Charleston's own megachurch matures to serve community and the world
If you've been around Charleston long enough, you remember when Seacoast Church was the new hipster church in town, a place where people worshipped in T-shirts and jeans, shunned the hymnals and rocked out to Jesus.
Surely it was a fad. Or a cult.
Fast forward. Seacoast is turning 25 years old and has matured into a statewide worship network 10,000 people strong whose founding pastor is a grandpa 13 times over and an influential church leader on the national stage.
Once dubbed the city's "rock and roll church," Seacoast remains a place where jeans are expected, pastors use iPads on stage and worshipping with a Starbucks in hand is the norm.
But after 25 years, Seacoast pastors wrestle with a new dilemma: How do they welcome the unchurched while helping longtime members dig more deeply into their faith? For starters, they focus outward.
"It's not about you and me. It's about Jesus and seeking and saving those who are lost," founding pastor Greg Surratt says.
They work to save through a message of hope. Hope of salvation, yes. But also a regular Joe's hope of escaping life's darkest corners where things like addictions and abuse, divorce and joblessness derail lives.
Then and now, Seacoast hasn't sought the righteous to fill its auditoriums and fold-out chairs. Surratt figures that's why God chose a guy like him to lead the journey.
So maybe it's not a purebred pastoral pedigree.
When he was a boy, Surratt's grandmother gave him a book featuring Mary Surratt, convicted as co-conspirator in President Lincoln's assassination and the first woman hung by the U.S. government.
"These are your people," she said.
His grandfather was an ornery bootlegger who found God while drunk and went on to launch a multigenerational love of the Lord. Surratt's father became a traveling evangelist and missionary.
At first, Surratt didn't plan to follow their footsteps.
He wanted to be a rock star. Which, in a sense, he has become. Just not for his musical talents, although it's perhaps great irony that Seacoast is known for its musicians.
Even after realizing God was calling him, Surratt was fired from his first three jobs in ministry. A slog of frustrations led him to North Charleston.
While most folks associate Seacoast with the Surratts, Charleston's megachurch was birthed, in fact, by Fred Richard, senior pastor of Northwood Church where Surratt and his wife, Debbie, worked.
From its launch in 1998, Seacoast intended to be different. For one, it was formed through a marketing campaign.
Founding members called 16,000 local residents at dinner time to survey why they didn't go to church. (Too boring, dull music, not applicable to me.)
The result: Seacoast would target the unchurched, those not drawn to sermons or hymns or denominational liturgy.
It would serve the lost, the struggling. It would reach out to single people, men and those mired in addictions and loss and who for whatever reasons had forsaken Charleston's many existing churches.
A common Seacoast theme, then and now: Christ called everyone to serve the community.
"The longer a church exists, the more it tends to exist for itself," he says.
If Jesus emphasized feeding the hungry and uplifting the poor, why shouldn't Seacoast?
"If we were to disappear tomorrow, would anybody care?" asks Surratt's son, Josh Surratt, the church's weekend experience pastor. "We don't want to be takers. We want to be givers. That's the way Jesus did it."
In the beginning
Here's a common misconception: Seacoast was planted and then grew like God's beanstalk.
In the beginning
The reality: Seacoast shrunk for its first three years.
Surratt often wondered if God picked the wrong guy.
Then came the growth.
Seacoast bought 14 acres in Mount Pleasant to build its first worship center. In 1991, Surratt held a groundbreaking with 200 people. People sat in portable chairs on empty dirt.
"When we are long gone, there will be tens of thousands of people who will come to this piece of ground, and God's gonna change their lives because people like you had a vision!" he said.
Nine years later, Seacoast held five weekly services for 3,000 worshipers. So, Seacoast asked the town of Mount Pleasant to approve plans to expand.
The town said no.
"Frustrated" might be the godliest way to describe Surratt's reaction back then.
"While I thought it was a terrible thing, God used it," Surratt says.
Seacoast's leaders were forced to look beyond the Mount Pleasant campus for space.
First, they opened an annex in a neighboring shopping center. Then, they opened a satellite campus in Columbia.
They launched a West Ashley campus (with 1,300 members today) and Summerville campus (with 1,500 members today). And so on.
This new multisite model was simple, and pretty cheap. Find space, hire a pastor, add live musicians and video stream the same live sermon to all campuses, usually Surratt's message from Mount Pleasant.
Today, Seacoast has 12 campuses across the state and into North Carolina. Two new campuses, one in McClellanville and one on Johns Island, are coming next year.
What started from defeat has become a model used by roughly 4,000 other churches today.
