As 'unchurched' numbers grow, three pastors start new churches in Chattanooga

photo Pastor Tavner Smith, right, raises his arm in worship during a pre-launch service at The Venue Church.
photo Jennifer Shockley looks at Emeri Smith's Bible activity sheet at The Venue Church. Emeri, 3, is Pastor Tavner Smith's daughter.

Tavner Smith says Chattanooga may be the most-churched city in the country, but he's still planting a new congregation right here.

The city is a transportation hub, he says, but he believes God has called him to help make it a spiritual hub as well.

In an era where statistics say the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing rapidly, Smith is one of at least three people who are starting churches in the Scenic City this summer.

One-fifth of the United States population and one-third of adults under 30 are unaffiliated religiously, according to Pew Research Center. Indeed, in the last five years, the number of unaffiliateds has grown from 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all adults.

However, three local pastors - Smith, lead pastor for The Venue Church, Daniel Hicks, lead pastor of Scenic City Church, and James Reynolds, pastor of Highland Park Community Baptist Church - are undaunted.

"Church planting is one of the most effective [ways of] reaching people with the gospel," says Hicks, 34, whose nondenominational congregation is affiliated with a church-planting network from Crossroads Church in Newnan, Ga. "The only way you grow and sustain is being missionally focused. Otherwise, we just die off."

Church planting, essentially, is the process that establishes a new Christian church, one that functions without the underpinning of a parent church or a planting network.

"I'm drawn to a new start," Hicks says. "It reminds me about purpose and mission and life. We have to walk in our purpose, not one that's old, redundant and boring, but one that's exciting, exhilarating and a lot of fun."

Reynolds, 71, also is pastor of Volusia County Baptist Church in Florida and says the growing number of unaffiliated residents is exactly the reason to start a new church. And he thinks the right niche is an independent Baptist church in the Highland Park area, something that Highland Park Baptist Church represented for about 50 years before first reaffiliating with the Southern Baptist Convention, then relocating to the Harrison Bay community as Church of the Highlands.

People are still seeking an "exciting, traditional church," he says. "We've found that here in Florida]."

Volusia County Baptist, which Reynolds started in 1996, has a membership of 750 to 800 in east-central Florida.

Smith, 32, whose congregation is nondenominational but affiliated with the church-planting Association of Related Churches of Birmingham, Ala., moved to Chattanooga with eight other families from Greenville, S.C., to start his church. He says God gave him a vision of a church in which people are living for their God-intended purpose instead of a stodgy theology. The focus, he says, is on Jesus and assisting people to live their fullest lives.


Smith grew up as a part-time resident of Chattanooga, coming here one weekend a month and staying summers with his divorced father. Shortly after he married in 2003, Smith returned to the city and worked in construction for a year with his father.

Later, healed after years-long depression and a suicide try that ended only when his wife returned unexpectedly to their home, he became youth pastor at Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, a megachurch where he shepherded 3,500 to 4,000 students. The youth ministry, according to Smith, trained him for stepping out into new areas of service and, through prayers, he believes God was telling him that, "Your heritage is here for a reason."

Hicks says he and his wife fell in love with Chattanooga through taking short trips here when they were at Shorter College in Rome, Ga.

"I proposed to my wife in Coolidge Park," he says. "We have great memories here. We have three small kids, and they loved to play in the city all day. We just felt drawn to [it], and we were looking for an open door to get here."

Although Hicks is aware that the city is full of churches, he believes God blessed the decision to start Scenic City Church.

"There is a need here," he says. "There are a lot of churches here, but they're not full," and there are many "not associated with a church." His new congregation, he says, will help "people find a place where they belong."

Reynolds came to Chattanooga to attend then-Tennessee Temple College in 1959. More than 30 years later, he joined the staff of Highland Park Baptist Church and still later the faculty of Tennessee Temple University. He left to start the Florida church in 1996.

"Though there are many good churches in the Highland Park area," he says,"there is not that kind of church (independent Baptist) left there. Many people are familiar with that kind in the community. So it meets a need."


Smith says small groups will be a hallmark of The Venue Church and a way for people to plug in and avoid loneliness and depression, something he deeply understands. By 2020, he says, depression is expected to be the world's second-leading cause of death.

