They just love God. To hear them tell it, it’s as simple as that. Pastor Tavner Smith and his wife of nine years Danielle – founders and leaders of the nine-week-old Venue Church at 5959 Shallowford Road in Chattanooga – have a goal to help one hundred people say “yes” to a life devoid of the pain of their pasts, and full of an exciting future at the church’s Christmas Eve service. Service begins at 4 p.m. and, according to Pastor Smith, promises to be like nothing Chattanoogans have ever experienced inside church walls.
The Smiths have lived and led on extraordinary levels before either of them has seen age 35. They are not strangers to making bold moves in a short amount of time. From 2000 – 2003, he’d traveled the country playing guitar in a Christian band (3 Nailz) and ministering through music to youth at conferences and in churches. After meeting Danielle at North Greenville University in South Carolina, they married in 2004 and mutually pursued their areas of interest. She graduated in 2005 with a degree in Communications and Broadcasting. From 2004 - 2006, he played in a new band (Too Late May), which wasn’t a Christian band, but included all Christian members. But, they weren’t playing youth conferences and churches. They played bars and clubs.
“I was supposed to tour with 3 Nailz. It was an assignment,” Smith said. “But, that wasn’t the case with the Too Late May tour. I never had peace about taking that gig. I just wanted to do it, so I did it. It took me five long, hard, lack-filled years to get back to where God wanted me to be after my last music tour. After experiencing that hardship – and the consequences of not staying on God’s path – disobedience was never again an option.”
During that time of hardship, the Smiths began attending Redemption World Outreach Center (Redemption) – a 15,000-member church pastored by Ron Carpenter, Jr. “We had no intention of being anything but members,” said Smith.
Apparently God had something else in mind. At the time, only God was aware of what that something else would be.
After years of playing music for spiritually hungry youth, Smith saw the Redemption youth group, and knew in his heart it was his to lead. In 2006, Smith began volunteering with the youth as a monitor – keeping and establishing order during youth services.
Things moved at warp speed from there.
After being promoted just about every year from 2006-2012, Smith was eventually promoted to Executive Youth Pastor, and making decisions for the entire youth ministry – including college-aged young adults. This promotion gained him access to the mentoring of Carpenter. Soon, Smith was speaking to the adult congregation in Carpenter’s occasional absence. Carpenter chose Smith for this occasional role – in addition to his role as Executive Youth Pastor – to encourage a passion in Smith for ministering to adults.
Danielle was also an executive level employee at Redemption. After working three years at a Greenville-based company specializing in the production of national advertising campaigns, she was laid off when the recession hit and decided that was the time to put her professional life on hold and raise their family. She had two daughters in the next two years (in addition to the one they already had), all the while offering Carpenter tidbits of her marketing expertise. In typical Smith fashion, she was offered the Marketing Director position. But with two young babies and a preschooler, she didn’t want to sacrifice valuable time at home with them in exchange for a cool title and total professional autonomy. So, she made the church a counter-offer she’d hoped they would refuse. They didn’t. All of her terms – including working from home – were accepted, and she began a complete overhaul of its marketing department.
Admittedly, life was comfortable for the Smiths.
“We were extremely comfortable. Danielle and I both had dream jobs at a 15,000-member church doing what we loved,” Smith said. “We were serving people we loved serving, and seeing massively successful results but, I was frustrated. Actually, I became miserable. I could sense a season was changing for me.”
Smith’s misery ensued after he’d launched his spiritual “baby” – Unite – a high-energy, unconventional one-night per month Christian gathering designed to win over the hearts and souls of the most resigned, cynical demographic: teens. Against every imaginable odd, four thousand youth, adults and local leaders – from many denominations – showed up for Smith’s first Unite conference (exceeding his goal of 1,500).
“Two days after the first Unite conference, I heard God tell me something in my spirit,” said Smith. “He said, ‘Get ready. You’re not going to be doing this long.’ I asked – out loud – what that meant. The only word I heard after that was ‘Shift,’ so I began to pray about what the shift would be.”
