Pride of Pine Belt: Hattiesburg preacher reaches out to different crowd

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - If you were to watch a worship service at First Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, you might think you are watching a rock concert at first glance.

Pastor of the church, Jeff Clark says it's not traditional services and he likes it that way.

"I really began to study how to reach people that didn't like church," said Clark.

Clark was 35-years-old when he became the pastor. He recalls his early days of preaching as trial by fire.

"I was kind of thrown in there, and I had to learn on my own," said Clark.

What Clark learned inspired him.

"3500 churches a year close their doors, and about a third of the people in Mississippi actually go to church," said Clark.

Clark abandoned traditional services in order to reach people he says who are different.

"We go all out to use lights, technology and illustrations they can understand. Music that blows their mind," said Clark.

Clark says he started preaching a little differently.

"The gospel is really different from religion. Religion is what you do for God, the gospel is what God does in you," said Clark.

And you won't find Clark in a suit on Sunday mornings, and he doesn't expect a dress code for the congregation.

"A lot of people come in jeans. We have some people that come in leisure suits. We have people that have earrings, tattoos," said Clark.

Clark is quick to say the church is not for perfect people, and he will be the first to tell you he is the most imperfect person in the room.

"I do a lot of confessional preaching. I struggle with a lot of things. I've got a bad temper, I like to drive too fast, I got a smart mouth," said Clark.

Hope Gustafson says she decided to call First Baptist Church home, three years ago, because of those reasons and more.

"I read a couple of articles about Jeff, and we were anxious to meet him. From the moment we meet certain members from the staff they were just real and honest and friendly, and they just felt familiar right away, " said Gustafson.

Clark believes some of the greatest churches in the world are in Hattiesburg, but he says his unconventional methods invite those who he calls "un-church people".