One mega church is figuring out how to branch out after living with worshipers cramped side by side. Seven years ago, Bethel World Outreach Center was bursting at the seams. Sunday services drew 1,200 people to Bethel’s building at Old Hickory Boulevard and Granny White Pike, and there was no more room in the pews.
So the multicultural church made plans to expand. Those plans failed when neighbors objected. That turned out to be good news, said Rice Broocks, Bethel’s pastor. Instead of building a bigger church, Bethel became what’s known as a multi-site congregation. On Sunday mornings, the church’s 3,500 members meet in six locations in Middle Tennessee, from Clarksville to Murfreesboro. Bethel members also have begun meeting in the suburbs of Phoenix and Dallas, trying to re-create what they experienced when attending services in Nashville.
It’s part of a movement among mega churches to expand their reach across state lines. Several Middle Tennessee churches are expanding to locations around Nashville, into Kentucky and beyond. For Bethel, their brand comes down to what he calls the three Ds — diversity, devotion and discipleship. When Brooks became pastor at Bethel in 2000, the congregation was mostly white. Today, about 60 percent of the church is African-American or from other ethnic backgrounds. The Dallas and Phoenix groups were started by people who used to attend Bethel in Nashville. Mike Gowans leads the Phoenix site, which began as an independent congregation known as Gateway Life Church. But leading a church on his own was a struggle, Gowans said.
The setup at Cornerstone Church in Bowling Green, Ky., is more typical. That congregation is a campus of Cornerstone Church in Madison, led by the Rev. Maury Davis.It was started by appealing to members of Cornerstone who lived in Bowling Green and drove to Madison for Sunday services or who watched Davis’ sermons on local television. Cornerstone spent about $400,000 renovating a building for the Bowling Green campus. Davis’ sermons are projected on a big screen on Sunday mornings. On Tuesday nights, Mike Metcalf, a Bowling Green native who formerly attended services in Madison, preaches to the Kentucky congregation.