Church-planting tough, but rewarding for Charleston area pastors

Pastor Josh Surratt, son of Seacoast founder Greg Surratt, leads the message at Seacoast several years ago when the church turned 25. It's now home to several remote campuses with a total of 17,000 members. 

Pastor Seth Walker still recalls the message that plucked at his heartstrings.

“Two biggest enemies of a leader are comfort and security. Who’s missing out on a blessing because they won’t step out,” Walker said, reminiscing on a church conference he attended years ago.

Shortly after, the 23-year-old and his wife, Annelise, found themselves hosting weekly Bible studies in their living room on Charleston’s Eastside. They hope the multi-ethnic group of about a dozen eventually grows into a vibrant church that worships regularly and engages with the community.

There are several people like Walker in the tri-county region willing to step out on faith and undergo the rigorous, yet rewarding process of starting a new church from scratch.

While the Holy City is home to many older, well-established congregations, many of which date back centuries, several start-up church "plants" have also taken root here.

Nationally, more than 4,000 new churches opened up in 2014, according to a Lifeway Research spokesperson who confirmed the group received input from 34 denominational statisticians. 

The Nashville-based research group also found that the Bible Belt is still fertile ground for church planting. Of the 800-plus new churches surveyed by the organization for a 2015 survey, nearly half of them were founded in the South.

Most of these churches start like Walker's: a small group that worships, dines and does community events together, according to Dr. Ryan Gimple who teaches courses on church planting at Charleston Southern University. 

As the group expands, they usually rent a larger space, like a civic center or a public school, which are typically closed on Sundays.

But the process can present challenges.

Pastor Greg Surratt, the founding pastor of Seacoast who has embraced the idea of starting new church campuses, recalled early obstacles when his church began in 1988.

The current 14-campus ministry originally started as a group of 50 people who wanted to engage “un-churched” people in the Charleston region.

After they called 16,000 homes in preparation for their spring 1988 launch date at a local movie theater, plans fell through just weeks before the scheduled service when the company complained about potential wear and tear.

When the group moved worship into a Charleston County school years later, local officials expressed concerns about fire, health and other safety issues and pressed the church about finding a new location within a year.

Surratt, like nearly all church planters, also struggled with attendance.

Today, his congregation boasts more than 17,000 weekly worshipers. But thirty years ago, attendance of 150 members dropped annually for three years.

Attendance woes, coupled with facility and financial barriers, make church planting the most difficult thing someone can do, Surratt said.

“I tried to quit,” Surratt said. “The discouragement is the occupational hazard of being a church planter.”

Seth Walker concurred, adding that people are flaky. As a new pastor, he tries not to take it personally when people don't show up to their small group.

“As it develops into a church, you don’t take it as a personal thing when people don’t come or show up,” Walker said. “When it’s a smaller thing at the time, there’s more of a personal attachment. This is your baby."

But persistence pays off for the pastors. After Surratt found success, he helped form the Association of Related Churches which gives funding to pastors looking to start new churches.

Today, the organization has helped plant 800 churches who have a 95 percent success rate, Surratt said.

Several others have thrived in the Lowcountry: Journey Church, the Church at Cane Bay, Creekside Baptist, Radiant and Freedom to name a few.

Gimple said that the Holy City is rich soil for planting seeds that will hopefully grow into a vibrant congregation.

“I think the population growth is a sign that we need people planting new churches,” he said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.