When it started in 1988, the church drew 65 people.
Today, Seacoast Church is a multicampus nondenominational megachurch based in Mount Pleasant. It has an average service attendance of more than 10,000 and ranks in the top 30 of the nation's largest churches, according to Outreach Magazine, which publishes an annual accounting. Seacoast was No. 75 on Outreach's "fastest growing" list last year.
So what happened in the intervening years?
Seacoast founder and Senior Pastor Greg Surratt, who favors jeans and leather jackets over clerical robes, is part of the answer. Over the years, he has cultivated an informal and accessible approach to worship and Christian fellowship, which he discusses in his book, "Ir-rev-rend: Christianity Without the Pretense, Faith Without the Facade," scheduled to be released Sept. 28 by FaithWords. In anticipation of the event, The Post and Courier asked Surratt a few questions about his book, his style and his church.
Q: Seacoast is a highly successful and very large church with several campuses. As your congregations grow, how do you ensure that spiritual growth keeps up? How do you cater to the individual needs of your members?
A: Jesus was very clear about who was responsible for doing what in his instructions to the disciples. He said that he would build the church and we were to make disciples. If we will do our job, he will do his. Our job at Seacoast is not to grow the church. Our job is to make disciples. Disciple-making is done one-on-one, one-on-two, etc. We take that seriously. We try to make disciples by huddling small groups of leaders who in turn huddle others, helping them to hear the voice of God in their lives.
Q: Judging from the down-to-earth approach you take in your new book, "Ir-rev-rend," perhaps the secret to Seacoast's success is that there is no secret. But then how do you account for the tremendous growth and the popularity of Seacoast's approach?
A: I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that one. It would be better to ask those who attend.
Honestly, it's quite amazing to me. I wrote the book to share the down-to-earth stories of people I've met and their struggles with everyday stuff, things like faith and doubt, love and sex, politics and prayer. Everybody has a story, and honestly, most of our stories are similar at a root level. "How do I come to grips with a God I can't see and learn to love people I'd sometimes rather not see?" A preaching mentor once told me that there were three keys to a great sermon: make them laugh, make them cry and give them Jesus. That's what we've been doing at Seacoast for 23 years, and that is what I try to do with this book. If you read "Ir-rev-rend," I hope you'll laugh a lot, cry a little and get a taste of what it means to follow Jesus. And if you like it, I hope you'll give it to your unchurched friend.
Q: In your book, you talk a lot about mistakes and missteps. Can you summarize the big lessons you've learned so far along your journey?
A: I asked my wife, Debbie, to help me with that one. We both agreed that most of the lessons and growth happen in the "mistakes and missteps" of life. When something doesn't go the way we'd planned, we are forced to return to the source of life, our relationship with God. When things go well, we are slower to acknowledge our need. We have learned that we are not always as smart as we think we are, success depends less on what we do and more on just the unearned favor of God, and that things like failure, discouragement and disappointment are a normal part of doing ministry. I like to say that discouragement is the occupational hazard of leading a church. It's going to happen. You are going to be discouraged from time to time. The important thing to focus on is: What am I going to do about it? Give up? Quit? Or patiently wait for the next season. ... Everything comes to pass.
Q: Though Seacoast was listed by Outreach magazine in 2010 as the 30th largest church in America and the 75th fastest-growing church, it's still a family-run operation. Your sons are ministers, and you remain close to the pastors at other campuses. How do you "keep it real"?
A: I believe, to steal a phrase from Rick Warren (pastor of the mega Saddleback Church in California), that we are a body, not a business. To take it a step further, we are a family (the family of God), not a corporation. It's not about "nickels and noses." In fact, we have decided to no longer send our numbers into various organizations because the hundred or so churches that make the lists are encouraged and tempted toward pride, and the 350,000 who don't make the lists are discouraged and tempted toward envy. Neither one is good.
We do our best to treat those that work with us at Seacoast as family, whether they are physically related or not. Families love each other, care for each other, sometimes rub each other wrong, fight with each other, have members who say embarrassing things from time to time. But in the end, they stick together. Doing life together at deeper than a surface level is messy sometimes. Actually, it's messy most of the time. But long-term relationships are rewarding in a way that short-term, exchangeable relationships can never experience. Most discipleship is lived out in the context of family, so we try to model the church on how a family functions.
Q: Seacoast has a variety of ministries and missions, such as the Dream Center, providing your congregants opportunities to walk the walk. How important is community outreach to the spiritual health of your members?
A: We were created to give and not to hoard. God is a giver, and we were created in his image. We were also created to love. To love our families first, and then those in our faith circles, then those in the communities around us. Someone said, "You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving." God loves this city and he expects us to love it also. Giving back, helping out, sharing what we have is a natural expression of who God created us to be. A Christian who doesn't serve is an anomaly. That's not normal. We believe that God wants each of us to create healthy, sustainable rhythms of service in the church, in the community and in the world.
Q: Twenty years ago, did you imagine you would be in a position to write a book? Did you see yourself as the Christian leader you've become? When you look in the mirror today, what do you see?
A: When I looked in the mirror today, I saw an aging, slightly overweight, balding man who is not nearly as good looking as he was 20 years ago. It still amazes me when I wake in the morning that God would use me and that people would actually listen to what I have to say. To say I didn't see this coming 20 years ago would be an understatement.
I am, however, a hopeless optimist and believe that the best days are the next days. So, if God so wills, I'd like to keep doing this a while longer. While it doesn't beat the alternative (heaven), it is a pretty good gig. (In spiritual language that translates: To live is Christ, to die is gain.)