Editor's Note: The New to PC (as in Port City) is a monthly series featuring relatively new churches to the Cape Fear area.
Sparkly snowflakes - the remnants of Christmas shows - were still taped to the walls of Thalian Hall's Studio Theater as the 15 congregants of Wavecrest Community Church began one early January worship service.
A worship leader stood up front with just an electric guitar in front of a screen projection of song lyrics on a snowy road scene, as the congregation sang opening praise songs and prayed together.
Pastor Chris Lentz never knows quite what to expect inside his rented worship space each weekend as sets of shows come and go in the smaller of the two theater spaces inside Thalian Hall. But over the past year the church has been meeting inside Thalian Hall, Lentz said he's learned to just roll with it.
At Christmas, he preached in the "Annie, Jr." set. At Halloween, the church got a spooky scene.
"I walk in, and there's a different set, and I think now how can I tie this in to the message for this Sunday," he said, chuckling.
Affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Wavecrest Community Church is one of many church plants settling in the Cape Fear region in the last few years. Though most new church plants locally are either nondenominational, independent or Baptist-affiliated, Lentz said he and his wife, Megan Lentz, decided they wanted to affiliate, for accountability's sake. (The only other Assemblies of God church in the area is Wilmington First Assembly of God on Wrightsville Avenue.)
Both he and his wife are from the Triangle-area but always knew Wilmington was where they wanted to live and start a church.
They chose downtown Wilmington becase "we wanted to be in a place where church plants didn't go, and that was downtown," Lentz said. But the question with any downtown endeavor is where to go? They looked at renting space at New Hanover High School and found the school district's rates were too expensive. They looked at the Hilton Riverside hotel and were about to sign when they got the chance to attend a theater show at Thalian Hall.
So far, the church's contemporary style has attracted Marines from Camp Lejeune, University of North Carolina Wilmington students and some of the homeless in downtown. On warm Sundays, they'll host a Tailgate Breakfast before church in Thalian's parking lot, a coffee, juice and donuts affair.
"Thalian was totally a God thing. We sat in the theater and said how cool would it be if one day we had church here. It has history of being the center of downtown, and it has parking."
As luck would have it, Sunday mornings at Thalian were pretty open. And though Wavecrest is one of few churches to rent a Thalian theater over a longer period of time, it's not the first church to hold worship or church-related services in Thalian, said Tony Rivenbark, Thalian's executive director.
"We've had all kinds of church groups, church choirs perform in Thalian. We’ve had Christmas services, Easter services, concert events for different churches, especially if they need a larger seating capacity than their church holds, so this is nothing new," Rivenbark added. "Cardinal Gibbons (the first bishop of North Carolina) spoke in this theater." According to Rivenbark's "History of Thalian Hall": "In Wilmington, most amateur events took place in other auditoriums around the city; however large productions continued to be presented at the Opera House (Thalian Hall) and were often produced by women's charity groups. One of the most elaborate was The Story of the Reformation with a cast of 150 presented by the Ministering Circle of the Kings Daughters. The production ran for two nights in 1896 to 'standing room only crowds.'"
Being a really small congregation usually means the pastoral staff have day jobs. Chris Lentz and his worship leader Sam Lydon both work at Verizon Wireless, and Megan Lentz is a nanny.
For now, Lentz hopes the church keeps growing and experimenting.
"With a new church, you don't have 100 years of tradition to deal with," Lentz added. "It's been an exciting journey for sure."