There’s no doubt God is writing the Southeast Christian Church story.
It’s the only explanation for what’s happened in the last 57 years.
During weekend worship services May 25-26, Dave Stone passed the baton of leadership to Kyle Idleman.
That’s monumental. Longevity in leadership is rare. Pastors stay in one church an average 3.6 years, according to LifeWay Research.
Bob Russell was Southeast senior minister for 40 years, and people were sad to see him leave. Dave Stone joined the staff in 1989 and stayed 30 years. People are sad to see him leave. Kyle Idleman has been at Southeast 17 years.
Continued growth for nearly six decades is also rare. It bucks declining membership trends in the last two decades, according to Gallup. About 27,000 people worship at seven Southeast campuses each week. That makes it one of the largest churches in the nation, which is amazing since the size of the church does not match the size of the community. Louisville is 31st on the list of largest U.S. cities.
But the Southeast story did not begin on a big stage. Even now, it runs much like a family.
Church in a basement
On July 1, 1962, about 50 people met in a school lunchroom for the first Southeast service in Louisville’s growing East End.
Southeast charter member Don Waddell said the room smelled like “stale milk.”
Church planters came from South Louisville Christian Church, a visionary church that gave their best, most faithful members to plant four churches in nine years.
They were ordinary people: a worship leader who owned an office supply store, secretaries, homemakers, men who worked for CSX railroad, teachers, factory workers, accountants.
Someone building a megachurch might have overlooked them to choose a more educated, talented group. But God was writing this story, and He specializes in using small things like loaves, fish, manna, a stable in Bethlehem.
Though they were not too impressive in talent or resources, these church planters served an extraordinary God. They were faithful and committed to excellence.
On June 12, 1966, Bob Russell preached his first sermon at Southeast under the furnace pipes in the basement of a red brick house on Hikes Lane that was the church’s first home. Megachurch was never in his sights.
He was a different preacher who made people laugh in church. They took home truth that changed how they lived during the week. The church doubled the first year and never stopped growing as people began to understand God’s story to send Jesus to redeem the broken and the lost.
As people’s stories intersected with God’s story, marriages were mended, lives were transformed and those who were lost found purpose in life.
Ordinary people sacrifice in extraordinary ways
In 1967, Southeast’s first sanctuary, with 550 seats, was dedicated on Hikes Lane.
By 1983, five services had standing room only. As members watched thousands a year decide to follow Christ, no sacrifice seemed too much.
They needed $1.5 million to move to a larger campus down the block. Each elder donated $3,500 to kick off fundraising.
Most had to borrow the money.
Elder Jack Coffee attended the next board meeting with a cane and cup for donations. As they left the meeting, an elder quipped, “I’ll be outside polishing shoes for a fee.”
Another shot back, “Who has shoes?”
Elder Billy Beauchamp prayed, “I just pledged money I don’t have for people I don’t know because of a God I love very much.”
Southeast never had access to unlimited funds. Ordinary people sacrificed in extraordinary ways. So they gave. And gave. And gave again.
People brought their prized possessions to a church auction: season tickets to U of L basketball games, a scarf Elvis Presley used to wipe his face at a concert. An 8-year-old donated the money he saved for a new bike, and a server at a restaurant gave a month of tips—$400—to the project.
The new sanctuary at 2840 Hikes Lane opened in 1987, but within five years, it was too crowded.
In 1998, the church moved to a larger campus on Blankenbaker Parkway.
Going outside church walls
As he took over as senior pastor, Dave Stone’s primary concern was for those outside church walls. He made the church’s mission “connecting people to Jesus and one another.”
“To those who might say they would never come to Southeast, ‘We will come to you,’” Stone said, as he announced plans to start multisite campuses in communities with minimal church attendance. Six campuses opened in the next 13 years: Indiana (2009), Crestwood (2011), Southwest (2014), La Grange (2017), Elizabethtown (2017) and River Valley (2019).
Each campus is growing and meeting needs in the community.
Stone began favorite community outreach events such as Shine, a prom for those with disabilities; Help Build Hope, in which church members framed walls in parking lots for families in New Orleans and later Louisville communities; and the Famine Relief Food Pack, in which church members packed meals for people in Africa.
Stone believes that under Idleman’s leadership, Southeast’s best days are ahead.
No one takes credit for what God has done at Southeast, for no one could have designed, engineered or planned what has happened in 57 years.
According to church records, more than 97,000 people have made decisions to follow Christ or become part of the church.
God gets all the glory.