Michael Franklin claims he can't play piano, yet the Fort Smith pastor might be stretching the truth.
After professing an alleged lack of skills for the ivories, Franklin sat down at his church's white Grand Piano and created confident, impressive sounds of music. Following his 10-second symphony, he spoke in a bashful tone, chalking up his impromptu performance as part of the ongoing excitement he feels for his church's new sanctuary.
"The spirit of God is in here," Franklin said of his church, Rye Hill Baptist Church, which is located at 11512 Old U.S. 71. "I tell that to a lot of people, and it's true. The spirit of God is here with us, and we are so blessed."
Franklin and his congregation of 775 members are celebrating the recent completion of their church's year-long expansion project. Costing about $5 million and set to be paid for using the church's budget funds, the project includes a new, 17,000-square-foot building, which features a new sanctuary, choir rehearsal room, nursery, conference room and parking spaces. The new sanctuary seats 848 members compared to Rye Hill's old sanctuary, which could accommodate a maximum of 275 people.
"When our church went to two services, the seats were filling up quickly, so it was time for a new, bigger sanctuary," Franklin said. "We are now back to one church service, at 10:30 a.m. Sundays, and we also have Sunday School at 9:15 a.m. on Sundays.
"For our service, it's what we call a blended service, where we always have three hymns and we do praise music," he added. "We have 12 instruments in our service — trumpet, trombone, drums, clarinet, flute and other instruments, plus about 50 people in our choir. I call it jazzin' up the hymns, because we did a version of 'Nothing But the Blood,' and I had never heard it that fast before. It was exciting."
Designed by Clay McGill of Bild Architects and built by Beshears Construction, Rye Hill Baptist Church's new wing includes two 16-foot crosses that help serve as a reminder of why the church exists, he said. One of those large crosses rests above the sanctuary's interior, while the second cross is located on the sanctuary's exterior wall that faces U.S. 71.
"It's really special because we can turn the cross into any color with our technology," Franklin said. "And above the outside cross, there's what we call a lighthouse area. It's really beautiful."
Steve Stewart, the church's associate pastor and worship leader, also finds beauty inside the church's new wing.
"The significance of the spirit is so strong, and the excitability our choir members have had when they rehearse in the choir room has been great; the choir room has incredible acoustics," he said. "It's just a fun place to be."
Resting in an elevated area near the back of the new sanctuary is "state-of-the-art" sound equipment, Stewart said. That equipment and the size of the sanctuary will give Rye Hill Church members a chance to host various programs and events to help spread their message, he said.
"I believe we will grow, and we have a lot of families who visit on a weekly basis," Stewart said. "We are very confident that we will see consistent growth."
A dedication ceremony for the new sanctuary recently was held, drawing 542 church members and visitors, said Franklin, who attributes Rye Hill Baptist Church's growth to what he calls the "three Ps," which are prayer, preparation and patience.
"You have to have prayer, because it takes a lot of prayer," he said. "And with preparation, you have to be prepared for everything. You have to be prepared and ready to minister for anything."
Franklin then smiled.
"Finally, there's patience," he said. "We at Rye Hill Baptist Church don't do a lot of flash Sundays or do gimmicks. We basically love God and we love people."
Much of the growth has been the result of so many church members volunteering for services and programs, Franklin said.
"When I first came to this church in 2004, there were 341 members — they mainly were seniors and adults — and the church owed $1 million on the building," he said. "We were able to pay off that in seven years, which was great."
Franklin said he is confident that Rye Hill Baptist Church will continue to grow in the coming years. His sermons can be heard on the church's Youtube channel, as well as its Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud pages.
"We're blessed that our sermons have been heard by people in 195 countries," Franklin said with a smile. "It's pretty amazing.
"When I first came to the church, I saw all of the potential," he added. "The location of the church is great, because we are in the biggest, growing part of Fort Smith. If you go out the back here, you can be at Massard Road in four minutes, which makes our location perfect."
Stewart agreed that the church's location has helped increase attendance.
"The love that the people at our church demonstrate to outsiders is wonderful," he said. "It doesn't matter who those visitors are — what race, nationality, what economic status they are a part of, all of that doesn't matter. Everyone is treated the same, because this incredible body of believers just wants to show Christ to everyone."