“Every community needs a life-giving church. Have you ever been in a life-sucking church? It’s the opposite of that.”
So what finally drew you to be a pastor?
I was playing with the band one time at a youth concert and we agreed someone should say something. They all said I should because my dad was a pastor. And when I did, the kids listened. I said, Wow, maybe there is something here.
So what were your first jobs in ministry?
My first three jobs I got fired. I was a youth pastor at each of them and I finally figured out that might not be my role.
Did you ever experience depression?
During the third job I got fired from, I got depressed but I persevered through it.
How bad was the depression?
Oh, really bad. It was six months of depression where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I remember one time when we were driving to see my parents in St. Louis and we went to eat somewhere. I broke down and just starting crying. I told my wife I was going to quit. She talked me out of it.
How did she do that?
One of the things she did was buy me a book from a bargain bin for 25 cents. It still has a priority place on my bookshelf. It’s called All Originality Makes a Dull Church. The premise is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Probably the biggest church I had ever been in had 300 people in it. In this book were stories on people like Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel, Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, Gene Getz, Fellowship Bible Church in Texas—and I went, Wow. Something inside me wanted to be part of a different kind of church.
So what was next?
My wife and I were two things: burnt out and poor. We were on government welfare. I mean they would pull the Women and Children’s truck up to our house and just unload all kinds of stuff. So what did we decide to do? Plant a church.
So how did you decide to move to Charleston?
My cousin was married to a pastor here in Charleston, a great church, Northwood Assembly. The pastor called me. He said, “Our elders have been praying about you coming to Charleston, being on staff with us, and maybe planting a church one day.” About a year into my job, the pastor told me I was created to plant a church. I said, “But I’m doing a great job as associate pastor,” and he said, “No, you are not. You are making us all crazy.” So they mapped out an area where Seacoast is now and asked me to plant a church. It was a totally gracious offer from a gracious man.
Seacoast is now one of the largest churches in the nation with more than 20,000 people attending 12 multisites. After three pink slips, what made the difference for you as a pastor?
I got hold of Philippians 4. It says, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice.” It says, “Whatever things are pure and of good report, think on these things.” In cognitive psychology, I think this translates to think on the truth about your self. That began to form the core of much of my preaching.
After you started Seacoast in 1988, what did you learn about church planting?
How not to do it. We met for the first time in a movie theater. We had 330 people and that’s all we could fit on the first Sunday. That number immediately went back to 150. We had fewer people than that first Sunday for the next five years. We were the slowest growing megachurch in the world.
We began to ask, “What does a fully devoted follower of Jesus look like?” I came to the conclusion that maturity is not so much about what you know but about who you are. We began to ask critical questions:
How you doing at loving God?
How you doing at loving yourself?
How you doing at loving people who are like you?
How you doing at loving people who aren’t like you?
And how are you doing with people who don’t like you?
Those questions became the core of our discipleship.
How did that change the direction of the church?
Paul says the only thing that counts is faith exercising itself in love. The only way you can really love is when you receive the love of the Father. And then by faith, you extend that love to others. So the evangelical in me says that every community needs and deserves a life-giving church.
What do you mean by a life-giving church?
Have you ever been in a life-sucking church? It’s the opposite of that. You know one when you are in one. It’s empowering, not controlling. It’s loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s putting together the pieces of a church that is outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused. It’s focused on Jesus and loving each other. Rick Warren [pastor of Saddleback Church in California] says it’s a church structured for growth, not division.
In Part 2 of the interview, Surratt talks about the beginnings of his organization, the Association of Related Churches, and how he’s progressing in his challenge to plant 2,000 churches.