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How a Conway church took over a city block and found a home

jblackmon@thesunnews.com

When Kevin Childs and Dirk Derrick mapped out the ideal location for a Conway church a dozen years ago, they settled on the intersection of Mill Pond Road and U.S. 501.

The spot was down the street from the city’s recreation department and not even a half-mile from Conway High School. McDonald’s, Burger King and Bojangles’ stood nearby, making the area a hotspot for teens and young families — just the demographics they were seeking to grow The Rock church.

But land along U.S. 501 was pricey. When the church finally did purchase 18 acres farther down Mill Pond, the price of constructing a building for the church’s 1,000 members delayed their plans. Then came Childs’ death from cancer in 2014, forcing the church to find a new pastor.

But Derrick never abandoned the vision he shared with his boyhood friend, Childs. The church hired a new pastor. That preacher had experience converting old big box stores into sanctuaries. And in the coming months, The Rock will hold its first services in a remodeled grocery store and sell smoothies in the coffee house they made out of a former Shoney’s.

The church has been homeless for more than a decade. Now it not only has a permanent sanctuary, but it controls a corner of one of the city's busiest intersections, and is spending $3 million sprucing up its new home.

We’ve always, from the very beginning, said our goal is not to get a building. Our goal is to share the gospel and to be in a place amidst the people, out in the marketplace, not hidden away in some kind of safe haven for Christians only.

Dirk Derrick, elder, The Rock

“That’s an opportunity to have that corner,” Derrick said. “And that’s the corner that Kevin and I were trying to get.”

The Rock officially celebrated its 11th birthday this month, but its roots go back further.

About 15 years ago, Derrick was trying to get Childs to return to Conway.

The men had been best friends since seventh grade. In high school, Derrick played quarterback and Childs was the center. They even roomed together at Wofford College.

Derrick became a lawyer.

After his first battle with cancer in college, Childs dedicated his life to ministry.

When Derrick began talking to his friend about coming home, they came up with the idea for a church that would appeal to a younger audience. They remembered the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) camps of their youth, and wanted to recreate an experience that would be both spiritually challenging but still engaging.

“We just talked about how young people, they go to FCA camp and they hated to go home and they get back home and it’s hard to drag them to church,” Derrick said. “There’s something wrong with that.”

The two decided their target audience should be boys and young men, specifically those ages 13-35.

“Not to exclude anyone else,” he said. “Just to have a church that would appeal to that age group. We felt like if you get that age group of men coming to church, the rest of the family will come.”

The Rock unofficially began with about eight people meeting in Derrick’s living room. They later moved to a Conway restaurant. Before the worshippers even began calling themselves a church, they had upwards of 100 people coming to their small group meetings.

As The Rock grew, the church became known for its high-energy services, with music that sounded like modern rock or pop rather than traditional hymns. Instead of donning their Sunday best, attendees often showed up in jeans or T-shirts. Some members call themselves Rockers.

Childs was known for his creative messages. He once wore a diaper while delivering a sermon, and he caused a little bit of an uproar one year when the church’s Easter mailer said “Bunnies stay dead, Jesus didn’t.”

While Sunday attendance at The Rock surged, the church never could find a permanent home. There were services at a Conway movie theater, the downtown marina and even on a farm. In recent years, as the weekly crowds topped 1,000, Conway High School’s auditorium was the base. Volunteer crews still arrive in the predawn hours every Sunday to set up for church.

The church looked at many options for a building.

At one point, The Rock considered the former Wal-Mart across from the high school. Then there was the one-time Piggly Wiggly on Fourth Avenue. Nothing seemed to fit and the cost of new construction was still too high.

When Childs died, church leaders new they would need to continue the search.

Enter Josh Finklea.

Finklea grew up in Indianapolis and entered Bible college out of high school. He spent most career working in ministries in the Midwest and Florida.

Around the time that The Rock began looking for a pastor, Finklea called an agency that helps place pastors with churches. He told the agency rep that he planned to move sometime in the next 18 months, but he was told there was a Conway church with an immediate opening.

Finklea and his wife, Krista, had honeymooned in Myrtle Beach and vacationed there over the years.

When the rep described The Rock, Finklea thought the church might be a good fit. Meanwhile, the church’s elders studied Finklea’s resume and watched videos of his sermons. They were impressed.

Finklea remembers Derrick calling him on a Tuesday, asking when he could visit. Finklea told him he was free Thursday, but after that he would be booked for six weeks.

“Get on a plane and get here,” Derrick told him.

“That’s 36 hours from now,” Finklea replied.

“We want you to come.”

