It was under the glow of the silver screen, but to Batterson it was stained glass.
Krista Kapralos (email@example.com) is a Washington journalist who has reported on religion topics for more than a decade.
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.