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.
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.
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