We do whatever we have to do to reach people for Jesus. We don't wait until Sunday and hope they show up. We do things to get them to church.
At the Venue Church, there is a stage instead of a pulpit, an auditorium instead of wooden pews, a band instead of a choir.
"The crowd is so large that we sometimes have to usher people out the back door," said Tavner Smith, who pastors the megachurch based on Shallowford Road, which has an average Sunday attendance of 2,000 people who get together in eight services in two locations.
But the church didn't start out that way.
In 2012, Smith moved to Chattanooga from Greenville, S.C., because he felt God was calling him to start a church in the city he spent time in as a child. At first, the congregation was eight families that met in his apartment living room, but in just a few years the numbers exploded.
Venue Church services
Where: 5959 Shallowford Road #225
When: Sundays, 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Services at the Ringgold campus are at 2501 Pine Grove Road and 2-A at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
The top 10 fastest-growing churches in America include:
1. Crossroads, Cincinnati, Ohio
2. Northview Church, Carmel, Ind.
3. The Church of Eleven22, Jacksonville, Fla.
4. The Village Church, Flower Mound, Texas
5. Calvary Fellowship, Miramar, Fla.
6. Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, Ala.
7. Venue Church, Chattanooga
8. Next Level Church, Somersworth, N.H.
9. Family Church, West Palm Beach, Fla.
10. Embrace Church, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Source: Outreach 100, the Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research Annual Report
Interest in the local independent church, which has no connections to national denominations, has grown to such an extent that it is now among the fastest-growing churches in the country, according to Outreach Magazine and Lifeway Research Annual Report.
"We've blown up so fast," said worship minister Grayson Parker, who helped launch Venue with Smith. "God is really blowing our minds."
With thousands in attendance on a given Sunday, the Venue Church is not the only local church with a large draw.
There are more than a dozen megachurches in the Chattanooga area, said the Rev. Ronnie Phillips Jr., co-pastor of Abba's House, a megachurch in Hixson.
And Tennessee has more megachurches per capita than any other state in the country, according to data compiled by Scott Thumma, a researcher with the Hartford Institute for Religious Studies.
The institute describes a megachurch as one having attendance of at least 1,500 to 2,000 a week.
While church attendance has dropped nationally and the younger generations are less likely to cite affiliation with a specific denomination or set of churches, Gallup polling as recently as December 2014 showed 42 percent of Chattanoogans attended church weekly.
It's those who are staying away from church that Smith wants.
Smith wears jeans when he preaches and frosts his hair.
The music doesn't include organs or hymnals. Instead, there are loudspeakers and drums, and people are encouraged to worship at will.
Smith said the church also focuses on offering a message that is inviting to those who aren't familiar with church or might consider Christians judgmental. Sermons don't focus on behavior, and the building is called a "judgment-free zone."
Still, members say they stay true to the Bible's message and don't sugarcoat what it says. Smith said he believes if people focus on God's love for them, God will change their hearts and then their behavior will change in a way that allows them to live the fullest lives, which is the stated vision of the church.
Not long ago, Smith was selling that vision by passing out business cards for his church for six to eight hours a day at Hamilton Place mall.
"We actually did it so much that the mall put us on trespass notice for a whole year," he said.
That type of marketing is still a strategy the church employs.
"You have to invade the world where God puts you," Smith said.
And invade they do.
On Saturdays, church members stand on the side of Gunbarrel and Shallowford roads, holding signs inviting people to the church. They also stand with signs along Battlefield Parkway in Ringgold.
While the church's main campus is located on Shallowford Road, it also has a campus in Ringgold.
Church members leave door hangers with the church's name and address on people's doors and they wash the windshields of first-time guests, leaving a Venue Church card on the window.
For the past three years, the church has distributed water and done face-painting at the Riverbend Festival, not only on Faith and Family Night but every day during the festival. This year, church members also washed the car windows of people attending Riverbend and left church invitation cards on them.
"We do whatever we have to do to reach people for Jesus," Parker said. "We don't wait until Sunday and hope they show up. We do things to get them to church."
Smith, a 35-year-old husband and father, was the former youth minister at Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, S.C., before coming to Chattanooga.
"God gave us a love for the city," said Smith's wife, Danielle. "When we felt called to plant a church, God highlighted Chattanooga and we couldn't get this city out of our hearts."
All the founding members came from Smith's church in South Carolina, but most members of Venue Church are from this area. And many of them did not regularly attend church before coming to Venue, Danielle Smith said.
Venue Church, and most of the faster-growing nondenominational churches, are reaching members of the millennial generation who are less concerned with theology and denominational ties than older churchgoers, said the Rev. Ron Carpenter, pastor of Redemption World Outreach where Smith attended and served as youth minister.
Carpenter's father worked in a church connected with a denomination but Carpenter started his own nondenominational church, Redemption World Outreach Center, which grew to 17,000 members.
Most of the faster growing, nondenominational churches have two qualities helping their numbers to increase, he said.
First, they have no financial obligations to a denomination, Carpenter said, which allows for more resources to flow into the community.
Churches like the Venue Church also are more independent and flexible because they are not controlled by denominational boards and councils, he added. This allows pastors to act fast and make adjustments as needed.
But powerful pastors, a hallmark of megachurches, also can present problems down the road.
Membership at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., dropped nearly 50 percent to 8,000 from a peak of 14,000 after founder and former pastor Ted Haggard was accused of using drugs and having a sexual relationship with a male prostitute in 2006 and a fatal shooting at the church in 2007. The gunman killed two teenage girls before shooting himself. Haggard, also former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted to a second homosexual relationship with a male prostitute in 2009, according to news reports.
Haggard founded the church in 1984. He resigned in 2006 after the scandal and the Rev. Brady Boyd of Gateway Church in Dallas became the new pastor.
If a denominational church went through a scandal, it would probably be sustained because the board of directors was there before the pastor got there and it will be there when he leaves, Carpenter said.
James Long, editor of Outreach, said churches like the Venue Church are growing because they attract people who are mobile, curious and spiritually hungry. Many are drawn to the exciting growth and want to be a part of something with momentum behind it, he writes.
Cate Goins, who has attended the church since its inception, said the nondenominational worship service is "explosive."
It includes people from a mix of ages, races and professions, and Smith's messages include advice about relationships and finances that apply to daily living, she said.
Smith calls the church "Venue" because he wants it to be the place where something happens, he said. Not a place where people come to fulfill their duty of going to church, but a place where people experience God's presence.
"It is not a quiet church," Parker said. "It's loud and energetic. Passionate."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at 423-757-6431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.