While in the throes of building a new home in Greenville – and just four weeks from closing – Smith announced to Danielle that he was clear they were to leave the cozy comfort of their church and plant a church of their own.
“As soon as Tavner told me, I knew we wouldn’t be in Greenville (South Carolina) anymore,” said Danielle. “We respected our pastor, and there was no chance we would plant a church in the same city. Nevertheless, we knew Tavner had been given a direct assignment from God, so there was no decision to make, really. We requested our pastor’s blessing, got it and waited to hear from God where we were supposed to go. Being radically obedient is the only way we live.”
Enter Chattanooga: Site of “The Shift” - the place where, according to Smith, a great move of God will happen.
Between Smith’s father, a book by Mark Batterson titled In the Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, hours of introspective prayer and an un-coincidental coincidental encounter with another Youth Pastor, Smith got the confirmation that his and Danielle’s roots were to be established in Chattanooga. After asking eight couples in Greenville to consider moving with them to plant Venue Church in Chattanooga (all eight couples said “yes”), they canceled the closing of their house, replaced their staff positions at Redemption, and moved to Chattanooga.
“People say Chattanooga means ‘the point of a rock rising up,’” Smith said. “I believe it’s spiritually ripe and perfectly positioned to be the catalyst city for a revolutionary spiritual overtaking that will influence the nation, allowing the Rock (which the Bible describes as Jesus) to rise up in people, and ultimately shift the culture. In this time of extreme moral decline, Danielle and I believe this country is crying out for people in our age demographic to stand up and say, ‘Enough. Any standard of spiritual and moral living that is less than what God intends for us ends now.’”
Their age demographic, by the way, is what many refer to as “the entitlement generation.” He’s 33. She’s 29.
Compared with many people their ages that are floundering aimlessly about – sometimes wreaking havoc - the Smiths can be considered maverick ministers.
After 90 days of 18-hour-a-day DIY remodeling, Smith and a few (very few) others transformed the 10,000 square-foot space at 5959 Shallowford Road into Venue Church. “The word venue means the place where something happens. We want our church to live up to that name, and be the place where whatever people need happens,” said Smith.
As with Smith’s Unite launch, Venue Church’s opening “worship experience” (that’s what they call church service) on Oct. 13, had 436 in attendance.
“The number of people who came to Venue Church’s first service is unheard of, really,” said Smith. “Since we launched in October, we’re averaging around 250 people every Sunday. I do my best to manage my expectations. I wanted 1,000 people on opening Sunday. But, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get as many people as possible to know how much God loves them. When people figure that out, they consider coming to church a right and a privilege – not an Easter and Christmastime chore. To shift culture, we have to love people right where they are and help them to realize that who they are is greater than what they do. And, we have to unwrap Jesus out of the box religion has unfortunately put Him in. We want to unwrap Jesus in a way that draws people to their best life that is not possible without Him.”
“We don’t want Venue Church to be a Christian country club – a bunch of Christians getting together every week, and keeping their faith to themselves,” said Danielle. “The point is to be such great examples of how wonderful it is to live for Christ that other people who either don’t know Jesus – or have had Jesus wrongly represented to them – find the Jesus we know impossible to resist.”
Chattanooga is receiving the Smiths and Venue Church well. Smith went to lunch with a local business owner who told him, “There’s never been a church like this in Chattanooga in my lifetime.”
All signs are pointing the same way: Venue Church has arrived at the right time, on time.
About The Venue Church
1. We Serve Like Crazy
2. We are Radically Obedient
3. We Give Until It Hurts
4. We Honor Everyone
5. We Suit Up
6. We Strive for Excellence
7. We Pay It Forward
8. We Leave No Man Behind
9. We Pray Until Something Happens
10. We Are Bringers
11. We Know the Truth
12. We Are Never Finished
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