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Double bill: Arizona church combines movies, worship services

PHOENIX — There’s a place in eastern Arizona where popcorn and holy water share space.

Safford’s Victory Fellowship Church is not only a house of worship, but a movie theater and community center to boot.

In addition to church services, which Pastor John Neal said can draw up to 200 worshipers, the church also shows the latest motion pictures.

About 10 years ago, Neal said the church was on “the wrong side of the tracks,” so a new site was in order. The search led to a vacant four-screen movie theater.

“It was the best-built building in town,” he said. “It was only open for two years as a theater before the guy went bankrupt, causing the bank that lent him the money for it to go bankrupt.”

The bank, desperate to sell the real estate, sold it to the church for $1 million. Initially, the church had no intention to show movies.

“We were under the impression that we could sell the equipment and use the money to pay down the loan,” Neal said. “That never happened, so we said, ‘We’ve got the equipment, let’s just go ahead and show some movies.”

The church is required by studios to charge a $9 admission fee to play first-run films. To save customers money, Victory immediately refunds $2 and instead uses money earned from popcorn and other concessions to help offset the church’s expenses.

But the theater isn’t the only thing the church offers.

“We’ve got the only Starbucks coffee shop in Safford, and the only Christian bookstore,” said Neal. “We also have a completely free arcade.”

Neal said the church breaks even with all it offers but they are a service to the community. The church has discovered some people who come to see a movie return there on Sunday for church.

“We’ve seen a lot of lives changed,” Neal said. “God wants people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. We work with a lot of people in bondage, and help them. They come out of the bondage and get their families back together. They get jobs.”

God wants people to be closer to him, according to Neal, and He is using the church’s amenities to send a message.

“(The message is) Just to know that God loves them, and God wants them to be happy, and enjoy themselves,” he said. “That’s the bottom line for us.”