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Ground-floor faith: Startup churches work through challenges

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Pastors Tony and Jill Garris lead Healing Waters Full Gospel Ministries, 2330 Midway St., in Columbus. 
Pastors Tony and Jill Garris lead Healing Waters Full Gospel Ministries, 2330 Midway St., in Columbus. FILE PHOTO

In one way, Mark Oliver’s life has come full circle.

More than 20 years ago, he would skip high school classes some afternoons and get into trouble outside a building at 1229 California St. in Columbus.

Today, the 37-year-old Oliver works in that building, now called Freedom Chapel.

Oliver’s job: preaching and teaching about God’s love.

That love is strong enough, he said, to have shaken him free from severe addiction problems.

“I never want to lose sight of where I came from,” said Oliver, who pastors and ministers alongside his wife, Tiffany, leading the children’s teaching.

Nor does he want to lose sight of where he’s going with the nearly two-year-old ministry among the area’s start-up churches, led mostly by part-time clergy still working day jobs.

On Easter, the nondenominational church that began with eight worshipers saw one of its biggest crowds of nearly 60 people gather in a worship space that can accommodate about 75.

In Bartholomew County, where more than 100 Christian churches function, some ask the question: Why launch another one?

For Oliver, it’s because God called him to reach out to people.

“One of the toughest things about this, though, is learning to be patient and take small steps,” Oliver said.

Small steps sometimes lead to big congregations.

Community Church of Columbus, for example — one of the area’s biggest with a weekly attendance of about 1,500 people — began with nine people meeting in a home in 1990.

Pastor Tony Garris and his wife, Jill, began the Healing Waters Full Gospel Ministries in Columbus slightly more than two years ago “with nobody,” as they put it.

Today, averaging about 50 people per Sunday, the couple said they must focus on Jesus’ vision for the ministry and not the adversity of establishing a new outreach.

“It can be a real roller-coaster ride,” Garris said. “You have to have a real love for the Lord.”

The 53-year-old Garris, who operates his own automotive shop, aims to provide a place “where Jesus Christ can show his signs and wonders.”

Unlike most upstart congregations, Healing Waters ministers in a building that can accommodate up to 1,000 believers. It also offers a 3,200-square-foot recreation building and a campground in Scipio, south of Columbus.

“This has been a massive learning process,” Garris said. “If the Lord had brought us an awful lot of people all at once, I don’t think we could have handled it.”

Pastor Andy Robbins launched the nondenominational Blessed Life Fellowship in Columbus as a Bible study in his Edinburgh living room with wife Donna and about 10 other people in 2010.

He called their startup “a sometimes arduous and difficult process.”

Contributing to that struggle was the need for him to also work a full-time job as a traveling sales representative for a nutritional supplement firm.

Pastor Dan Houze said the now-thriving Terrace Lake Community Church on Columbus’ west side faced a significant challenge when it lost a key leader four years after beginning.

“Most church plants are still treading water at the five-year mark,” said Houze, who has studied such trends and who also launched a new church near Dallas in the 1990s.

“If you have a staff problem at that early point, you can be in real trouble.”

Terrace Lake saw its share of significant challenges after it began as Lakeside Fellowship in July 2000 as a Bible study with three families.

But Terrace Lake, now averaging 500 people combined for two Sunday services, will double the size of its nine-year-old building later this year to make more room for children’s classes, among other areas.

Leaders also have considered launching a satellite church in the future.

Mark Oliver talked about coming full circle. Apparently, churches do, too — when a start-up begets another start-up.

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