HAVERHILL — What do a movie theater in Lawrence and the Haverhill High School auditorium have in common?
They both offer great entertainment when a popular movie is showing and the annual class play takes over the stage at the high school.
But there’s more.
And it might come as a surprise to some people.
Both places are home to worship services run by a local church which draws so many people that it is adding services at Haverhill High.
Granite United Church has been holding a Sunday worship service in the Haverhill High auditorium for the past two years. The church is preparing to add a second service at the school.
“When we opened our campus in Haverhill, our average attendance was 64 members who came with us to launch the campus,” said Granite United Pastor John Croteau, a Lawrence native who now lives in the Salem, N.H., area. “Since then, we’ve grown to a weekly average of over 200 members.”
Members of Granite United were in Haverhill last weekend handing out fliers at shopping plazas and dropping them off at various businesses they were trying to connect with.
School officials said there is nothing wrong with renting space to a church group, as long as it doesn’t interfere any school programs. The officials said that in this case, the use of the auditorium to hold services was reviewed for its legality.
“It’s working out fine,” said Superintendent James Scully. “They are very nice people to work with and they treat the building with respect.”
Granite United is a Baptist church based at 1 Sandhill Road, Salem, N.H. It has been around for about 20 years and is led by head pastor Anthony Milas.
Croteau, 47, and his wife, Tina, oversee the Haverhill campus. Every campus has its own pastor, in addition to Milas.
Croteau, his wife and more than a dozen members of the church, including many teenagers, were in Haverhill on Saturday handing out fliers announcing the changes in Sunday services at the high school. They walked through the downtown and along Route 125, dropping into businesses, asking permission to post fliers and handing them out at various shopping plazas.
“We’re going out again this Saturday as well,” Croteau said, noting that his church is looking to develop a good relationship with businesses in the community, as well as with residents.
Croteau attributes the growth to his church’s high-energy approach, including live music, along with sermons that are relevant to church members’ lives.
“We make our sermons understandable as to what our members can do to grow in their relationship with their wives, with their children, with God and with others,” he said. “People leave encouraged that they can do it.”
The church has about 1,100 members in all. Services are also held at the Showcase Cinema in Lawrence and the Apple Tree Cinema in Londonderry.
“We’ve had a great relationship with the school,” Croteau said about Haverhill High. “Principal Beth Kitsos has been very accommodating to us.”
Kitsos says Granite United has been a “good tenant.”
“They have a large following every Sunday,” Kitsos said. “I’m amazed at the number of people who attend.”
Scully said the church pays $350 per Sunday to rent the high school auditorium. He said the high school clears about half that amount after factoring in the cost of heat and electricity. He said the revenue supports the school’s maintenance program and miscellaneous expenses.
Beginning March 2, Sunday services at Haverhill High will be held at 10 and 11:30 a.m., in place of the single service at 11 a.m. that the church has been offering.
“By having an additional service, it allows people the opportunity to attend who might otherwise not have been able to make it,” Croteau said.
Granite United also has a children’s ministry at its campuses.
One of its youth groups meets on Wednesday evenings at the Daly Dogs restaurant on Groveland Street.
“About 25 or children per week attend the Haverhill campus at Daly Dogs,” Croteau said. “The owners have been tremendous to us in letting us use their space.”
“We always get the response that our church is very welcoming, especially to newcomers,” Croteau said. “We make people feel loved when they walk in.”
Sunday services are casual, and members are invited to dress as they please.
Croteau usually wears jeans and a button-down shirt when leading a Sunday service.
“I’m here to love people and not to make them feel like they have to dress up,” he said.
Granite United’s involvement in Haverhill has ranged from presenting a float in last year’s VFW Santa Parade to community outreach to giving to local charities such as the Emmaus House shelter for homeless people.