Surratt still recalls reading a news story about North Charleston being one of the most violent cities in America. He took it to his staff.
Sam Lesky stepped forward: "I grew up in a community like that," he said.
Back then, Lesky was Mount Pleasant campus pastor. Hailing from a rough area of Camden, N.J., he knew what it meant to struggle with economic and other hardships.
They went to the mayor, police chief and churches in North Charleston. How could Seacoast help?
"Rather than come and go, let's have a presence there," Surratt said.
They partnered with a small church on Remount Road and named Lesky to lead the new Dream Center in 2007.
First, Seacoasters knocked on strangers' doors in some of the city's roughest areas. They called it Adopt A Block.
"It was awkward, that's all I can say," Lesky recalls.
They returned the first Saturday of each month. By the third month, neighbors knew them.
And as they talked, the volunteers learned what residents struggle with most.
And so they started a Dream Center clothes closet offering clothes to women going on job interviews. Then they added men. One day, a mother stood in line with her baby wrapped in a blanket. Beneath the blanket, the baby had no clothes.
The children's closet came next. Then a food pantry. Then medical care. Then youth programs, including everything from mentoring and homework help to dinners and basketball.
Today, the Dream Center partners with the Lowcountry Food Bank, major grocery chains in town and Great Harvest Bread to distribute 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food a week.
And in an area where fewer than half of high schoolers graduate, about 86 percent of those mentored here do so.
"I've never seen God at work like he works here," Lesky says.
On a recent day, a long line of people - young, old, black, white, Hispanic - waited outside during a chilly sunrise until the center opened at 9 a.m.
Kimberly Schulz was among them. She gathered seven grocery bags full of fresh bread, apples, cereal and other goods.
She recently took in her grandchildren, ages 3, 5, and 7. Her husband is 80, and they struggle to feed everyone on their fixed incomes.
"This place is a godsend," she says. "It's been rough."
Six years later, 75 monthly Adopt A Block volunteers still traverse 16 blocks. They help with home repairs and landscaping. If kids on a street like to play soccer, they play soccer. If an elderly resident needs someone to talk to, someone listens. They invite residents to Dream Center youth programs and its bustling, multiracial worship services.
"We wanted to build relationships in this area," Lesky says. "We don't want this to be just a give it and go."
The church recently bought a house behind the Dream Center hoping to add transitional housing for women and kids. "I think of the life transformations at the Dream Center. I don't think of food or clothes. I think of people really transformed," Lesky says.
Like Michael William Pfieffer, who had lost hope many times. Living under a bridge, his life had become a series of assaults, arrests and hunger.
Then, he noticed a lump in his neck the size of his thumb. It grew to the size of his fist.
He went to the Dream Center's medical clinic. A doctor dispatched Pfieffer straight to MUSC where he underwent surgery to remove the cancerous mass, then 30 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation.
"Many times I said, 'I'm done. I'm going back to the woods to die,'" he recalls. "But my mommy had a hand on one shoulder. God had a hand on the other."
Today, 53 and cancer free, he worships at the Dream Center and volunteers almost daily, handing out bread and a smile to others sapped of hope.
Word about the Dream Center's success excited Seacoast's leadership.
"We were awakened to the idea that we could do so much more in the community," Josh Surratt says.
And not just locally.
After the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, Seacoast began a long partnership with Water Missions International and others.
That work led them to focus on five pillars: clean water, medical care, education, spirituality and economics.
Today, Seacoast launches about 40 mission trips a year, led by Jason Surratt, mostly to boost medical care. Through Palmetto Medical Initiative, the church played a key role in building a large medical clinic in Uganda and is about to open one in Nicaragua, built and sustained by native workers.
"We wanted to have this epidemic of hope where there is hopelessness," Greg Surratt says.
The next 25
A new Dream Center is rooting in West Ashley's Ardmore community. Two Seacoast campuses will open in 2014.
The next 25
And last weekend, the church launched a two-year fundraising campaign. It will expand its packed Longpoint Road campus or open a new one in north Mount Pleasant. Or both. "Where is the need, and what does God say about it?" Greg Surratt asks.
That will become clear by how much people give. Seacoast won't go into debt to expand.
What's in store over the longer haul - say, 25 years?
Few churches in town are so tied to the persona of their earthly creator. At 57, Surratt doesn't plan to go anywhere any time soon, but he is giving more stage time to Seacoast's younger pastors.
"I don't want to be a church that lives and dies with the founding pastor," he says. "Things are always changing, changing, changing."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.