Whitley Church wants physical footprint as large as its spiritual
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 13, 2011 1:50 AM
Whitley Church executive pastor Jim GilLikin stands next to the cleared footprint for the church's new 1,200 seat sanctuary.
Come Jan. 2, Whitley Church, currently involved in a $3.6 million building project to nearly double its occupancy size, will add another milestone -- a new name.
The "one church with two locations" theme will continue, only now with a shared moniker, The Bridge.
One of the fastest-growing churches in the area, officials there said the expansion was necessitated by capacity crowds at its four services and in its nurseries, children's and youth ministries.
"It was funny, in 2000, our goal was 500 people in attendance," Jim Gillikin, executive pastor, said recently. "As far as members, we're probably over 2,000. We're averaging 1,534 -- 1,239 at Whitley, 295 at The Bridge, in average attendance."
The main campus is located just off U.S. 70 West near Princeton, but Whitley Church has actually been around since 1918. It started out as a "brush arbor church," a barn-like structure, Gillikin said, and has grown to having a paid staff of 20 full- and part-time workers.
What has driven that growth, he suggested, is a pastor, Ferrell Hardison preaching a relevant message.
"It used to be when I was growing up, I went to my church where my parents socialized," Gillikin said. "Now we go to church where our kids can socialize. That's important, given the current climate and peer pressure."
When Hardison arrived in 1990, church attendance was at around 69 people, Gillikin said. As that number grew to 275, they relocated to the current site.
"When we came over here in 1995 or '96, we had the capacity to seat -- back then we had pews -- 650 people max (in the sanctuary)," he said.
Since then, the trend upward has been a steady one, prompting the church's first satellite location -- The Bridge, first on Ash Street until it outgrew that location and three years ago moved into the Delmus Hardware plaza on Berkeley Blvd. At the outset, two services were introduced, Thursday and Saturday evenings.
"Our Thursday night thing was just meant to be a summer thing," Gillikin said of the alternative option. "We were going to stop it and stay with the Saturday night, but we had so many who said it worked for them.
"Then, because we're the original campus, they helped us out and the Saturday night one moved here (in April)."
A second satellite location -- bringing it to "one church with three locations," Pastor Hardison's ultimate vision, is currently being revamped.
The "Smithfield experiment," Gillikin said, encountered challenges with unique zoning regulations, causing church officials to table things for the time being.
"We'll come back with a standalone church," he predicts.
Meanwhile, realizing they "couldn't get any more people in the doors," plans for a new worship center and additional space began two years ago.
"The building project, when we decided we were at 650 (attendance), we went into our campaign, 'Giving Life by Giving Christ,'" Gillikin said. "By going to our new building, we'll be able to seat 1,200 so will almost double our capacity."
And while pleased with the fact that it's a thriving place to be, drawing attendees from as far away as Clayton and Wilson, the executive pastor said the emphasis was never on becoming a "mega-church."
"We try to be relevant. This is one way to deliver it. We believe in social media," he said. "(But) the larger our church grows, the smaller we have got to grow."
To accomplish that, the church leaders stay focused on "life groups" and efforts to "connect" people to the church as well as the community.
"We don't have members here. We have owners," he said. "We want people to own the church. Members have privileges and owners have responsibilities.
"It's a different approach to ministry. We're trying to reach people that nobody else is reaching. We're just doing it different."
Gillikin said the first order of business at Whitley will always be sharing the Word of God. The question is, how to get people to come into the door?
"We want to be a church of healing, restoration, and for those who know nothing of Christ, we want to deliver relevant messages," he said.
In addition to the pastor's sermons, which are often done in series format, featuring practical application models designed to help church "owners" belong, commit, grow and serve, Hardison has redefined the vision for the church, Gillikin said.
"We have created our own culture but we feel like it's a relevant culture," he said. "People can belong before they believe. We're not here to judge. We're here to lead people to Christ and to the gospel message."
Construction for the expansion began in October and occupancy is expected in eight to 10 months. It will feature a new sanctuary, coffee shop, bookstore, family rooms, larger foyer, outdoor courtyard and parking area.
A 36-month pledge campaign included a congregational challenge to raise $1.5 million to fund not only future building projects but missions and benevolence to needy families.