WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Mike Ashcraft went to college to become an architect. A self-described "completely average" teenager growing up outside of Atlanta, Ashcraft says he was 5'3" and weighed less than 100 pounds when he got his driver's license at the age of 16. Now, 30 years later, Mike Ashcraft has become a heavyweight. Not in a physical way, but in a spiritual one. He co-founded Port City Community Church in 1999, which has grown to have more than 5,000 members in 2017.
Ashcraft says he had a "gnawing" about wanting to be involved in a ministry as early as tenth grade. But his desire to be an architect was stronger. He won a drafting competition in high school, which led to him enroll in what is now Kennesaw State University to earn a degree. He began a career of planning and designing buildings, not yet knowing he would ultimately build something much greater.
Ashcraft says a pivotal moment happened while he worked for an architecture firm in Fayette County, Georgia. Newly married to his high school sweetheart, he got the chance to interview for a position with Chick-Fil-A. "In my mind I'm going, 'I want to be an architect, I want to be in the ministry. How much more Christian can you get than Chick-Fil-A?'," he says about the restaurant chain that founder Truett Cathy decided would close on Sundays "so that he and his employees to set aside one day to rest and worship if they choose".
"So, I went to interview," Ashcraft continues, "and the Human Resource Director's opening question was something about my faith. I just told him 'I think God wants me to be in the ministry'. He said, 'what are you doing here interviewing?' I said 'if I'm honest, I'm just kind of running. I want to be an architect, and I don't want to work in a church'. So that basically turned out to be a therapy session. I told him "I guess I'm not getting this job?' He told me 'no you're not getting this job'. He told me to wait. What me meant was 'don't go back and do nothing. Go back and do what you're doing, do it well, and just trust that God has you'."
Not long afterward Ashcraft had another interview for a ministry job. Through contacts he heard about a youth ministry position at a church in Wilmington. Ashcraft talks about the interview for that job at 6:35 of the podcast. After getting the offer, Mike and Julie moved their things to Wilmington for a new career, and a glimpse of the void he would one day fill.
"I had all these kids in camp at church, but their parents didn't go to that church," he remembers. "I asked them why their parents didn't go to the church, and they said 'we're not Baptists'. I said, 'you don't have to be Baptists to come to our church'."
"About a year and a half in we went to a church in Chicago called Willow Creek Community Church," he adds. "It was basically a church designed for people who didn't go to church. I had never seen this before. That kind of started my journey into thinking 'how could the church, instead of being like 'we're going to open our doors and if you're like us, you belong here and if you're not like us, then good luck'. What I'd found as I began to talk to especially kids and their parents was, most people didn't not believe in God, they just had questions or they'd had experiences or they had done things they thought disqualified them. So, when we started Port City (Community Church), my own journey was one of serious doubt, and I grew up thinking if you doubt, you're a bad Christian. What I learned was, and how I say this is, 'the opposite of faith isn't doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty. Doubt is actually required for faith to exist. So that began a lot of my own journey and when we started Port City, that was kind of the drive, this process-driven faith of 'how do people come to believe what they believe, and change what they believe, and then act on what they believe."
It took until 1999 for the plan to start Port City Community Church to come together. Ashcraft, working with his brother-in-law Chris Kuhne (their wives are twin sisters) put the plan together. They took advantage of the opportunity to rent out Roland Grise Middle School's auditorium for six months at $150 a month. Plans called for the first service to be on the weekend of October 16-17, but Hurricane Irene changed those plans. That actually led to Port City Community Church making news even before the first service, as Mike talks about at 13:25 of the podcast.
They did make it. The first service, Ashcraft remembers, had about 85 people. Word got out, the crowds grew, and the growing pains began as PC3 began stretching the limits of what a middle school auditorium could provide.
