By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
If any house of worship deserves to be called an historic church, it is Forest Park, which traces its roots in Joplin back to 1846.
However, there is another label these days that might be just as appropriate. With an increase in membership and the establishment of two remote campuses in the past six years, Forest Park has also become a modern-day progressive church.
All three campuses, including the original one at the corner of Seventh Street and Range Line, Forest Park North at 5898 N. Main St. and Forest Park Carthage, add up to a megachurch designation. A megachurch is determined by an average weekend attendance of 2,000 people or more.
Helping pave the way toward this status has been the Carthage church, which last month moved into a much larger building to accommodate growth.
Under the leadership of Greg Atkinson, the Carthage church found itself reaching capacity at its old location at 430 W. Elk St. a year ago and made the decision to buy the former Barton Lumber Yard at 2535 S. Grand Ave.
The new 22,000-square foot-building has given the church room to seat 450 to 500 people in its auditorium at each of its two Sunday morning services, as well as offer space for classrooms and staff offices.
Of that total space, 17,000 square feet in the rear of the building has been earmarked as a storage warehouse for Mission Joplin, a program originally established for the 2011 Joplin tornado victims but now used for anyone needing help with basic necessities, such as food, clothing, etc.
The first services on Feb. 10 at the new location drew 571 people, not counting the 125 children in preschool through the sixth grade who were present for Kid City, the church's version of Sunday school and nursery. The church's Life Groups are another version of Sunday school for older children and adults and are held during the week at members' homes.
The grand opening has been scheduled for March 31, Easter Sunday, when, besides the normal 9:30 and 11 a.m. worship services, a third 12:30 p.m. service will be held. Atkinson added that if their growth continues, they will likely add a third permanent service in the fall.
He said he expects from 800 to 1,000 people to attend the three Easter services. A new video series, "The Gospel," will get under way that day at all three of the Forest Park sites.
The multisite concept was introduced to the world in 2006 with the idea of allowing strong churches to plant branches in other communities and in so doing pass on administrative support, ministry philosophy and biblical doctrine of the main campus. Typical of a multisite branch is a video segment in which the senior pastor from the main campus, in this case, John Swadley, provides the message or sermon.
Today there are more than 3,000 multisite churches in the United States, according to Atkinson.
"There is a direct correlation to growing churches and multisite churches," he said. "The majority of churches across the nation are declining. Churches that are thriving are usually in the multisite category."
Atkinson said that with the popularity of video games, movies and high definition television, the multisite church with big-screen video is just a natural.
He added that the majority of the church's congregation embraces the concept of video sermons, which also allow the church the opportunity to offer the same teaching and values in multiple locations.
Atkinson said the campus designation has been dropped from the Forest Park sites to cut down on confusion in connecting them with colleges or universities, such as Forest Park University in St. Louis.
Although Baptist is not in the name, Forest Park is associated with the Southern Baptist denomination.
"We have Baptist roots and Baptist doctrines but just not in the name," said Atkinson, who said that several other churches where he served before coming to the Joplin area did the same.
Although Atkinson said the music at Forest Park Carthage is geared toward a younger audience, the church is still considered multigenerational, even having members into their 80s.
Along with the label progressive, the church could also be referred to as innovative. An example is a giving kiosk set up in the church foyer.
"This is something brand new that churches are experimenting with," he said. "You can swipe your debit or credit cards as another way of giving. We are the beta test for all of Forest Park, testing it out to see if it is something we want to do at all our sites."
Address correspondence to Rich Brown, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802, or email email@example.com.