Church, for a long time, has been painted as a stuffy building where you stand when you’re told, bow your head when it’s time, and sing the songs on the screen, but not loud enough for your pew neighbor to hear you.
Pinelake Church, which began in Brandon, has set out to change all of that. Campus Pastor Jody Schmelzer has been involved with Pinelake ministries since its beginning.
“My senior year of college, I felt the Lord leading me to full time ministry,” Schmelzer said. “Right about 12 years ago, I came on staff with Pinelake at the Reservoir campus, and then I helped start our Madison campus where I was there for nine years. When the opportunity came up to start the Oxford campus, I moved up here to start that.”
With the Brandon church growing, Henderson and church elders came up with an expansion plan.
“In 2006, they (Henderson and elders) had to make a decision between building a bigger building at one location, or if they were going to step outside the norm and start to plant campuses at different locations that were in a 30-mile drive away from the Reservoir campus,” Schmelzer. “They decided to launch the first campus in Madison, and that was our first step into what we call multi-site church.”
Pinelake church now had five campuses across Mississippi with a total of 40 pastors. Schmelzer was part of the expansion project and said it was amazing to see one church transform into many.
But what does the term “multi-site” church really mean? By projecting a video of the same sermon at the remaining four campuses, congregations all over the state hear the same sermon from Henderson as if they were physically in his presence.
Schmelzer said even though the campuses are separate, this non-traditional church approach means members have a home no matter what campus they choose to attend.
“The hope is that every campus you walk into on a Sunday morning would feel the same, but it would be a little bit different because of the context,” Schmelzer said. “Overall, the message is the same, but the way that it is lived out within the faith family at each campus looks a little bit different.”
One of the differences that the Oxford campus provides to the ministry is college students from the University of Mississippi who attend on a weekly basis. According to Schmelzer, the campus congregation is split in half with about 600 college students and 600-700 adults attending.
Carly Horton, a UM freshman, is one of 600 students who attends the sermons weekly. Horton said she, “love(s) the community [she] found at Pinelake [because] they are always there for [her].”
Horton’s feelings about Pinelake and the reasons she keeps coming back are what Schmelzer hopes his congregation feels. Schmelzer said Pinelake’s objective in Oxford and throughout Mississippi was to embrace the “come as you are” mentality and ensure that everyone feels welcome and like they have a home. This is especially important to college students like Horton.
“The people at Pinelake are real about the goals they have and are intentional about getting to know you,” Schmelzer said. “This church builds real relationships and provides college students with an uplifting community that can hold them accountable in all aspects of life.
“A lot of times, we see high school students that graduate, and step into college, and are not necessarily drawn to what church you’re going to get connected to,” he said. “There is this gap between high school and a career where people are not plugged into a church if you don’t get connected in college. I feel like if Pinelake and other colleges can help students get connected while in college. It can help them stay consistent.”
Pinelake offers students many opportunities to do that. Horton said she, “has the opportunity to be in a small group that meets regularly [and also is able] to serve (the) community and those in developing countries through mission trips.”
With Pinelake’s growing numbers of college students and families, they are quickly filling up space in the Oxford Conference Center, the building the church currently uses for services.
“[Oxford] has been the fastest growing campus we have ever had,” said Schmelzer. “Typically speaking, the campuses we have launched take 3-5 years to get to the point where we are right now.”
Horton, along with many other regulars at the church, believe there will be a time when Pinelake will have to build/move to a larger facility to house its growing numbers. Pastor Schmelzer believes that time may not be too far away.
“We are in the process of finalizing a contract on a 12 acre tract of land for our future home,” Schmelzer said.
It seems the Oxford campus of Pinelake church is not going to slow down its growth. While it’s different than many traditional churches, Horton along with many others believe those differences are the enticing factors behind worship at this church.
Horton believes its popularity is because it’s “contemporary and inviting to everyone,” and encourages everyone to try it out. Schmelzer mirrors the same mindset.
“We say all the time: ‘It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to stay that way,'” he said. “We want this to be an environment where everyone feels welcome, and we want to help you take the next step in your faith journey.
“I feel like if people are visiting Pinelake, they will feel loved, welcomed, and have the truth of God’s word spoken in their life. I believe if they are in that place, God will use that to encourage them to stay with us.”