Last month, when Time magazine published private letters from Mother Theresa confessing her doubts about God and His existence, unlike so many who were bewildered, Seacoast Church senior pastor Greg Surratt understood.
“I think we all have doubts at times, at various levels,” said Surratt. “One of the things I have learned to do is doubt my doubts. A lot of times when you have a thought, it may be a doubting thought, a negative thought, if you continue to think it or affirm it, it becomes a part of history. This must be truth. So I challenge myself to doubt the doubts, doubt the negative thoughts.”
When Surratt steps outside his faith he also understands the affect the letters’ could have on the un-churched, those without faith – and some believers, too. The letters could psych someone right out of their faith.
“It can rattle your faith,” he said. “There are some people who have their faith in people like Mother Theresa or a leader in faith and when they hear a leader [have doubts] they say, ‘that’s terrible.’ No, that’s human. For me, personally, it takes less faith for me to believe there is a God and who He is, than it does for me not to believe.”
Surratt, 51, was raised in a Christian home and he solidified his faith on the spiritual writings of Josh McDowell and C.S. Lewis. But early on he built his faith on “the one event in history that was the solidifying fact that there was a God.”
That event: The Resurrection, the very heart of Christianity.
“Jesus rose from the dead, and if He did, then He’s God,” he said. “Eleven of the 12 guys that were with him, all but one of them died martyrs deaths. Very few people are willing to die for the truth. That’s the basis of my faith, so when I begin to doubt, I doubt my doubts and go back and re-examine my basis for my faith.”
Surratt recently confronted incertitude himself, doubts that stand symbolically at Seacoast in the form of two ten-foot wooden prayer crosses balancing each end of the platform of Seacoast Church. To Surratt the crosses are God-inspired and a daily reminder of his personal life verse, Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
“I reached a congruence of a lot of things in my life, turning 50 and all that entails, the regular wear-and-tear and wondering if my time of effectiveness done,” said Surratt. “And, then wondering is that even a good thought to have?
“It led me to a time of ‘in the fog,’ [a time] of chaos and confusion. Feeling like you’re in the fog and going back to the Scriptures [and telling yourself], OK, keep doing good, keep doing good, keep doing good, with the temptation being – bail.”
Those feelings set Surratt on a on a six-month journey in search of renewal, one that had the pastor flirting with the idea of, in his words, “packing it in.” But the journey eventually led him on a mission to Scotland where he had a life-altering experience that changed him and, later, many of the lives of those attending Seacoast.
In the early morning hours on a bitter cold, rainy and windy Winter day Surratt boarded a ferry for the Island of Iona, a short aquatic shuttle off the shores of Scotland, a place George MacLeod, a minister and founder of the community, once described as a “thin place – only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual.”
On the island he visited one of Scotland’s most historic sites, The Abbey. This revered monastery is the burial place of early Scottish kings. The setting was inspiring as Surratt watched a scenario unfold before him.
“I saw a lady sitting in this little room and there was a cross made of sticks. Pinned to it were little pieces of paper and she was crying,” he said. “Just she and I were in there. She didn’t even know I was there. I felt God was in this place — this dark, desolate place. It felt desolate, how I was feeling in this fog. I thought … God is here.”
Surratt sat and prayed. When she left he walked to the room where the woman was sitting and read the prayer requests she had pinned to the cross. He wept.
In May 2006 Surratt was back at Seacoast leading a worship service but his purpose still felt unclear. “In seasons, you always plant before you harvest,” he said. “In between there’s always a gap. The gap time was challenging. It was a tough time to keep getting up, doing my job, doing the same thing. I’m just going to be obedient and faithful.”
Moments later, his steadfast faith paid off.
The gap was bridged.
Surratt recalls “sitting in the sound booth after the message and I felt God speak to me. He said, ‘you’ve been on a pursuit of me and it’s not just for you but for this church. My purpose for you hasn’t ended. If you will allow the people to respond to me, then they’ll experience my presence like you have.”
On Sunday, June 17, 2006 – Father’s Day – Surratt shared his journey. “I said we’re going to change how we worship here,” he said. “I said we’re going to let you respond and God said if I will, people will connect with Him.”
The crosses are now a signature part of the Seacoast experience.
