In the early 1990s, John Siebeling and his wife, Leslie, were content being missionaries in Kenya.
The couple had moved to Africa from Baton Rouge, La., to work with a friend and mentor at the Nairobi Lighthouse Church. Siebeling had recently graduated from LSU with a history degree and was fresh out of the Ministers Training Institute at Bethany World Prayer Center.
“Leslie and I were happy in Kenya,” John Siebeling said. “Things were going great. And then I knew it was time for us to go back to the States and pastor our own church. We didn’t know how or where to do that.”
He pulled out a map of the U.S. and started praying over it. He’d been to Memphis only once before, on a mission trip. “I guess something just dropped into my heart,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
The Siebelings moved to Memphis in 1996 to start the Life Church. Fewer than 100 people attended the first worship service in rented space in the old Home Builders Association building in Cordova.
Today, more than 6,000 people attend services at Life Church’s three locations in Cordova, Collierville and Jackson, Tenn. In 2010, Outreach magazine named Life Church the ninth-fastest-growing church in America.
“Those first few years, we felt like we were plowing and wondering when we were going to see what we had planted,” said Leslie Siebeling, who leads the church’s Women’s Ministry. “But we kept going and kept believing.”
According to Lifeway Research in Nashville, 53 of the 100 fastest-growing churches in America are nondenominational.
“I’m not presumptuous enough to claim to know exactly why nondenominational churches are growing like they are,” said John Bryson, teaching pastor at Fellowship Memphis, another large and growing congregation.
“But the churches I know that are growing usually have strong leadership, the freedom to create contextualized ministry, a strong Gospel centrality, rich community, a passion for justice and strong, relevant Bible teaching.”
The Siebelings say those are their goals for Life Church.
“We’re learning to be more relevant, more accepting and open and really helping people,” John Siebeling said. “We try to answer questions that no one else wants to answer. People know we are a church for their Mondays, not just their Sundays.”
A week at Life Church is as busy as a shopping center. In fact, its main campus is in a shopping center on Germantown Road in Cordova. In 2001, the congregation moved into a renovated Mega Market, which they purchased in 2007. Now they own the entire shopping center, and there are plans to expand the ministry there.
Life Church has myriad projects on the board, including medical clinics, occupational training programs and continuing education. There are 45 acres for growth in Collierville, and the Cordova home continues to add services to accommodate an ever-growing congregation.
The current 60,000-square-foot facility has a state-of-the-art multimedia-filled 1,000-capacity sanctuary. Two Saturday evening services and four Sunday services are usually packed and rocking with a 30-voice choir and a full band.
Siebeling bounces from Cordova to Collierville then back to Cordova to lead services each Sunday. Services at the Jackson campus are primarily conducted by video and supplemented by guest speakers.
Television, another part of Life Church’s original vision, continues to spur growth in attendance, the pastor said. Life Church services are broadcast weekly on three local TV stations and one digital channel.
“You see three screens behind me during the service,” he said. “We get the message out about what we’re doing any way we can. We use television, video, websites, Twitter, Facebook. … We hope to have online worship services soon where people can interact with the pastors and the church services in real time.”
Nate Babcock has witnessed Life Church’s growth firsthand. He grew up in the congregation, attending some of its earliest services as a teenager, helping set up chairs in the Home Builders Association building each week.
“It’s a fun service — a lot of life,” Babcock said. “When we moved to the new facility, things really took off.”
Church statistics show that since last August, the congregation has given away more than 140,000 pounds of food, provided more than 157,000 meals to the needy (including almost 2,000 schoolchildren each week), and served more than 7,500 people with their Generous House clothing distribution facility located next to the church.
“We look at it this way — the weekend services are pep rallies for what we do during the week,” Siebeling said. “People are hurting so much these days, particularly financially. That’s how we can make a difference in the community.”
Gabe Bewley, a member for more than three years, said the church has made a difference for him.
“There’s no judgment on anyone there,” he said. “It’s ‘come as you are.’ Outstanding people and great leadership.”