HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW) — Chris Honeycutt was on International Drive when he was hit with a thought that would completely uproot his life.
He was in Myrtle Beach to speak at a church, and had periodically visited the area to visit friends and family. But it was during that drive when Honeycutt said he knew the city needed more houses of worship to keep up with its growth.
“I felt led by the Lord to do something about that,” Honeycutt said. “There are so many new people here and there is, frankly, not enough churches.”
A year later, Honeycutt is the lead pastor of Forward Church, which launched in September to an online congregation of 2,000 people and an in-person audience of 200.
Forward Church is just one part of the Grand Strand’s church boom, with new ones being formed and others seeing tremendous growth — even in the face of a pandemic.
South Carolina claims five of the nation’s top 100 fastest-growing churches, according to Outreach 100, an organization that uses an annual survey to identify the nation’s most popular houses of worship.
Of those five, two are in the Grand Strand area. Ekklesia Christian Church, in Conway was ranked 29th this year with 54% growth. The Rock Church in Conway ranked number 77, with 260% growth.
The previous year, of the five listed in South Carolina, The Rock Church was ranked 50th, and Beach Church in Myrtle Beach came in at 83rd.
Growing on faith
The story of Ekklesia Christian Church began with 30 people in a living room.
Now, it’s the 29th fastest-growing church in America.
“We knew that God was asking us to do something, and we believed that God can do anything,” said Tina Wilson, the church’s online campus pastor and the wife of its lead pastor, Matt Wilson. “I think what we didn’t know is what He would do with us, just because that is up to Him.”
The Wilsons were leading the Bible study group when they were contacted in 2014 about starting a church that would meet at Coastal Carolina University.
It was an idea they’d been considering for some time.
“We knew it was a thing that God was asking us, but we didn’t have the place, or the means, or the know-how,” Tina Wilson said.
The space at CCU answered one piece of that puzzle.
They had 140 people in attendance at that first service, which Tina Wilson said was mostly people from other churches who came to support them. The next week, attendance went back down to 30 people.
The couple was insecure. No one had trained them how to run a church and service, and Matt Wilson ended up constantly apologizing for sermons and music not living up to what he thought it should be. Then, one Sunday, a woman approached them after a service and told them she wouldn’t be back. Not because the service wasn’t good enough — but because she could tell that Matt Wilson didn’t think it was.
“That was a defining point for us when things started to turn around,” Tina Wilson said.
The apologizes stopped, and they started focusing on developing what they knew they were doing well.
“We just started saying, ‘God, we are going to follow you, and do this thing as we are,’” Tina Wilson said.
Up until that point, Matt Wilson was working as a youth minister at a church his father founded. He stepped away to dedicate more time to Ekklesia Christian Church.
Attendance doubled during the church’s first year. The next year, they exceeded 100 people. By 2016, they’d reached 200.
The church moved from CCU into an auditorium at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in order to keep up with growth. Soon after, construction began on the church’s own building, which boosted them to 1,000 weekly worshippers.
Tina Wilson attributes the rapid growth to the new facility.
“Every church that I have seen was in an old, traditional building or a renovated facility,” she said. “To see a ground-up construction of a modern church facility was just something different.”
She describes them as “an unlikely people.” Matt Wilson didn’t go to Bible school, and the couple knew nothing about how to start a church.
All they had was a message — everyone is welcome, no one is perfect and everything is possible.
“I think our story in itself communicates that anything is possible,” Tina Wilson said.
While she said that building a 30,000-square-foot space four years after its formation was a leap of faith, it’s taking another one. The church announced Sunday that it is purchasing its surrounding properties, bringing them from 8 acres to 22.5 acres and making its original church building the smallest structure on campus.
“We never dreamed we’d outgrow it as fast as we did,” Wilson said.
The Rock Church did not respond to a request for an interview.
Chris Honeycutt and his wife quit their jobs as a consultant and pharmacist to relocate from near Columbia to Myrtle Beach in order to launch Forward Church. Honeycutt had previously been a pastor who took time off due to health issues within their family.
They received matching funds from the Assemblies of God’s church-planting organization to start Forward Church.
Although he didn’t know what a pandemic would mean for opening, he pushed through with the launch because he said he felt the church needed to provide aid in the area. The
“life-giving” church helps those who are getting off drugs, finding a job or wanting to learning more about financial literacy.
“There is a lot of hurting people in this area, a lot of people that have real needs, and that doesn’t go away when a virus hits,” he said.
He used his digital marketing background to gather a congregation, utilizing Facebook, Google ads, digital billboards, thousands of mailors and word of mouth.
Prelaunch livestreams were getting 3,000 to 4,000 views a week. Honeycutt estimates that the church’s 200 in-person audience would be doubled if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“Considering everything for a new church, we are doing okay,” Honeycutt said.
He plans to eventually move from Ground Zero in Myrtle Beach to the Carolina Forest area. From there, he hopes to expand to more campuses in North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach.