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Lanier Hills Church growing by leaps and bounds
Congregation adds 2nd site in North Hall as pastors coordinate messages
Randall Popham, left, is the Lanier Hills Church senior pastor and leads worship services at the original Duckett Mill Road location. Trent Dollyhigh is the pastor of the new Mount Vernon road campus. The two pastors preach to each other's congregations and share services via video conferencing. - photo by BRANDEE A. THOMAS

When many churches seek to add additional locations, they tend to look outside of their current city.

That's not the path that Lanier Hills Church chose to follow. It operates two campuses in Gainesville: the original Duckett Mill Road campus and a new North Hall campus on Mount Vernon Road.

"We're one church. We're just in two locations," said Randall Popham, Lanier Hills senior pastor, who leads service at the original Duckett Mill Road location.

"Trent (Dollyhigh, the North Hall campus pastor) and I work on our sermons together. We preach through the same books in the Bible, so we know the big idea of what the other is teaching each week."

The pastors even take turns preaching at the other's campus and regularly use video conferencing technology to link the two churches on Sundays.

"If you one week went to one campus, to the other the next week and back, you're not going to miss a lesson," Popham said. "We have the same worship style and the same vision."

According to the pastors, the expansion isn't about creating a megachurch.

"Our heart, our vision, isn't to grow big but to grow wide. We want to spread out in different communities," Popham said.

"It's a biblical model of church planning," Dollyhigh added.

"Jesus didn't say for us to sit still, grab a megaphone and yell, ‘Y'all come.' Jesus said, ‘Go.' We feel like he's given us a vision to go out into the community to reach as many people as we can."

The church began implementing its idea for a second location within Hall County about two years ago by holding evening services at other churches in northern parts of the county. In February, enough funds were raised within the congregation to set up the location on Mount Vernon Road.

"It's only about 15 minutes from the other campus, but what we decided was that people tend to group around the schools in their community," Popham said.

"This is the North Hall district. The (Duckett Mill) location is in the Chestatee High School district. Even though it's close, we're still able to reach different demographics.

"There are around 30 families that came from Duckett Mill who are pioneers here."

The warehouse-sized building and former church had been abandoned for five years, so the congregation had a lot of work to do before they could move in. There were cosmetic changes like new carpet and paint, but also larger issues like a damaged roof and a plumbing system with more than 300 leaks.

"I told (our volunteers) that this is a big elephant, so we'll take one bite at a time," Dollyhigh said. "We started with the fellowship hall and began worship in there."

After renovating the fellowship hall, the group turned attention toward spaces for the youth ministry and small-group meeting spaces.

"We have some of the most amazing, hardworking volunteers that I've ever met," Dollyhigh said. "They make this work."

They converted the former worship center - which they felt was too large for their congregation - into a community recreational space.

"This is an incredible facility. One of our goals when we got this property was to use it seven days a week to bless somebody," Dollyhigh said.

"There's not enough places (for teams) to practice in this area - that's been an issue for a while. Now God has put us in a position to be able to help out with that. We have community coaches using the gym five days a week, and we have folks coming in on Saturdays using it.

"We don't charge anything to use the space. We've been encouraged to be able to bless them with this space. We want to be a giver, not a taker."

Apparently, the community likes what it sees. Both locations are experiencing healthy growth.

"If you start a brand new church, it usually takes 10 people attending to baptize one new person," Popham said.

"If you're 10 years old, or older it takes 100 people in attendance to reach one new person.

In our church, we're reaching one

new baptism per seven people attending."

On the average Sunday, there are about 400 people at the Duckett Mill campus. In North Hall, there are about 125 regular attendees, capacity in the fellowship hall.

"We've hit a growth spurt from being in this great location," Dollyhigh said.

"Some Sundays, we've had 140 people come, so we'll have people standing up because they can't fit inside."

To accommodate the surge in attendance, the group is planning to renovate the former gym for a new worship space and use the existing fellowship hall for the youth ministry.

The planned site would double the current worship occupancy, but it's still cozier than the old worship space used as the rec center.

If it's God's will, the pastors say there will be more Lanier Hills campuses in and around Hall County.

"We're not going to be overly ambitious and outrun God. We're going to take it a step at a time," Dollyhigh said.

"We're getting ready to celebrate the greatest birth of the universe, the day Jesus came to us. Instead of building a church and telling the people to come, we want to create more campuses and bring Jesus to the people, who may never come to church."