At the close of the weekly message, Surratt pauses briefly and sends an invitation to respond. Moments later the Seacoast worship team begins to sing, some heads bow in prayer, others take communion or light a candle, while others line up and scribble notes, some a single word, and pin them to a cross.
By 12:30pm, on any given Sunday at Seacoast, the cross is pin-punched with prayer requests — a snapshot captured right off the Isle of Iona.
Seacoast Church is on the cusp of celebrating 20 years of serving the Lowcountry. Attendance is at an all-time high. In a weekend it’s estimated 8,000-10,000 people will worship in a Seacoast venue that, as of the last weekend in September, includes 10 campuses across South and North Carolina and Georgia. But it hasn’t always been this successful, this well received, this consistent.
In February 1988 the original Seacoast 12 organized a meeting at East Ridge apartment complex and posed the question: “If there weren’t any rules in how we do church, what would we like to be?,” said Surratt. “We decided we would be a church for un-churched people. We tried to figure out how we could reach out to un-churched people and have them become fully devoted followers of Christ. We figured out we could do both.”
By April, Seacoast was ready – or so they thought. The first service was held in the former Carmike Cinema 3 (which now stands as a car dealership) on Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. The results were promising. An estimated 350 attended the first weekend according to Surratt. “There was a nursery in one, children in the other and adults in the third one,” remembers Surratt. “Our biggest nightmare was keeping the gummy bears out of the kids mouths, they found on the floor. It was awful.”
It took Seacoast five years before they resurrected the success of that opening weekend said Surratt. As a matter of fact, attendance dropped to 150 and hovered around that modest total for five years.
“We went through a process of figuring out who we are and being faithful in the little things,” Surratt explained. Seacoast had a clear mission but struggled to find a comfortable niche, a unique voice. The church went through a trial-and-error stage in the early years, creating some inconsistency.
In the early years Seacoast was influenced by Willow Creek Baptist Church in Chicago, a nationally recognized, cutting edge, contemporary church. “The pastor at Willow Creek is Bill Hybels. He’s very gifted, talented,” says Surratt. “He said there’s a lot of Willow Creek clones up a creek without a Hybels (laughing). We were probably one of those.”
In 1993, after moving from the movie theatre and James B. Edwards Elementary School, Seacoast finally settled in at their current home on Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant. That’s about the same time all the hard work began paying off.
GROWING UP — AND OUT
Attendance took off, creating new, more creative problems for the church. By 2001, Seacoast had simply outgrown their facility. But hope was in the offing. Church leaders had a plan in place to expand but pressure from city and traffic zoning laws, the expansion fell through.
“Confusion and chaos, that’s the story of my life,” said Surratt. “The only thing I’ve done really well is not quit. To be honest with you, if you asked me what I’ve done well the only thing I’ve done well is not quit.”
The decision temporarily stunted the churchs growth and momentum. The city’s decision to deny the site expansion forced Seacoast to start thinking creatively. “I heard that Willow Creek was going to do some experiments with an off-site campus,” Surratt recalls. “Then I heard about a church in Rockford, Illinois that didn’t even have a senior pastor, they just had videos.”
On a Saturday afternoon Surratt and Byron Davis, the former CEO of Fisher-Price now a volunteer member of the Seacoast marketing team, boarded a flight to San Diego to get the first hand experience of church by video. “Really, it wasn’t very good but there were 500 people there and they were enjoying it,” he said.
After the service, Surratt and Davis were on a red eye flight to Chicago. “We rented a car, drove over to Rockford, changed clothes in their bathroom and went to the video service,” remembers Surratt. “I actually felt good, that was actually a good experience.” After driving to Wheaton, Illinois where Willow Creek had “just started a campus and they had everything on video … they had 300-400 people there. So we flew home and said let’s try this, I think we can do this.”
By Monday, Surratt was back in Charleston and announced to the staff, Seacoast would test market a video campus, an idea that went over like a lead balloon.
“That’s about the most stupid idea I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” said Geoff Surratt, Greg’s brother and teaching pastor at Seacoast. “I don’t like watching television preachers for one and two, why would I want to be in a room full of people watching you?”
Greg’s response: “I told him, you know you’re probably right. So you’re in charge, figure it out and make it work (laughing).”
