How a traditional Tennessee church grew into a modern megachurch

By Tanner Cole

HIXSON, TENNESSEE — A golf cart unloads passengers from the far reaches of the parking lot onto the church steps. Greeters wielding pamphlets line the immediate interior. The high-ceilinged room is filling with members of the congregation.

Abba’s House, a megachurch just 20 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, has an iPhone app, an on-site coffee shop and a full television setup broadcasting every service across the country. About 2,800 people are clamoring inside and choosing a spot in the room’s three-tiered, stadium style seating, and the service is about to begin.

After a few worship songs and a dozen baptisms, Pastor Ronnie Phillips Jr. appears to introduce the Easter Sunday sermon and prepare for his father, the main pastor, to take the stage.

“If anyone would like a ride back to their car today, meet after the sermon at entrance No. 5,” Phillips Jr. says.

Since the late 1970s, the now 67-year-old Phillips has maneuvered Central Baptist Church through controversy, onto the television screen and into a new, rebranded building. He chartered its transition, but now the church is in the middle of a succession plan. In 2018, Phillips Jr. will fully take the reigns from his conservative father and continue its modernization.

Chattanooga was the most Bible-minded city in the country in 2014, according to the American Bible Society. In 2015, the city still managed the No. 2 spot on the list behind Birmingham, Alabama. With 5,500 members, Abba’s House is one of the biggest churches in the city.

The megachurch trend exploded in popularity in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, according to the Review of Religious Research. In 2007, approximately 100 megachurches were being established every year, and successful churches appealed to non-denominational audiences using modern designs and ideas.

Abba’s House used to be called Central Baptist Church, but it was renamed in 1999 under the senior Phillips, who took over years earlier after a scandal shocked the congregation.

In 1958, the future pastor of Central Baptist, William Kennedy, killed his first wife with an accidental firearm discharge, writes to the Rome

News Tribune, a local newspaper. The Tribune reported that a similar incident occurred 20 years later during his service, only this time with Kennedy’s second wife. Police said both incidents were accidents, but Kennedy still had to deal with the reaction of his community and congregation.

“Half the church thought their last pastor was a murderer, and the other half loved him and thought he was innocent,” Phillips Jr. said. “My dad walked into that.”

In 1978, Ron Phillips took over as pastor and began slowly leading the church out of its traditional roots. The church made its radio debut in 1980 and started broadcasting television services locally at 11:00 p.m. on Sunday nights. The show’s popularity mushroomed until 1990, when the church made a deal with the American Christian Television System network. Suddenly, Phillips was available for viewing in 27 million households across the country.

Meanwhile, the church was still growing, and its congregation was rapidly changing.

Dillon Treadway, a student at the nearby Soddie Daisy High School, shuffles through the church. He moves slowly, glancing down at his phone every few seconds. “A lot of my friends go here,” he said.

On the other end of the age spectrum, Sammy Wilson, 67,  joined the church in 1996, and he’s watched it progress into its current state ever since.

“We are continuously adapting,” Wilson says. “We just did some training on how to reach the millennials and how to keep the baby-boomers at the same time.”

Leading the way forward was Ron Phillips Jr. His goal is to make Abba’s House open to anyone. “I believe our mission is to bridge the gap between evangelical Christians and charismatic Christians,” he said.

During the Easter service of 2015, the technological pushes were seen everywhere.

As Phillips Jr. delivers the sermon’s introduction, section pastors distribute and collect information cards all over the crowd. The church texts and emails every member of the congregation once a week to remind them of next Sunday’s service. Projector screens over the stage display links to Abba’s House’s social media accounts, and scannable QR codes on the backs of the day’s pamphlets link to the webpage.

Beyond just the technology shift, the congregation is transforming. The word Baptist has been eliminated from the church’s title to cater to a larger audience.

“We’re a Baptist church, but now we have people from basically every denomination,” Wilson said. “It’s a good mix of age groups and spiritual backgrounds.”

As Ron Phillips steps forward to deliver the main sermon, a crane with a large video camera swivels around the stage. Directly across from him, in the back of the auditorium, is a video monitoring station. A technical crew controls cameras scattered around the room and monitors audio levels as the service is broadcasted through the airwaves. Behind them are card-swipe stations for attendants wanting to pay their tithes with a debit card.

The Phillips on stage comes from an Evangelical Baptist background. He helped transform this church, but in today’s modern Abba’s House, he’s one of the last callbacks to old ways.

During his Easter Service, the round-faced man furrows his brow and shouts into the audience about how thankful he feels that he doesn’t have to “fly himself in an airplane into a building” for his God. He says that liberals have “hollow faith” and some liberals even have the audacity to suggest that Jesus’s resurrection was a hallucination.

After the service, a line leads to the two pastors at a table with a pile of the elder Phillips’ latest book, “Unexplained Mysteries of Heaven and Earth.” Phillips signs copies of the book while his son mingles with the congregation. His son isn’t so fond of the political messaging.

“I think that a church can’t be so political,” Phillips Jr. said. “You ruin your opportunity to share the gospel with everybody.”

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