Forward Community Church minister Drew Mahan leads worship services Sunday. The church is meets every week at the Tri-County Cineplex movie theater in Corbin — part of a growing nationwide trend of churches gathering in theaters and other non-traditional locations.
Long before an impromptu, organizational meeting held in his living room in May 2011, Corbin native Drew Mahan said he had a divinely inspired vision about exactly the right place to start a new church in his hometown.
He’d kept the idea to himself, not wanting to be too presumptuous.
“I used to drive up to The Arena and look down on it from the parking lot up there and just pray about it,” Mahan, 32, said remembering back to the origins of Forward Community Church — a progressive, non-denominational church going on its second full year in existence this year. Mahan is its lead Minister.
“I had a good feeling. I thought it was an awesome place, but I never mentioned it.”
He didn’t have to.
Tri-County Cineplex Owners Greg and Suzie Razmus — good friends of Mahan’s during his six-year tenure as Youth Minister at Grace on the Hill United Methodist Church — had the same vision.
“Maybe I was slow to this, but I was like, hey! What about right here at the theater?” Suzie Razmus said. “It just sits empty on Sunday morning. Why not use it?”
The idea followed a nationwide trend of churches founded in non-traditional locations. But no one involved with Forward really knew it at the time.
All they knew was that the state-of-the-art theater on Cumberland Falls Hwy. was now home. And it’s worked out well. Curiosity has led many to check out the “movie theater church.” Its steadily growing membership and attendance proves they’ve found something there they like.
But Mahan said building a church from scratch has been a journey as unexpected as his path to the ministry.
He was a standout baseball catcher for Corbin High School when he graduated in 1999, and accepted a scholarship to play at the University of the Cumberlands. A back injury two years into his college playing career sidelined his baseball dreams. Other dreams would fill in the gap.
Initially, he planned to attend law school after college. But while doing some volunteer work with youth at First Baptist Church, he came to a different conclusion, one he shared with his future wife. The couple now has three young sons together.
“I was crying about it and I told Missy that I don’t think I’m supposed to go to law school,” he said. “It was funny, because she said she was way more excited about being married to someone in the ministry than being married to a lawyer anyway.”
Mahan went on to serve as Youth Minister at First Baptist church for three years, then at Grace on the Hill for six. He did finish his degree in education while at UofC and was teaching World Civilization at Corbin High School when he decided to make the bold move of starting a new church. He quit his teaching job, a leap of faith he said was a bit unnerving, but necessary to focus on making his vision a reality.
Fifteen people made up the “core committee” that organized Forward Community Church. Mahan said he purposefully didn’t tell any of them who else would be showing up to those first organizational meetings. Everyone invited were close friends of his. He said he was careful from the beginning not to use connections founding members had to their former churches as a way to grow membership. He had different ideas.
“There’s an easy way to get a lot of people to come, but it’s the wrong way,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen … that folks didn’t think we were running from something, but rather that we were running to something.”
Also, Mahan said his goal with Forward was to appeal to those who didn’t regularly attend church at all, or maybe had become disenchanted with church altogether and were simply inactive.
“Seventy-five percent of growth from the beginning has been people that are unchurched or those that they call dechurched,” Mahan said. “Very few of our people are leaving other churches to come to us. We are happy about that.”
“We have nothing against seasoned believers and mature Christians at all. Those people are very important to us,” Mahan added. “We just feel like it is going to take tons of healthy churches to combat some of the things going on in our area.”
Forward held its first services in early Oct. 2011. About 60 people showed up. Regular attendance hovers at about 157 now.
This past Sunday, nationally renowned Christian speaker Tony Nolan brought in roughly 300. An auxiliary theater showed the proceedings on the big screen for some of the crowd that could not fit in the main theater that serves as the church’s sanctuary. Mahan said most of the “promotion” for the church has been done through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, mostly out of necessity since funds for traditional advertising are scarce. The church also has a website: 4wardchurch.com.
Almost everything about Forward is non-traditional.
In place of standard hymns and a choir, the church has a guitar-heavy band that plays mostly contemporary Christian music as well as even some secular songs.
Services are a laid back, casual affair. You’ll see more blue jeans and t-shirts than suits and dresses. Technology is utilized with a knack and efficiency that gives Forward a very modern sensibility.
There’s no Sunday School and only one service which starts at 10:00 a.m.
And members seem to feed off Mahan’s relaxed, conversational style of preaching.
Renee Smith, a local resident who has attended Forward for about a year, said the very reason she goes there is because Mahan is so convincingly passionate about the church’s purpose.
“I was attracted to Forward because Drew was on fire about it. He wanted it. He stepped out and made it happen. He didn’t know if anybody would show up on the first day, it was just what he felt he was called to do. I thought it was awesome, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Smith said.
“Spiritually, I think it has improved my life a great deal. I look forward to going to church on Sundays, not that I didn’t before, but I feel like Drew brings the message in a fresh way.”
Razmus said the decision to offer up the theater as a venue for the church has coupled well with the vibe Forward is trying to create.
“I think people are comfortable coming to the movies. If you haven’t grown up in a church or been to church in a long time, it can be sort of intimidating,” Razmus said. “We do things different than a normal church, so the fact that we have it in a movie theater is a curiosity for a lot of people. I think it draws people because they want to know what is going on there.”
Mahan said he knows Forward can’t rely on holding services in the theater for the next 20 years. But for now, it works.
“To be truthful, I think what we are trying to do may have been harder in a traditional church building,” Mahan said. “What we have right now doesn’t really feel like church. You know what? We are glad about that.”