By AMANDA GREENE
Religion News Wilmington
People who live in Leland will tell you that crossing over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to go to church in Wilmington can seem like a hurdle.
“It’s a natural barrier,” said Pastor Jeff Winchester of the bridge. For many years, though, he has crossed the bridge to attend and now minister with Port City Community Church. “We wanted to go to the church we love in the community we love.”
When the leadership at Wilmington megachurch Port City Community Church started noticing a growing group of young families coming from Leland, the church decided to meet the people where they live.
Wilmington’s first Protestant megachurch held its first services in Brunswick County at Belville Elementary School at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 8.
A praise band bathed in green and pink lights rocked the makeshift stage, singing: “My heart and my soul, I give you control. Consume me from the inside out,” as the new audience of Port City Community Church Leland swayed and sang along. Some in the audience were new to the church, while others lived in Leland and used to travel 20 minutes to reach the Wilmington location each week.
Plans for the Brunswick site have been in the works for about a year, adding to an increasing evangelical landscape in the growing county.
Because the home church is located in New Hanover County, “there is a perception that we’re new and we’re coming in to take over,” Winchester added, “but our goal is not to reach someone already sitting in another church’s pews.” He said PC3 aims to change that perception by networking with ministries in the Leland area.
PC3’s direction is common among many growing megachurches today. Nearly half of the 1,480 megachurches in the United States report having two or more locations, according to “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States” from Hartford Seminary sociology professor Scott Thumma and Leadership Network research director Warren Bird.
By Thumma’s and Bird’s count, North Carolina has about 50 megachurches. Though most of North Carolina’s megachurches affiliate with either the Baptist or Southern Baptist denominations, Wilmington’s megachurch is one of the few nondenominational ones.
It’s Port City’s second experience with a multi-site structure. Until 2008, when the church moved into its 90,000-square-foot building off Cardinal Drive, its growing thousands of members met in Roland-Grise Middle School’s auditorium, in a former night club and at the Mayfaire Cinema 16 – hence the nickname PC3. But since 2008, the church took a break from all of that loading and unloading of risers, chairs, signs and traffic cones.
Port City Leland marked the first chapter in its growth Sunday with a surprise. Pastor Mike Ashcraft delivered his sermon to the 350 people in the first audience of Port City Community Church Leland in person instead of speaking to them in a live simulcast projected on white screens in the school’s gymnasium. (That’s the way the church will hear his messages in the future broadcast from services in Wilmington.)
Ashcraft said preaching to a much smaller crowd than the approximately 5,200 people who attend Sunday services at the home church brought back fond memories of the the megachurch’s middle school beginnings 12 years ago.
PC3 in Leland was about building a “safe place for you to process the most dangerous thing you will ever hear,” Ashcraft said of the Christian message. “What you need is a place to process what it is that you believe about the most important things in this life.”
Starting a Leland branch of the church wasn’t about making space at the Wilmington church, Winchester said.
“We do see us as one church body. They’re not sending us and getting rid of us,” he added. “This is not a church plant.”
Though Ashcraft will deliver the Sunday messages, Winchester is responsible for all other aspects of pastoral care and directing the staff and dozens of volunteers at the fledgling site.
Volunteers arrived at Belville Elementary School at 6 a.m. Sunday morning to load in for the day’s services. Volunteer coordinator Sarah Beakes loves the early morning logistics.
“It provides a different sense of family,” she said. “Together, literally, you have to build that church.”
Part of doing church in a school is gently transforming the space for the three different Sunday schools the church offers and then undoing the transformation so classes can resume on Monday. In Grow Zone for babies and toddlers, classes were separated by primary-colored divider walls. In Ripple Effect for middle school students, plug-in white paper lanterns hung from the ceiling leading the way to hang-out areas and corn-hole games. And elementary school-aged kids in Treasure Island had a small stage and a padded seating area where they could sing the day’s praise songs.
Wilmington resident Kelly Cain Smith came to support the new church and felt at ease leaving her four-month-old son in Grow Zone during the service.
“No detail is left unturned,” she said of the sticker security system at the doors of each Sunday school class. “It’s amazing how they change a space. You wouldn’t know it’s a school.”
Amanda Greene: Amanda.Greene@ReligionNews.com or ReligionNewsWilmington.wordpress.com