"It gets us feeling isolated, different, weird, feeling that we don't fit in," Smith says. "I preach that we're all weird - that everybody's got a struggle somewhere. I want to break down that [depression] belief system, get people involved with life (small) groups. I want to build a sense of community and camaraderie that can benefit your life."

Hicks says the "heartbeat of Jesus" - "to love and serve people well" - will guide his church.

"We want to have the same style, to be the hands and feet of Christ," he says. In order to love and serve, he says, members will use their time, talent and resources. "That's what draws people to Christ, to the church," he says.

Reynolds says he doesn't like to "speak in comparative terms" about churches but says his independent Baptist church "incorporates all demographics."

Smith says that, instead of loudly communicating the start-up of a new church to the public, new arrivals to his church went to Hamilton Place mall with a stack of business cards to try to strike up random conversations with shoppers. For several months, they met at an apartment clubhouse to discuss what would become the core values of the church. That group, in turn, invited friends for the pre-launch services at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The interested group grew to about 100 in a month and a half, he says.

On Sept. 15, the congregation will hold its first service in its new, five-suite, 10,000-square-foot location in the Shallowford Road Business Park at the corner of Shallowford Road and Highway 153, next door to the Lunchbox Deli. Late last month, it held a golf tournament in which it raised $5,000 to support its mission and church launch as well as the creation of its Change for Chattanooga Initiative, in which the church and its members will create partnerships to offer needy people "a way back into life" instead of a handout.

The initiative, in theory, would offer housing assistance to people - who have not had such an opportunity - to enter school and maintain reasonable grades. If they finish school, they would be given partnered assistance in finding a job and transportation. It's the concept of teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish, Smith says.

Hicks and his family moved to Chattanooga in January to lay groundwork for Scenic City Church. He says he'll be paid as a staff member of the Crossroads Church in Newnan for three years, though the amount will decrease its year.

"[Crossroads senior pastor Ken Adams] is adamant about the Great Commission - that you can't just stay [in place], that you have to give it away, to invest in people," he says. "They've empowered me to do the same. That's part of the plan to reach the whole world."

The Scenic City congregation, which also received start-up capital from Crossroads has been holding monthly services at the Downtown YMCA and will begin weekly services there on Sept. 8.

"We love to meet people, to help them connect to their place," he says.

The Sept. 8 date, according to Hicks, will be akin to a grand opening. "We'll be revving things up," he says.

Highland Park Community Baptist Church has been meeting in the Highland Park Park Neighborhood Community Center, which it rents from the neighborhood, since June. Reynolds says a number of his friends involved in Chattanooga ministries attended the first Sunday, but "about 20 to 25 folks" have been "solid people" for the congregation since its start-up.

The church meets on Sunday at 10 a.m and 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. On most Sundays, the service is live-streamed from Volusia County Baptist to Chattanooga. On Sundays when Reynolds is in Chattanooga, it's live-streamed from Chattanooga to Volusia County.

Reynolds says he tries to be in Chattanooga at least one weekend a month. With Allegiant Airlines flying into Chattanooga from Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida, close to his home, "that makes it doable," he says.


While Reynolds jokes that Highland Park Community Church is looking for "warm bodies," and Hicks says Scenic City Church "is open for everyone," all three men know there is a growing population unfamiliar with church or who have become detached from a church.

"A lot of people have been hurt in church, have been done wrong," Hicks says. "They're looking for something a little more genuine. [But] there is not a perfect church."

He admits not everyone follows the example of Christ.

"I wish all believers and followers loved and served others well," Hicks says. "John 13 says you'll be known by the way you love each other. [Some have become] cynical and grown cold because of the way Christians and churches have treated them."

Indeed, Smith says, some churches unintentionally have made people feel isolated and disqualified. They made it "more about what you do rather than what Jesus did," he says. "But beating ourselves up doesn't teach anything. We teach grace and a God of second, third, fourth and sixth chances."

Hicks says many people his age or younger have never been in church or have given "God the cold shoulder or stiff arm."

"That's the kind of demographic we attract," he says, "and their are tons and tons of college students around the way. My life changed when I was in college, so I'm somewhat indebted to college ministries. We have a great opportunity before us."

Contact Clint Cooper at or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at

Upcoming Events