Seacoast went on to launch their first video campus, The Annex, a modest, corner building located less than a mile from the church’s home site on Long Point Road in January 2002 and Geoff Surratt has since co-written a book titled The Multi-Site Church Revolution: Being One Church … In Many Locations.
A TRUE CHALLENGE
The idea of video campus churches was considered a novelty just five years ago. Now there are literally thousands of video campuses across the country. The idea has exploded and churches of all denominations have adopted the concept, with Seacoast among the first, now with 10 video campuses.
The challenge reached new heights in the Fall of 2006 when Seacoast starting discussing where to plant its next campus. The topic quickly evolved into a conversation about North Charleston, one of the most dangerous cities in South Carolina – and the country.
No one on the Seacoast staff was more familiar with what is happening in North Charleston than pastor Sam Lesky.
“I grew up in a working class neighborhood, I know the dynamics, I’ve been involved with drugs, the alcohol, dealing drugs, all that stuff,” said Lesky, a Camden, New Jersey transplant. “I know where I went wrong. I went wrong in middle school, when mom and dad were at work and there’s a lot of trouble on the streets.
“I get more excited if a guy comes to me, whose life is messed up and is looking for a way out. That’s who I want to share Christ with, that’s who I want to pour into.”
Seacoast knew if they were going to North Charleston they would need to be educated by the best. So, before he had a chance to say no, Surratt put Lesky and a team from Seacoast on a plane headed for Los Angeles to visit the Dream Center, a volunteer-driven, non-profit Christian-based outreach program that reaches over 40,000 inner city residents each month.
“When we got there we were blown away,” said Lesky. “The Dream Center is in West Hollywood off Sunset Boulevard in a bad neighborhood. We did adopt-a-block when we were there [Los Angeles] and I just happened to be on a team that was on the Watts projects.”
Lesky boarded a bus with the Dream Center staff and headed into one of the most notorious areas for violent crime in Los Angeles. At 11 a.m. Lesky was part of the team that climbed off the Dream Center bus to lines of homeless people, waiting with bags open for food.
“We went and knocked on doors and asked people, how can we serve?” said Lesky. There is an unspoken rule in Watts, you don’t go knocking on doors without knowing who’s on the other side. “Driving in on that bus was bad enough … and the bus just drops you,” said Lesky. “You could see gang members, but they don’t mess with you because they know you’re there to help.”
Following a six-week, $150,000 renovation blitz that included hundreds of volunteers, Seacoast opened their North Charleston campus on Sunday, September 9 with 589 people in attendance over two services. The campus is located on Remount Road in partnership with New Life Assembly Church and features a 14-piece worship team and a true multi-cultural experience.
Adopt-a-Block launches in North Charleston on October 6. The concept is simple: a volunteer group adopts a block and serves the block exclusively, building relationships by investing in the people living on the block.
“This takes Seacoast into a new territory and makes us servants and missionaries,” said Lesky.
KEEPING THE MOVEMENT ALIVE
No Lowcountry community needs the help more than North Charleston, ranked among the Top 20 most dangerous cities in America (see North Charleston police chief Jon Zumalt). For Seacoast to drop anchor it would take vision, courage and understanding.
Surratt and Lesky are re-energized by the new campus.
“I’ve done a lot of reading about what it takes for people to stay passionate about what they do,” said Surratt. “In the secular realm they talk about reinventing, that you have to reinvent your business or reinvent yourself. In the spiritual realm it’s [being] reinvigorated by the Holy Spirit. I think starting new campuses takes us back to our original core.”
It’s First Wednesday, Seacoast’s monthly praise and worship service. After 30 minutes of high-energy worship music Surratt walks up the platform and sits center stage on a stool and explains the evolution of a church’s life. There are three seasons, he explains: a movement, an institution and finally a museum, a fate no church hopes for.
“Everything begins as a movement,” said Surratt. “Then there are some things you almost have to institutionalize, you get systems, things that you do regularly … I just don’t want to go there.”
Surratt seems to favor the unfiltered, unpredictable, improvisational, grass roots style of “doing church.” It breeds passion and leads to growth.
“I would love for us always to be about cause which I think is what defines a movement and is distinctive about a movement as opposed to an institution, it’s cause-driven. I want Seacoast, as long as I have boots on the floor to be cause-driven, about helping people become fully devoted to God.”