"The pressure probably came after about three or four years when the church started to grow," he says. "We were young and naïve, and I think we were fumbling through. I think we got a lot of grace in the early days because I think people knew we were young. There were days at Roland Grise when the air was not working, people would show up and it would be 100 degrees in the auditorium. I remember one week a dog walked into the auditorium. He was just walking around up front while I'm up there. We had one week where birds were birds were in the vents and would randomly fly around. So, people were very gracious in terms of the stuff that was happening because they knew it was sort of temporary."
The crowds began to swell, and the pressures began to mount for the young leader of this growing church. Mike remembers feeling inadequate at times during those early years. He speaks on those issues at 16:20 of the podcast.
By 2005, PC3 had several thousand people attending weekly services and a budget that had grown to about $2 million. The church was outgrowing its middle school home.
"We knew we needed to get our own space because the school was going 'look, we like you guys, but there are way too many people for what we can accommodate'," Mike says. "The auditorium seats about 720 people, and we were running probably close to three thousand for three services. It was just was overcrowded. We would bring cases of toilet paper on Sundays, because on Sundays we would use all their toilet paper for a week. We tried to be mindful of the wear and tear on the building. It wasn't adversarial at all. They said, 'we can't kick a church out but we really need you guys to move on'."
The first attempt to secure a new location did not go well. A site in the Northchase area of New Hanover County fell through, costing the church a good deal of money. The need is there, the pressure grew on Ashcraft to find a home for this church community he leads. Faith, and a conversation with God in the middle of a field along Randall Parkway set the stage.
Ashcraft said that prayer said on a Tuesday. On Friday, he says a woman visited his office saying she knew of 32 acres of land for sale on Cardinal Drive. No one knew the tract was available. Mike continues the story at 22:50 of the podcast.
By July of 2008, a new 90,000 square foot building had risen on the tract of land. Mike Ashcraft, the man who wanted to be an architect, had now designed and built a church for the church he had built since 1999. The new home brought room and comfort in some ways, but anxiety in others.
"We had been in the building about 18 months, and I pulled onto the campus, drove around and pulled into the parking spot," Ashcraft says. "I remember for the first time maybe since the beginning of the church, just being overwhelmed. The question was 'what have I done? what have I gotten myself into?' I didn't know what to do. I'm sitting there saying 'we've got all these people coming, and I don't know what we're supposed to do with them'. We went from three thousand to five thousand people in like eight weeks. I'm sure we hurt people. Not intentionally, but people couldn't get connected. We weren't ready. I think it was that moment when I realized 'okay God, we've got this church, this group of people, this thing that is happening. What is it you want to do with it?' it wasn't so much that this was a gathering place as much as it was a tool. 'What is it you want to do with this? How do we make a difference in the city in which we reside?' That was really the question that started driving the next season of our church."
The growth has continued. PC3 now has four campuses (Wilmington, Leland, Jacksonville and New Bern). Services and lessons are recorded by a video department and posted on social media. Ashcraft wrote a book in 2012 (he calls the process 'torturous') featuring his "My One Word" challenge, which began as a website before gaining national attention through the "K-Love" Christian radio service. Ashcraft talks about that effort at 43:40 of the podcast.
"The best thing I love about it is, I've had businesses use this with their employees, so it's not just in a church setting," he says. "I've been able to go and talk to businesses, executive teams. When someone tells you the kind of person they want to become, you're going to have a really deep conversation with them. I tell business leaders, when you have employees you're entrusted with people's lives. They're looking to you, they want you to lead them well. The best way to lead them well is to know who they want to be. Whether people are Christian or not Christian, I have seen that concept get to the heart of a lot of things and a lot of people and organizations. I've been able to be involved in a whole different culture than the church world. It's been a fun as anything I've done."
People describe the Port City Community Church service as a rock concert. A casual approach to faith. A "feeling". Mike Ashcraft is casual. He loves to surf, does so with friends as often as he can. He is a happily married father with two daughters, one of which is getting married in a few weeks. His message is often delivered in jeans. He may talk from a stage, but this 46-year-old senior pastor will tell you he is walking alongside the thousands who visit PC3 every Sunday.
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