Finklea flew in that Thursday. His wife, a school principal, arrived on Friday. The couple flew back to Chicago on Saturday and got the job offer as they were driving home. Krista Finklea later landed a job as principal of Socastee Elementary School.

The entire process followed a Biblical timeline — six days.

“It really is a story of God saying, ‘I’ve got plans for you,’” Finklea said. “Scripture says that the Lord has plans for his people: ‘I know that the plans I declare for you, plans to prosper you not to harm you.’ It’s Jeremiah 29:11. It really was a thing where God brought this church and my family together.”

It really is a story of God saying, ‘I’ve got plans for you.’ Scripture says that the Lord has plans for his people: ‘I know that the plans I declare for you, plans to prosper you not to harm you.’ It’s Jeremiah 29:11. It really was a thing where God brought this church and my family together.

Josh Finklea, pastor, The Rock

When he arrived the Conway church, Josh Finklea began retracing Childs’ footsteps, visiting the old big box stores to see what could be done. He eventually learned the land lease for the former Food Lion shopping center was available. Along with the one-time grocery store, the center included a barber shop, bingo parlor, liquor store and sporting goods business.

That meant the church had the opportunity to upfit nearly 30,000 square feet for their sanctuary (the former Food Lion) and gradually expand.

“The way we look at it: we got double the space at half the dollar,” Finklea said. “We doubled our space, but we’re spending less money than we would have spent over there.”

The church plans to honor the tenants’ current leases, but may not renew them if the ministry needs the space.

Not all of the businesses are staying. Some, like the bingo hall, have several years left on their leases.

But Yeager’s ABC owner Jeff Sixeas said he was renting month to month when the church told him The Rock needed the space the liquor store had occupied for nearly four decades. Sixeas, the store’s third owner during that run, has managed the business for the last eight years.

“I don’t think that it had anything to do with my business,” he said of the church’s decision. “They have a vision.”

Next month, Sixeas plans to move into a building inside a gas station across U.S. 501.

“After I got over the initial shock, I guess for me it’s going to end up being a positive thing,” he said. “The mall is falling down around me. … I don’t want to say the business was unsellable, but it wasn’t attractive to a potential buyer. The numbers didn’t really matter. Everybody wants something nice and all that kind of thing. So for me, it’s going to be a blessing.”

Any time you have a church in the community, you like to have a place that says, ‘Here we are.’

Jim Miller, member, The Rock

When The Rock made the decision to take over the shopping center, the church’s leaders told their real estate agent that they would be interested in the Shoney’s building if the restaurant ever moved out.

The opportunity arrived in September. The church has already converted some of the old restaurant into office space and is finishing the coffeehouse.

The Rock plans to spend about $3 million on all the renovations.

When the work is finished, the church will be responsible for more than 40,000 square feet.

The church has also saved money by using volunteer help, particularly with the coffeehouse. Its members include roofers and electricians as well as other retired handymen who donated their skills to help.

“People have stepped up,” Finklea said. “That’s one of our mottos as a church. We say, ‘Love God. Love people. Do something about it.’ We don’t want people sitting on their bums. You know what I mean? Go out and do something … whether that’s serving here or whether that’s being invested in the community.”

“It gives you a chance to give back,” said Hartley Turner, a 60-year-old retired chemical worker who has attended The Rock for a year. “Finally got a home.”

Jim Miller, a 79-year-old who retired from the aerospace industry, has attended The Rock for more than a year. He’s also helping convert the Shoney’s into the church’s coffeehouse.

“Any time you have a church in the community, you like to have a place that says, ‘Here we are,’” said Miller, who helped plant a church in Georgia that grew from office space into its own building.

Miller has no complaints about the high school, but this is different.

“It’s not a permanent place,” he said of the school. “This is permanent.”

The big box sanctuary is expected to be complete this summer, while the former coffee house should be open in late spring.

Dubbed C3 (for coffee, conversations, community), the coffee house will be open to the public, not just church members. Although the church has no plans to use the industrial kitchen, ice cream, smoothies and all things java will be sold there. As a nonprofit, C-3 will donate any extra money to local or international missions.

When Rock leaders talk about having a building, they celebrate the milestone yet they insist that controlling the big box and the shopping center and the Shoney’s aren’t their ultimate goals.

“We’ve always, from the very beginning, said our goal is not to get a building,” Derrick said. “Our goal is to share the gospel and to be in a place amidst the people, out in the marketplace, not hidden away in some kind of safe haven for Christians only.”

Charles D. Perry: 843-626-0218, @TSN_CharlesPerr

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