Living the Word Church plans expansion to former Wild Country nightclub
His mornings start at 6 a.m. with prayer and a devotional reading, then David Hawkins watches the news, checks his email and picks up a cup of hot coffee to power through the day.
The former pharmaceutical salesman turned full-time pastor likes his coffee hot — preferably piping hot. His regular Starbucks order is a bit of an inside joke between him and his congregation at Living The Word Church in Collinsville.
“Cold coffee doesn’t exists to me” Hawkins, 42, said with a chuckle on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. “Ice coffee is a sin against God.”
His sense of humor and modern preaching style draws hundreds of people to Living The Word every week, and soon Hawkins will build a new $3 million campus to accommodate them. It’s all part of a vision he has for his interdenominational church and the area.
The former Wild Country nightclub Collinsville, which closed in January, will be transformed into an event space and youth church for Living The Word. Hawkins wants to add on with a new high-tech auditorium next door.
“This spot came on our radar, and we felt that it was perfect for what we are doing,” Hawkins said. “We look forward to seeing more growth.”
Building a tech-savvy sanctuary from the ground up and turning an old nightclub into event space and a youth center is a matter of faith for Hawkins, who grew up in his father’s church.
He took over in 1998 after his dad, Matthew Lee Hawkins, had a fatal heart attack. The family was devastated, but Hawkins was determined to keep the church afloat with help from his mother, Hazel Hawkins. The church was known as “The Living Word” back then.
Hawkins was still a student at the University of Missouri when he started preaching in his late father’s pulpit.
“I drove in from Mizzou every weekend, typically on a Sunday morning,” Hawkins recalled. “I’d get up at 4 o’clock, then I would get in at about 7 or 8 o’clock, then I would pick up some people on the way in to take them to church.”
After two months of commuting as a college student, Hawkins announced he was ready to take over as the lead pastor of the church, but his decision was met with resistance from existing members. Nearly two dozen members got up and walked out when he announced his plan.
The church had about 24 members at the time, and most thought he was too young for the job.
“While I’m talking 22 people get up and walk out,” Hawkins said. “It was like watching some horror movie.”
That moment didn’t deter Hawkins. With help from his mother, Hazel, he graduated from the University of Missouri, entered the workforce and moved the church out of the Baugh Avenue location his father built.
Eventually LTWC moved into a new building in East St. Louis on North 80th Street with about 35 members on the roster. He walked the surrounding streets and knocked on doors to encourage the neighborhood to come in for a visit.
Explosive growth came when the church merged with Overflow Worship Center in Collinsville in 2011.
Preaching to the masses
More than 1,300 people attended his Easter service in 2018. A larger crowd is expected to flood the convention center in Collinsville this year. Service begins at 10 a.m. April 21 at 1 Gateway Drive.
Hawkins books the Gateway Center once a year for the “Super Bowl of Sunday services.” Typical Sunday services are spent in a rented space at 9500 Collinsville Road. The building doubles as daycare.
Average Sunday morning attendance peaks at about 700 people attending one of two morning services. There’s one at 9:15 a.m. and another at 11:15 a.m. every Sunday at 9500 Collinsville Road behind the Jack in a Box in town.
“We really are authentic people,” Hawkins said. “We just let people know that we are not here to judge where you are. We just want to give you tools to become the better you that God created.”
The congregation is becoming more diverse overtime, but a large group of Hawkins’ members are young black professionals.
Prentice and Dionne Motley received an invitation from a friend to attend a Living The Word service in 2016.
“We really enjoyed being there from the very first time we stepped foot in the building,” Prentice Motley said in video testimonial produced by the church. “(T)he word was very penetrating to the point where it felt like it was a release. It was life changing.”
Prentice said finding LTWC when he did helped him through a battle with depression.
The couple now sings together on Sunday mornings and they are helping members in the church with financial literacy.
Other young families, singles and seniors are joining the church, too. Hawkins, who has a young son, puts a focus on youth programing that goes beyond the four walls of the church. His son Josiah David Hawkins is nine years old.
“My hope is to give him enough tools to make good decisions,” Hawkins said. “He is my pride and joy.”
A man on a mission
Programs sponsored by Living The Word include mission trips to Africa. This summer, Hawkins will make his third trip to Africa (Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya) to be a part of teaching and training pastors and church leaders throughout the continent.
LTWC members raised $20,000 to build a well in partnership with Living Water International in a Zimbabwean village near a school, so families can receive clean water.
Other programs include a literacy campaign for children in East St. Louis, a weekly bible study for students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, quarterly breakout sessions for other pastors in the area and a teen ministry.
At Greenville University, Hawkins serves as a professor of theology and homiletics. In a program at Maryville University, he gained the support of pastors across the river, including two from The Crossing Church, a mega church in Chesterfield with about 8,000 members.
“It was everything I prayed for in seven years,” Hawkins said. “I just wanted someone to help mentor me. I wanted someone to pick up where my father left off.”
A partnership was formed, giving Hawkins the strength he needed to help others.
The church supports regional programs in the St Louis area including: Collinsville Food Pantry, Tabernacle of St. Louis, a ministry that provides secure housing and services to aid families in unsafe situations in north county St. Louis and Haircuts4TheHomeless.
“We’re excited to do some great things here as a church,” Hawkins said standing outside the former home of Wild Country. “We’re looking to secure our future, and make certain we have a headquarters, so that we can do more work.”
The church will be exempt from paying city taxes. When asked about the church coming to town, City Manager Mitchell E. Bair said the city is concerned about the loss of tax revenue.
Wild Country paid $19,654.64 in property taxes in 2017, according to public records. The city will lose that contribution. But the development will add value to the area in a different way, LTWC marketing director Leslie Jones said.
“We do understand and acknowledge those concerns, but we believe the value added to the community by our congregation brings so much more to the community of Collinsville,” Jones wrote in a email. “We have 700 active members each week seeking to better this community, supporting local restaurants and shops, and even moving here. We believe that means a lot in the long term for the future of Collinsville. “