Experiencing booming attendance, local church plans big expansion

Sean C. Morgan

Harvest Christian Center is planning to expand its church building by nearly 13,000 square feet to accommodate a growing membership and provide room for additional growth.

Pastor Mark Woody and his church, located at 4231 Long St., have a goal of a “tithe” of Sweet Home’s population, 10 percent of about 9,000, or 900, to attend each week.

The church, which is affiliated with the Church of God, International Offices in Cleveland, Tenn., has experienced rapid growth in the past couple of years.

Woody arrived at the church two years ago, he said. At the time, church attendance averaged about 75. Currently, it’s right about 200.

“So we went to two services because we can’t seat 200 people,” Woody said. The church has been able to expand functionally, setting up deacons for administrative work and elders for spiritual leadership.

Harvest Christian has an assistant pastor, worship leaders, outreach, a youth pastor, greeters, he said. It has people in place to meet the needs of everyone.

The church operates the website harvestcog.net and maintains a YouTube channel, which will soon feature a new series called “Let’s Talk,” including answers to questions, like “Why Tongues?” or “When do People Fall Out of the Spirit?” and interviews. Sermons are available online.

“It’s really working well,” Woody said. “It’s been a blessing for us.

“I asked God when I moved here from Tennessee, I told Him, I want a tithe of the city. I want to see 900 people in church here.’”

The guideline for church expansion is about 80 percent of capacity because people don’t like to sit too closely, said Deacon Tim Nichols. Church officials don’t want to build for 200, though. They say they need to build the church to accommodate future growth too.

The planned expansion would create a new sanctuary and lobby, 9,600 square feet, that would provide a capacity of 500, and a mezzanine, 3,200 square feet, as needed later. The existing sanctuary will become a fellowship hall.

Eventually, church officials would like to build a gymnasium – for a three-man city basketball league – and open a daughter church in Lebanon, Woody said.

“Our goal is to build most of it ourselves,” he said. The city is valuing it at $1.63 million for permit purposes.

The church wants to make sure the space is available to the community for emergency uses, Woody said. “We want to reach the city. We want to touch lives.”

Being involved in the community is part of that, and the church pursues those goals in different ways. Among them is a popular back-to-school backpack giveaway and event, and during Halloween, members hand out treat bags with Bibles in them.

“We love God, we love people,” Woody said discussing the church’s recent growth. The church service is “presence-based.”

“We believe the Holy Spirit should guide every service.”

He may plan a service one way, but the Holy Spirit may lead another, ranging from a hard, exhorting type of message to a “kind” encouraging message, Woody said. He estimates the church has seen 50 to 60 people come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. It has witnessed alcoholics and drug addicts set free.

“We are Pentecostal,” Woody said. “We preach hard. We believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We believe in the power of Pentecost. We teach the Word of God. We are a family of faith, forgiving the past and focusing on the present. We consider coming to church here to an experience. We want you to experience God here.”

Nichols has been on the deacon board at the church for a decade. “It’s a giving and a loving church,” he said. “It’s energetic here, and it feels alive. Any new person that walks through this door is going to feel the love and the excitement every Sunday. It’s exciting to see the fire and the growth and the excitement.”

Woody said the real goal isn’t to grow the church – it’s to reach Sweet Home.

“We believe in the community, and we want to see God touch people’s lives here. When you walk through the door, you are as much a part of us as someone who’s been here 20 years.”

It is the anticipation of it that leads them to build.

Woody’s office features rhinoceros figurines for a reason. They inspire him. The white rhino, he said, weighs 3 tons. It can run 30 mph, but it can see only 30 feet. That, he said, is what Christian faith should be like – rushing forward for God in blind faith.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Harvest Christian Center’s application for a conditional use permit for the expansion on May 4.

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Once ‘a heathen,’ pastor became preacher after conversion

Pastor Mark Woody’s story is one of repentance following a life of rebellion and excess.

“I was a heathen for many years,” Woody said. He is now 20 years sober from alcohol and drug addictions.

“I was raised Baptist then became a heathen,” he said. His family remains Baptist, and he chuckled as he explained how, as the black sheep in his family. “I went through some trying times and became homeless.”

One day, in a drunken stupor, he said, he heard from God, who told him He was done with Woody. Woody said he had to get right or he was finished.

“Instantly sober,” he said. “I fell on my knees. I said, ‘I can’t do it without you.’”

God told him that He would walk with him, Woody said. “He told me to give Him everything. The one thing I would not give him was my 2-year-old son.”

After a couple of weeks, he said, he gave up his son to Jesus as well. Woody said he had nothing left that he valued more than God, and at that point everything in his life changed.

He entered the ministry almost immediately. Some 19 years ago, he started sharing the Scriptures through a motorcycle and prison ministry with the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

He met and later married his wife of 19 years, Wendy, and they have had two children since then, 17-year-old Micah, and 13-year-old Rebekah. His son from a previous marriage, Blake, 23, is pursuing an engineering degree in Tennessee.

Woody said God called him to be a pastor in November 2006. In December of that year, his father died. In January, Woody submitted his resume to the Church of God, headquartered in Cleveland, Tenn.

He met with church officials, and 10 minutes later he was told to try out, Woody said. He tried out as a preacher the following Sunday, and three weeks later he was the pastor of a congregation of 17.

Harvest Christian Center, where he has served since Jan. 27, 2013, is Woody’s third church.

“For me there is no other option,” he said. “God is my life. This is what I do.”

– Sean C. Morgan