FORKS OF ELKHORN — Todd Lester, pastor of Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church near Midway, knows people don't always come to church through the front door.
In fact, he understands the sentiment so well his congregation is investing millions of dollars in a recreational facility to rival many commercial gyms, hoping that people who come to play will stay to pray in his rural Kentucky church.
The church is building a 61,300-square-foot addition that will include an elevated walking track, two basketball courts, a workout room, weight rooms and all manner of classes and athletic leagues.
Lester said the new CROSS center — which stands for Christian Recreation Outreach Strengthening Souls — is an amped up version of a tool he's used for years in his ministry — the church basketball or softball league.
Lester hopes it will both be a service to, and an invitation for, the community.
"They might come in through the back door or side door," he said, "hopefully we will get them into the sanctuary."
Lester knows show to attract people to church, his church most specifically. When he started at Forks of Elkhorn about 15 years ago, the congregation had 35 members and were meeting in the same small building where it had begun services more than 200 years ago.
He built a sandwich-board kind of sign to place out on U.S. Highway 421 just to let people know that the little chapel was in business down Duckers Lane, north of Midway, south of Frankfort and surrounded by farm land.
Lester doubled the church's membership in the first few years. Since then, Forks of the Elkhorn Baptist Church has grown to 2,000 members and in 2003 the congregation moved into a new, modern church building.
The planning for the recreation center began about four years ago, Lester said. At the time, in the midst of the recession, the economy didn't seem ripe for a large building campaign. But, he and the congregation were rapidly outgrowing its current space and needed a larger area for children's ministry. Church members agreed there was a recreational need to be meet, too, and a way to reach out to the community.
"The body is the temple of God," said Lester. "When we give our lives to Christ, we have to try to take care of the temple."
The new church building — scheduled to open this in late spring or early summer— has provided the church with some experience in tackling a big project. As a sign of commitment to the effort, the project, which cost $3.5 million in 2003, and was paid off in six years, said Lester.
And, the church has hired a recreational director, Lee Rainwater, who had worked in physical education at Asbury University for 16 years.
The center will have state-of-the-art equipment but a decidedly different atmosphere than most gyms, Rainwater explained. A dress code with an eye toward modesty will be enforced and families will be encouraged to participate together.
"We don't want anybody to feel intimidated," Rainwater said, adding he plans to work with local schools, such as Georgetown and Midway colleges, to offer internships to students majoring in recreation or related fields.
Church members will be able to use the facilities for free, Lester said, and members of the community will pay a nominally fee, though the specifics haven't been determined. There won't be a hard sell on gym membership, both men say. Instead, as people get to know each other while working out it's possible that an invitation to Sunday worship services might be extended, Lester said.
The theme of tending to body, mind and spirit will become more evident throughout the church as the opening of the center nears, Lester said. And even as the physical space occupied by the church grows, the small-town heart of the church will be preserved, he added.
Plus, you're likely to see Lester out on the basketball court because he doesn't want to the guy "in a suit on Sunday morning at the pulpit."
"I still go out there and play," he said.