Harrison County

‘The church for the unchurched:’ Popular Hattiesburg service expanding to the Coast

At 6 a.m. Easter Sunday, a team of 12-15 volunteers will unload a 40-foot container and set up coffee bars, kids’ areas, audio-visual equipment and curtains to recreate Hattiesburg’s Venture Church at Gulfport High School.

It will be the launch of one of Hattiesburg’s biggest churches on the Coast.

Venture Church, with an estimated weekly attendance of about 3,500 people and hundreds more participating online, is opening a church April 21 in Gulfport High School’s auditorium.

It expects about 150 people to attend Easter weekend opening. The Gulfport location compliments its main Hattiesburg church on Lincoln Road, the Hunt Club campus on North 31st Avenue and its Stone County site in Wiggins.

Lead pastor Jeff Clark said there are approximately 250,000-275,000 people living on the Coast, and Venture’s research indicated only about 10 percent of that number are going to church on a regular basis.

“Being the church for the unchurched, we felt passionate about reaching out to those people,” he said. “Who we are as a church is about inviting people in.”

Blake Houston, Gulf Coast campus pastor, said he wants to attract all kinds of people to the Gulfport church — no matter what their religion, their past church-going experience or their past.

“Come as you are,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your background is. It doesn’t matter what you did last night.

“It’s OK not to be OK. It’s about a group coming together for the community and loving people.”

Clark said Venture was fulfilling its name change — made official in 2014 — from First Baptist Church Hattiesburg — by venturing farther afield.

“I had dreams that God had given me,” he said. “I knew the Lord had put this on my heart.

“When he says something, it’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s when.”

Clark also said many of Venture’s past attendees had moved to the Coast and were looking for a Venture experience there.

It will feature live worship, a live band — with Venture’s distinctive rock music — and video preaching by Clark. The congregation will see the same message delivered by Clark that people at the main church on Lincoln Road see in person.

It’s already been working to publicize itself. It’s held several other once-a-month services in Gulfport. It’s taken donuts and coffee to the teachers at the school where it meets. It’s offered sports drinks to local teams. This past summer, it held camp for local kids. And it has asked its congregation to do outreach.

“The very best thing you can do as part of Venture is to invite your family and friends,” Houston said.

Mollie McCarroll, 27, had been going to Venture Church in Hattiesburg for three years when she moved to Ocean Springs in September. She is thrilled that Venture is opening a Coast campus. She will be greeting people and singing at the Easter service.

“When they started launching the monthly worship experiences, I was able to still be invested,” she said. “I was super pumped.

“I think the more people you can expose to God’s word and what he can do for a person’s life — it’s great to be able to expand the campuses. They’ve been able to let more people love and follow Jesus.”

Its Lincoln Road church attracts 2,400 people to three services each Sunday. The Hunt Club location, which opened in July 2014, sees about 600 people at two services. In Stone County, which opened in October 2017, about 450 people attend two services. Then there’s approximately 1,100 who watch online.

Venture Church turned the controversial night club, the Hunt Club, into a church. It had been the scene of several shootings and had closed in 2012, following foreclosure and a bankruptcy settlement.

In Stone County, it converted an old bowling alley into a church.

Now, each weekend, a total of about 35-40 volunteers work to transform Gulfport High School and serve the community members who come to the church.

Clark expects to see 10 campuses total in the coming years.

“I realize the commitment that it takes, but you have a sense of peace when you’re doing what God calls you to do,” he said.

Sunday services

Campus: Stone County, 1200 Woodland Drive, Wiggins

Services: 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday

Campus: Gulf Coast, Gulfport High School, 100 Perry St., Gulfport

Services: 11 a.m. Sunday, beginning April 21

Online: 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. live on Sunday. Replays every odd hour during the week.

Check www.venturechurch.org for Easter service times.

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