BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn — Churches in Blount County are uniting for a bigger message than their usual sermons. For the first three weeks in January, 21 pastors preached at 21 different churches.
The movement is called 'Awake 21.' The pastors involved say it's the first of its kind in the country.
The faith-filled effort aims to cross lines among Christian denominations. Each pastor and church involved wants hope to carry through each message and to spark conversation in the community.
On Friday, multiple Blount County pastors gathered at their usual meeting place inside a Smith Funeral Home event building. Each sat around a round table, facing the center and reflecting on the past 21 days.
Each person came from a different background, belief & denomination.
"In a way, that just reminds us a little bit of a glimpse of what heaven is going to be like because we're all going to be there in the one church in Christ, and it's pretty exciting," said Chris Pass, the pastor at Grandview Baptist Church.
Although they each preach for different churches in the county, they agree on the core values of Christianity.
"We've got a common goal, a common purpose," John Lowe, the pastor at Tuckaleechee Chapel said. "We've prayed together, we've worshiped together, we've sang together, we've rejoiced in the Lord together."
Some pastors admitted, in the beginning, they didn't know how it would work. Over the course of 21 days, their eyes were opened.
"It's easier to find common ground than divisions," Doug Hayes, the pastor at Everett Hills Baptist Church said. "What a wonderful thing we can actually make networks of people worshiping God together."
It was an idea started by the Faith and Family Coalition, located in Blount County. The organization wanted to unite the Christian organizations but, at first, didn't know how to do it.
That board started brainstorming, and before too long, came up with the model of 21 pastors preaching in 21 different churches for 21 days.
"When it was mentioned to the pastors, this group of pastors, it was like throwing a match on gasoline or something — it just blew up. They had already been praying for it, and that was just the spark that sent them off," said Les Burnette, a layperson at Pleasant Grove Baptist.
They want to prove unity is stronger than division.
"This is not about race, this is not about religion, it's about God," said Richard Turney, the pastor at Resthaven Missionary Baptist.
They preach from the same book, the Bible, but they place it in different pulpits than they are used to, so they can share God's message.
"Different pastors preach, but all of them standing on the Word of God on core beliefs that we all hold in common," Scott Linginfelter, the pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church said. "All of us have been able to stand together to say, 'Yes, we all believe in this, and we're all together in this joint venture to stand on Jesus Christ and the word of God.'"
The message and power go beyond Blount County.
"I want to say it's a movement, that it has not only affected our county but it's affected the whole world," said Raymond Goodman, the Executive Pastor at RIO Network of Churches. "We could have never imagined that would have happened, and that's why it had to be a God thing."
Over 8,000 people attended the services, but the reach bleeds into the screen, with thousands of hits in the course of a month on social media.
"On Facebook, we've reached over 50,000 people online that have viewed all the services," said media organizer Billy Arnett. "On the website, we've had 1,000 hits today, so in the process of that, the website has reached out to 18 countries."
They, and the pastors also involved from dozens of other churches in the area, say it's just the beginning.
"We just want our community to know—not just here in Blount County—but we hope everywhere around the world, that there is hope in Jesus Christ," said Ed Santana, the pastor at Maryville Seventh Day Adventist Church.
January 21 is the last night for the Awake 21 services. It's at 7 p.m. at Rio Revolution Church.
The team is also planning a free, evangelistic event for April 3 through 6 at the Smoky Mountain Speedway.
"It's going to be primarily an event to reach lost people," Linginfelter said. "We're having that at a venue that's not a church. This is not a denominational event. It's across denominational lines. We have a pastor from Morristown, Dean Haun is going to be our evangelist for the week, we have different music groups coming in each night, and we're going to try to reach lost people with this event. So hopefully, what happened this week permeates our community and we're able to reach other people with the good news that Jesus saves."
Awake 21 hopes this model of preaching and worship is adopted in other communities.