“God did it all.” That, in just four words, is how church planter Matt Wilson tells the story of Ekklesia Christian Church since the congregation’s launch in June 2014. In his characteristically self-effacing way, the 37-year-old Wilson says, “I don’t know how other churches grow, but every year, God comes through with some completely off-the-wall way for our church to grow.” In the last five years, Wilson jokes, “God took this little hick from South Carolina and showed him what faith was.”
A Desire to Do What God Is Behind
Wilson comes from a family of ministers. His father was a preacher, and his brother is a preacher. He is originally from Tennessee, though his father planted a church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the 1980s.
As a child, Wilson says, he loved God, but being a pastor’s kid was difficult. His father’s church plant was located on a farm and included a crisis intervention and rehabilitation center. “Church was a burden, to say the least,” he says.
In middle school, Wilson began to question the things he had been taught about God, and he fell away from the faith. Still, he stayed involved with the church during those years, and at age 17, he was asked to lead the middle school ministry.
“I wasn’t into it,” Wilson says flatly, but the fledgling ministry to young teens began to grow nonetheless. Through that experience, he rediscovered his love for the Lord and a passion for ministry. Ironically, Wilson recalls, “Those kids taught me about what it means to serve and follow Jesus.”
For years he continued to serve at his father’s church in Myrtle Beach, though he couldn’t escape the sense he should do more.
“I didn’t want to do ministry that I was born into or hired into,” he says. “I wanted to do something that God was behind. I had to know if God was with me or if I was just a hired hand.”
Through his time in youth ministry, Wilson noticed students were graduating from high school and then dropping out and leaving the church. He began hosting a Bible study for young adults at his home, trying and hoping to “get them back into church”—but without much success.
Then, unexpectedly, a woman with a local college approached Wilson and asked if he would consider starting a church there. A church plant wasn’t what Wilson had in mind when he expressed a desire to do something that God was behind, but a donor offered enough funding for Wilson to hold worship services at the college for 10 weeks.
A Conversation That Changed Everything
Ekklesia Christian Church launched in June 2014 with 130 people in attendance. Wilson remembers being amazed by the crowd’s size that first Sunday, because only 20 people were on the church’s launch team. The next week, he says with a hearty laugh, only 30 people showed up.
Wilson was still serving full-time at his father’s church (which he continued through the end of 2016), and he remembers feeling like he devoted only about an hour to the church plant each week. Despite his severely limited availability, Ekklesia grew—very modestly at first. Attendance eventually increased from 30 to 35, and the church reached a high of 60 people during its second year.
It may have been his own insecurity, or perhaps the church services truly were substandard because of his divided attention, but Wilson found himself repeatedly apologizing to visitors for what he saw as glitches and failures. One week, he recalls unleashing “a barrage of apologies” to a woman who was visiting for the first time. She listened patiently to his excuses and explanations for the perceived shortcomings of the Sunday service and then said, “I won’t be back, but not because of all the things you said. I won’t be back because youdon’t believe in it.”
That conversation changed everything.
The Faith to Keep Moving Forward
From that day in the summer of 2015 forward, Wilson says, “I decided that we’re not going to try to be perfect. We’re just going to be the church.”
Instead of focusing on the Sunday service and obsessing over its inadequacies, he turned his attention to discipleship. When he began to concentrate on discipling people, they started to stay at Ekklesia. The congregation doubled in just one year.
As the church grew, Wilson started to seek a permanent home for the congregation. He dreamed of a particular parcel on Highway 501 in Myrtle Beach, but he considered it financially out of reach. He still speaks wistfully about that “prime piece of property. It was almost like God blessed it.”
Rather than praying for an opportunity to acquire his dream site, Wilson worked with a local Realtor and visited smaller parcels. “They were mostly pretty terrible,” he recalls, but he planned to present three of them to the congregation as potential new homes for Ekklesia Christian Church.
Before he could follow through on his plan, a trusted friend and mentor, Pete Kunkle, senior minister at First Christian Church in Kernersville, North Carolina, challenged Wilson’s lack of faith. He said, “If you’re going to go on faith, then do it.” Convicted by his longtime friend, Wilson personally called the owners of the “prime property” and made a very low offer. They declined.
Then, over the course of that afternoon, the property owners called Wilson repeatedly—negotiating against themselves and lowering their sale price. Twice. Then three times. They called over and over that day, lowering the price of the property each time. Finally, the owners agreed to Wilson’s original offer, saying, “If you can get the money together, it’s yours.”
Like so much of Ekklesia’s early history, the building campaign did not go smoothly. The church’s original contractor offered to construct a modest facility, took thousands of dollars but built nothing, and left the congregation wondering what to do. Then construction costs ballooned quickly, to more than 10 times the original budget.
Not knowing what else to do, in the spring of 2017, Wilson and Ekklesia Christian Church decided to continue the construction project in faith, partnering with The Solomon Foundation. TFS team members pushed the church to expand their vision and, ultimately, to more than double the size of the building they originally thought they could afford. Wilson compares the experience to Peter walking on water with Jesus. “Every time we step out,” he says, “God kind of makes the water solid.”
A Hub for the Community
Walking on water is an appropriate metaphor, because Ekklesia ministered to thousands of people in the fall of 2018 when much of South Carolina flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. The elevation of the land where the church was being built was among the highest in the area. When the devastating floods hit, the dry property served as a distribution center for flood victims even though the building was not yet complete. Volunteers from Ekklesia served 300 meals the first day, and 3,000 the next!
People who didn’t attend Ekklesia Christian Church became involved with distributing food from the church’s property during the flood, creating a unique opportunity for side-by-side ministry and evangelism.
“Our core focus has always been discipleship,” Wilson says. “Because of the flood, we were able to disciple people through their involvement in ministry before they ever came to church.”
Ekklesia eventually completed construction of a 30,000-square-foot building and the church is already running three weekly worship services there and averaging roughly 800. The first services in the new building were for Christmas 2018.
Through the disaster relief and the work of the temporary distribution center, Wilson says, “Ekklesia became a hub for the community. If it hadn’t been for the flood, the surge of visitors we experienced after the grand opening would have eaten us alive.” Instead, Ekklesia Christian Church is successfully ministering to the people of Myrtle Beach one at a time. “Every person who comes in matters,” Wilson says.
Matt Wilson takes no credit for the remarkable journey of the church he didn’t plan to plant. Instead, he gives all the glory to the One who planned it all.
“God didn’t do anything conventionally,” he says with a laugh. “There’s nothing other than God glorifying himself that would make this work.”
Wilson, his wife, Tina, and their seven children have seen and experienced incredible moments through their involvement with Ekklesia Christian Church. He encourages other church planters to follow his unlikely example with one piece of advice: “Go all-in and watch what God does if you’re obedient.”