During a pre-COVID-19 service, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., pastor of The New Olivet Worship Center, leads congregants in prayer. (Courtesy photo)

Moving “out east” for The New Olivet Baptist Church sparked an exciting metamorphosis into a world-class, mega-ministry, The New Olivet Worship Center.

An ever-growing family of mature, worshipful and committed Christians is emerging from a year-long pandemic, ready to impact its suburban community and the world with the gospel of Jesus. 

From Southern Avenue in Buntyn to Woodland Hills in Cordova, the change of address was not only good, “but it was God,” said Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., the church’s pastor.

The 2016 move to the15-acre Woodland Hills Event Center was the result of some pressing circumstances that were “orchestrated by the Lord,” he said.

“God’s timing is awesome,” Whalum said. “We were land-locked on Southern Avenue on our single acre of land. The Memphis Country Club literally owned every square inch of real estate on all sides of us.” 

But there was a need to expand church facilities and enlarge the church’s capacity to facilitate more outreach.

The year was 2016, and some decisions had to be made. It was either pour a fortune into renovating and refurbishing their 40-year-old structure or look for some new digs. 

Not only was Memphis Country Club not selling any of its property to New Olivet, but it had asked the congregation to sell their one-acre of land for years.

The church had launched a highly successful charter school in the nearby Orange Mound community. But Whalum knew actual expansion of the church grounds was unlikely.

When our facilities began to degenerate with age, we decided it was time to sell,” Whalum said. “And yes, the offer was too good to pass up.”

That one-acre owned by the church sold at a price tag of $1.5 million. Talk about pricey real estate. But the real kicker is where New Olivet landed.

A 15-acre, multi-million-dollar spread in scenic Woodland Hills became the church’s new home. The move by any measure was a savvy acquisition coup. Plans to build for the next generation are without limits, Whalum said.

Unlike many churches experiencing a dwindling number of young people, teens and the under-40 set are driving growth.

Whalum, to be sure, is not the traditional, conservative mega-church pastor type.

Controversial. Unconventional. Colorful. Socially conscious. Entrepreneurial. These are adjectives that drive Whalum’s ministry, and that also makes him a represented political and social justice pundit on local television news public service shows. 

Four years after the historic church move, Whalum is surer than he ever has been that relocating to east Shelby County was the right move at the right time. 

Traditional, African-American churches located in African-American communities are sometimes characterized as abandoning the neighborhoods that need them the most when they move to the suburbs.

But upwardly mobile parishioners and deterioration of some inner-city areas make moves eastward more conducive to growth and “expanding the church’s footprint.” Whalum characterized the move as “the church following its parishioners.”

Then, in its fourth year, when plans and more plans had painted the church’s future even brighter, the 2020 pandemic happened.

In Whalum’s estimation, God had a deeper purpose for His church in shutting down the whole world. The church has evolved into a real “worship center,” not just in name only.

“The Olives have evolved more deeply into worship and praise,” said Whalum. “We start every service on our faces at the altar. Then we praise the Lord with dance, disco ball and all. Yes, we have an actual disco ball and a dance floor.”

(For those who don’t know, a disco ball is a shimmery ball with glittery, light effects, which was popular in clubs and dance floors during the 1970s.)

So, The New Olivet Worship Center isn’t alone in evolving and growing spiritually as a collective body. But Whalum says he has evolved as well.

Sheila Whalum and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., count themselves among the collective body “evolving and growing spiritually” at The New Olivet Worship Center. (Courtesy photo)

“I have evolved into more of a teacher, particularly with the pandemic, and the need to continue having church online,” Whalum said.

Whalum has never had a shortage of opinions. And, as far as he is concerned, God, through the pandemic, is calling for the Church, the Christian Church, to take an assessment of itself.

“I truly believe the Lord allowed the pandemic lockdown to force ‘The Church’ to self-assess,” Whalum said. “Were we really being ‘The Church’? There are some churches that won’t be back when this is over.”

“Our school has remained in Orange Mound,” Whalum said. “So, our footprint is still there, but we have a lot more room to expand our footprint in Cordova.”