“When we moved here, from day one I always thought, ‘That building is going to be our building one day,’” said Mike Carlton, Lead Pastor of Bloom Church. It was “crazily priced” but Mike said, “I used to drive by it every day and pray over it: ‘God, thank You for giving us this building and thank You for providing the finances to buy it and remodel it and fully furnish it.’” His young children even joined in the prayers.
That was more than 5 years ago. In that time, Mike launched Bloom Church in Branson, Missouri, beginning with a launch team of 7 in his living room. And their meeting location has been a journey.
Seeing Beyond the Surface
From the very start, space was an issue. Bloom Church began by meeting in a 1,000-seat theater, roping off most of the seats so that the small congregation would have to sit near the front. But like most theaters in Branson—a town that sees 6 million tourists a year—it was just an auditorium plus a small foyer where they set up a makeshift space for the kids.
After being forced to relocate when that space was shut down, Bloom Church found another theater. This one, seating 260, was “nothing but an auditorium,” said Mike. The entrance to the auditorium leads right in front of the stage. “If you’ve got to go to the bathroom, you walk in front of everybody. If you come in late, everybody sees you,” said Mike. As for the kids, there was an office facility behind the theater, but getting there required a trek down a hallway with air conditioner units and trash chutes.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Mike and his team trusted that God would show up. “We ended up growing in a facility that no one should grow in,” said Mike. By their third year, the attendance at Bloom Church hit 1,000, and now after about 5 years in the space, more than 1,500 come to 5 services, including 300-400 children.
“We haven’t had a Sunday where someone hasn’t given their heart to Jesus in over four years,” said Mike.
But Mike kept driving by that original building he loved. Admittedly, it was an odd-looking building to fixate on. It was a theater that used to belong to an illusionist. “The front was this Taj Mahal, onion-looking thing, which was … crazy,” Mike admitted. “Inside was an Arabian Nights theme, a weird vibe.”
Somehow, Mike saw beyond the exterior. “The reason I liked this building is it had a warehouse addition attached behind it that they built for their Bengal tigers.” (Yes, you read that correctly.) “It was plenty of space to build a kids’ facility.” Plus he liked that the location wasn’t on “the tourist side of Branson.”
Negotiating with God?
God’s story with Bloom Church began long before the building woes. In fact, Bloom Church almost never happened. After feeling the call to plant a church, “I started negotiating with God,” said Mike, “telling Him I’ve got three cities I’ll go to,” and none of them was Branson. But Mike laughed as he concluded, “Negotiating with God never works out in your favor.”
Mike and his wife both started feeling God pointing them toward Branson. “I started telling some of my pastor friends that God’s telling me to go to Branson, and they’re like, ‘No. Don’t go. You’ll never make it there. You wear skinny jeans and flat-billed hats. You’ll never reach anyone in Branson. It’s not your demographic.’”
Yet the Carltons decided to drive around Branson and pray. They ended the day in a grocery store parking lot. There Mike said God switched his vision “to the eyes of a local, not the eyes of a tourist,” filling him with “supernatural love” for the people who call Branson home. Mike sensed God’s Spirit urging, “You’re going to pastor these people.”
Blooming in Branson
Yes, Branson is a tourist town that cultivates a small-town feel, but “the city limits are very deceiving,” Mike pointed out. “Most of the subdivisions are outside the city limits.” In fact, there are about 200,000 people in a 30-mile radius, many who’ve come to work in the tourist industry, as well as people who were born and raised in the area. As a result, Bloom Church, like Branson itself, has “a lot of people with eclectic backgrounds,” with a wide range of ages and backgrounds worshiping God together.
With such rapid growth, Mike and his team had to ask themselves, “How can we be intentionally, personally connecting with people?” They needed to adapt the church’s infrastructure and leadership because they realized, “If our people are healthy, we will naturally continue to grow. We want to see people bloom into who they were created to be,” Mike said.
“We haven’t had a Sunday where someone hasn’t given their heart to Jesus in over four years.” —@michaelscarlton
In their quest to help each person live with purpose, the church is launching Bloom University, an accredited program to train and equip young people for ministry and send them out. “We believe the body of Christ doesn’t compete with each other, we complete each other,” said Mike. “We’re 100% pro the Kingdom of God.” They’re also hosting an event for pastors called Cultivate Intensive that’s “all about trying to encourage, empower, and help people grow their churches.”
This focus on health, alongside a deep faith in the power of God’s Spirit transforming lives, has put Bloom Church in a position to meet the needs of their community. Branson is a hub for methamphetamines, and many at Bloom and in the community “have dealt with substance abuse or been raised in homes with substance abuse,” said Mike.
“There is a strong need for foster and adoptive care. There are literally 30 to 40 kids [in need of care] per foster family in our county.” Bloom is starting a ministry to help care for kids, but Mike said they also want to “be life-giving for the biological parents because we do believe anyone who encounters Jesus can be redeemed and changed. We want to help restore families.”
But what about that building Mike had been praying over for years? The real estate signs disappeared, and no one could get a hold of the owner for a year and a half. When they did, the price was still beyond their reach, and months of negotiating got nowhere.
“Well, God, maybe I got it wrong,” Mike thought.
A year later, the owner’s rep called: “We want to make a deal with you, and you’re the only people we want to make a deal with.”
Now Bloom needed a financial partner to make it happen. The staff had met a CDF Capital team member years earlier and remembered CDF now that the dream building was available.
As such a young church, said Executive Pastor Tyler Long, “We didn’t have the means to prove we could do this.” So they approached CDF, asking them to partner with Bloom in faith. “When CDF had the same views on the relationship, it gave us the comfort and peace to know that this wasn’t a one-time transaction; we’re going to build a relationship here that’s going to last years down the road.”
There were some twists and turns in the process of figuring out the details, but Tyler felt confident that they had chosen the right partner to be by their side and help Bloom find solutions.
“Even in the beginning,” Tyler said, “we had such a positive experience in the negotiation of this loan and figuring out what we needed. There were multiple times where the conversation was, ‘We’ve got to get more creative.’ It’s been so incredible having the ability to say, ‘Let’s pray about this and come back tomorrow.’”
Finally, the renovations are underway on the building to presto chango this space built for an illusionist and voilà, turn it into a space fit for a church. There have been huge props to remove and a giant aquarium to give away, but things are coming along.
“The big onion is gone,” said Mike. “Now I just have to step around all the trap doors in the stage.” (That’s no joke!) “I might use them periodically to make myself look a little more majestic,” he said, laughing.
As Bloom Church anticipates the transformation of this worship space, they continue to transform the community around them. Because the church that fell in love with a quirky building is the same church ready to love every person in Branson—especially those who don’t quite know where they fit in—quirks and all.
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