Volunteers convert high school gym into church every weekend

On school days, the Walker High gym echoes with students, but on Sunday mornings, it rocks.

Each Saturday, an army of volunteers transforms the gym into a sanctuary for Bethany Church’s newest location.

One of the state’s largest nondenominational churches with attendance of about 10,000, Bethany expanded Feb. 9 to Livingston Parish, where nearly 1,000 area residents worship in two Sunday morning services.

The church has established campuses in Baker and South Baton Rouge.

But before services can happen on Sunday in Walker, teams of volunteers show up Saturday to roll out a floor covering, hang up a black curtain around the basketball court, set up a stage and 500 padded folding chairs and hook up a state-of-the-art sound system. An arena-style girder rack frames the stage with a light system and a large screen displays video beamed from Bethany’s other campuses.

The volunteers, about 150 in all, also turn the cafeteria into a worship area for students while a nearby wing of classrooms is transformed into a baby and children’s area complete with crawler-safe floor mats; kid-sized tables and chairs; and a bar-coded security system to match children with parents.

On Sunday afternoon, the church’s equipment is stored away in shipping containers and everything is returned to school-ready condition for Monday classes.

“We had a lot of families driving from here to our South Campus, so instead of having them drive to Baton Rouge we decided to have a campus here,” says Bethany’s senior Pastor Jonathan Stockstill during a recent Sunday visit, his first to the new Livingston campus. “We have about 800 of our current congregation here and a lot of visitors and new people as well.”

Cameron and Melissa Wiggins are co-pastors of the Livingston campus. Melissa is Jonathan Stockstill’s younger sister. Their brother, James Stockstill, is the campus worship leader.

“We have a lot of young families with young kids,” says Cameron Wiggins. “We’re praying about growing the church and looking for land to build in the future.”

A church of any size, especially one the size of Bethany, needs a well-organized system of volunteers.

“Without volunteers nothing would get done,” Melissa Wiggins says. “They rotate in teams so they can worship every other week.”

Dennis Brinegar lives in Denham Springs, and had been driving to the South Campus in Baton Rouge for six years. He volunteers in several areas.

“To me this is the best church in Livingston Parish,” he says. “If you want to find Christ — this is the place.”

Brett Duplessis, lives in French Settlement and serves on a security team.

“Six years ago my wife and I had a list of churches we wanted to visit, and visited Bethany South and never visited anywhere else,” Duplessis says. “This is our home church.”

School and church separation

While some critics may disapprove of church services in a public school, it’s not that uncommon, and Bethany has the school board and superintendent’s approval.

“We’re following all policy and state law and federal law,” says Superintendent John Watson. “A facilities-use agreement the board has is in place, and they have provided some in-kind donations as far as facilities improvement.”

Those improvements include a commercial air conditioning system Bethany installed in the gym and the renovation of some restrooms, says Jonathan Stockstill. “We have a great relationship with the district. It’s like any other religious group that wanted to utilize the facilities on the weekend.”

Happy visitors

After the service, Tina Snyder, of Denham Springs, and her 13-year-old daughter, Emmily, and Tina’s sister, Dawn Easley, who just moved here from Pennsylvania, were taking photos in front of a Bethany Church banner.

Tina Snyder says she and Emmily had commuted to the South Campus, but this was their first visit here. It was also Easley’s first visit.

“When I was in Bethlehem (Pa.) I attended a Roman Catholic Church. It was very structured,” Easley says. “This was awesome. I loved it. I prayed and I felt good and I felt free and I was alive. It was beautiful.”

“It was fun. It was, like, so upbeat,” adds Emmily Snyder. “It was very heartwarming.”

“I think it was great,” says Tina Snyder. “I’ve always loved the Stockstills. They have a way of preaching to your heart and just knowing what you need to hear. It’s moving and inspirational.”

A family ministry

Bethany was founded 50 years ago in the Baker home of Roy Stockstill and steadily grew into a major church in the Baker area. Roy passed the mantle to his son, Larry, in 1983 and the ministry exploded with growth. Larry turned the ministry over to his son, Jonathan, two years ago and now oversees a successful ministry planting hundreds of house churches around the world.

Larry Stockstill and wife Melanie have six grown children, and all of them are in the ministry.

Jonathan Stockstill’s wife and co-pastor, Angie, oversees pre-kindergarten through 12th grade Bethany School and the new Bethany College.

Another son, Jared Stockstill, is head of Bethany’s support staff while youngest son, Jason, attends a Bible college in Dallas and oldest son, Joel, a youth evangelist also in Dallas, is awaiting a kidney transplant.