When the leaders at Willowbrook Baptist Church in Huntsville asked Mark and Jamie Hankins to help establish a new campus in Madison in 2010, they were hesitant. They were nervous about leaving their large church with its many resources to go to the lumberyard where Willowbrook at Madison (WAM) is currently located.
“It was a big change, leaving the things we were comfortable with,” explains Mark. The church asked the Hankinses for an eight-week commitment at the new campus and suggested they wait to make a final decision until the end of that time period.
When Tara and John Cagle heard talk of a campus starting in Madison, they wondered if God was making a path for them to be a part of a church in their own community. They had always desired to be in a church close to their home in Madison, but they felt most at home at Willowbrook. Tara and John say they decided to help get the Madison campus started, but they weren’t sure if they were going to stay.
The Madison campus is much smaller than the Huntsville site, and attendees meet in a rented space that initially required them to set up and tear down seating each and every week. Instead of a live speaker, they watch a video recording of Willowbrook’s senior pastor Mark McClelland’s sermon, given in Huntsville earlier that morning.
Although it may sound strange, multi-site churches like this are becoming very popular for Christian churches across the country.
Two But Still One
Although Willowbrook now has two campuses, WAM’s campus pastor Kevin Perry says it is still one church body. There is one deacon body for the whole church and one budget. Many large events are church-wide instead of campus-specific. However, Kevin says the multi-side model allows each campus to adapt to the needs and circumstances of the attendees there.
Because of its limited physical space, Willowbrook at Madison has life groups—small groups that meet in homes—instead of a traditional Sunday school structure. Initially formed out of need, life groups have become one of the biggest blessings to attendees at WAM. Life groups provide the participants with a great sense of intimacy and community.
Kevin Perry compares life groups with family—they walk through life together. And as the sense of community they experience spreads, they find their connection to the church as a whole. Life groups are also less intimidating for people who are not comfortable with a traditional church environment. The groups can be a door into the church.
“It often looks different from the church they grew up in or the church they ran away from,” says Kevin.
The smaller environment also helps attendees feel connected. It’s hard to get lost in the crowd at WAM. Mark Hankins says, “We went from recognizing a lot of people in our church to recognizing everybody. We were able to have more friends instead of acquaintances.”
A smaller church also requires more of its attendees to serve each week just to keep the church running, drawing people closer together in teamwork and a shared mission.
The Cagles and Hankinses were two of many families who lived in Madison but attended Willowbrook in Huntsville. But then came the Madison campus, giving these families more opportunities to meet the church’s mission of serving their community in Madison. Being part of a church closer to home also opened doors to invite friends and neighbors to their church. They find they often already know visitors when they come.
Watching a sermon on video instead of listening to a live speaker is the biggest transition for most people who visit WAM. Although the sermon is recorded, WAM still has a full staff at the site, including their own campus pastor, Kevin. Because he doesn’t have to prepare a sermon each week, Kevin is able to spend much more time serving the church body and the community in Madison.
“I’ve never felt like I didn’t have a pastor.” Laughing, Tara exclaims, “Really, I have the honor of having two pastors!”
Kevin occasionally preaches on Sundays and regularly leads Bible studies. Using resources wisely, without sacrificing community, is one of the biggest benefits Tara sees in the video sermon model.
For Mark Hankins, the video sermon actually made the transition to WAM a little easier. Pastor Mark McClelland’s sermons were part of what initially drew the Hankinses to Willowbrook. And now, the video sermons allow them to still hear the same pastor each week while being a part of a church body in their community.
Today, Mark and Jamie no longer have reservations about being a part of the Madison campus. “It is one of the best decisions that we could have ever made,” says Mark. The Hankinses and the Cagles fell in love with being able to be with their neighbors and revel in the abundant opportunities to serve their community.
If you’re looking to be a part of a church that isn’t overwhelmingly large and filled with people who may become family, WAM invites you to give them a try.
Willowbrook at Madison, 7105 Highway 72 West, meets on Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.