A Defining Moment for a New Downtown Church

By Kent E. Fillinger

9/11/11 was the 10-year anniversary of the tragic day when terrorists attacked our nation, but it also marked the launch of Discovery Church at a YMCA in downtown Bristol, Tennessee. Discovery Church witnessed its own tragedy four months later when a well-known, well-loved, 16-year-old student who served as a church greeter and children’s ministry volunteer died in a car accident.

Discovery Christian Church meets in a YMCA. It estimates that 70-75 percent of the people who attend Discovery didn’t attend any church less than two years ago.
Discovery Christian Church meets in a YMCA. It estimates that 70-75 percent of the people who attend Discovery didn’t attend any church less than two years ago.

Tony Marr, lead pastor, said this tragic event was a defining moment for his new, small church. Marr said the church had to determine how to minister to this key family in the congregation and help the community grieve the loss of a wonderful young man. Discovery responded in love, reached out to support the community, and in the process solidified its presence as a church that cares.

Caring for the community is part of the church’s DNA. Discovery Church cancels its worship services when a fifth Sunday occurs in a month to send its people out in teams to serve the Tri-Cities area and to show love in action.

Another Discovery Church distinctive is its mission, to help everyone who attends to find God’s purpose for his or her life. The church uses the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to assist people in this process.

Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship partnered with Marr to plant Discovery Church. The church had no money, but Marr felt a need to have office space for ministry before the church launched in late 2010. He found a 4,000-square-foot office in an ideal location, so he arranged to have lunch with the couple that owned it.

During their conversation, Marr learned the couple met, dated, and married at a church plant in Las Vegas where Marr had served. He also learned the wife was a children’s minister at an area Christian church, and both had a heart for church planting. The couple offered the office to Marr and his team, with free rent and utilities for six months. Marr and a small group gathered in the office space every Sunday night for nine months to pray for the church and its community.

Marr and his leaders originally estimated the church could meet in the YMCA for five years, but Discovery Church’s growth has exceeded expectations. The church almost doubled in size in its first year, and in 2012 the church grew from an average attendance of 160 to 328 (105 percent), making it the fastest-growing medium-size church in our survey. The church is averaging more than 400 in attendance so far this year.

Marr said Discovery is very different than any other church in the Tri-Cities; he said 70-75 percent of Discovery’s attendees didn’t attend any church less than two years ago. Discovery attracts many dechurched people who are rediscovering their place in church. Last Easter the church added a second service, but it has become so crowded that some attendees must stand along the walls. Needless to say, the church is outgrowing the YMCA.

While the church tracks attendance, Marr said its primary measure of success is seeing a tangible difference in the community as a result of its people living a life on mission for God. He said the church, through its ministry, wants to see decreases in the area’s crime rate, the number of high school dropouts, and the number of homeless neighbors living on the streets.

Discovery is blessed with a great leadership team and a young staff with a heart for people and the community. This is the first time Marr has served as a lead pastor, and no staff member has experience serving in his or her present role. He and his team continue to feel “in over their heads,” he said. But they also continue to pray, hold on tight, and trust God to lead them where he needs them to go.

Discovery Church plans to partner with Woodland Hills Christian Church (Abingdon, Virginia) to plant five churches in the region over the next 10 years; the first church plant is tentatively planned for next year.

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