Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 30, 2011
SALISBURY — A building that used to serve all-you-can-eat flounder and seafood platters now dishes the Lord.
It’s hard to escape the symbolism.
LifeWay Church, located at 7621 Old Mocksville Road near U.S. 601, promotes itself as a place where you can experience a new way of life loving God and people, while serving both.
Pastor Danny Dillard says the thriving, non-denominational church focuses on “reaching people without Christ and those out of fellowship with the church.”
Jesus Christ’s ministry had, of course, strong connections to fish and outreach. He chose several fishermen as his disciples and said he would make them “fishers of men.”
Longtime Rowan Countians remember when this low-slung building, sitting well off the road, was Wink’s S&W Fish Camp. The outside was painted red, and customers parked in an expansive gravel lot in front.
Fred Shoaf and William C. “Wink” Wansley opened the restaurant in 1973 and quickly built a loyal following.
Wansley already had a reputation for barbecue, having owned and operated the original Wink’s at Innes Street and Mahaley Avenue in 1952, before it moved to East Innes Street in 1957. (He eventually sold the barbecue business to the Martin family.)
Shoaf, a conductor for Southern Railway for 42 years, died in 1987; Wansley, in 1992. The fish camp had a couple of other owners in the 1990s before Jimmy Shoaf bought the property from his Uncle Fred’s heirs in 1997.
Jimmy Shoaf cleaned up the building, tore out the kitchen, put a roof on back and rented the place to various businesses, including a machine shop for six or seven years.
When Dillard came to Shoaf four years ago about leasing the property, the pastor already saw its potential for his church, which was then located off West Innes Street.
“He had a vision of how it needed to be laid out,” Shoaf says.
Shoaf agreed to excuse any lease payments for three months, a period during which Dillard and other members of his church spruced up the outside and completely transformed the interior, providing for a sanctuary, offices, classrooms, nursery, coffee house and kitchen.
The church members did everything — the carpentry, masonry, wiring, heating, air-conditioning, wallboard, painting and furnishing. They built a new sidewalk out front, knocked out a window for the pastor’s office in back and gave him a private bathroom.
Women of the church brought in meals, or runners would drive into Salisbury and bring back food from McDonald’s. It was a time when he hardly saw his wife, Bebee, Dillard says.
Shoaf had given LifeWay a key to the 8,000-square-foot building in November 2007, and by Feb. 3, 2008, Dillard led the first service there.
“It was almost like the parting of the Red Sea,” Dillard said of all the work.
Fast forward to today and you have a thriving church, averaging 160 to 170 people every Sunday. The two morning services are casual. Many congregants will stop in at the “Common Grounds” coffee shop in back and take their snacks, java or smoothie with them into the 132-seat sanctuary.
The altar looks much like a concert stage with all the musical instruments and three video screens. Lights, sound and video are controlled in a “sound room” at the back of the sanctuary.
Members have fashioned a fenced-in playground off the nursery. Shoaf, who has become a member of the church, also built a bridge over the creek into a wooded play area.
LifeWay may be one of the few churches in the country with its own train. An International tractor made to look like a locomotive pulls its string of metal passenger cars around the church property after most services.
Kids and some adults pile in for the rides, often engineered by Randy Inman.
Bebee Dillard says the church had many visitors, especially early on, who would stop in just to see how a fish camp became a church.
“They’d say, ‘I sat right there and ate fish,’ ” Bebee says. “A lot of people still tell us that.”
As with its building and pastor, Lifeway Church has a lot to do with a new way of life through Christ.
Dillard, 46, is up front about telling people how he was a ninth-grade dropout who fell into taking drugs and drinking alcohol. “It was what it was,” Dillard says. “I’m not proud of that, but it is part of my life.”
But Dillard says he accepted Christ into his life and went back to school, earning his high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry, a master’s degree in theology and credits toward his doctorate.
Besides heading Lifeway Church, he also is a lead instructor and board member for Impact University, a Bible college affiliated with Agape Faith Church in Clemmons.
It all shows, Dillard says, that Jesus can be the answer.
“If God did this for him,” Bebee Dillard adds, “he will do it for all people.”
Branching out from the church in Clemmons, the Dillards started Agape Faith Christian Center April 14, 2002, at the Ellis Park community building. They weren’t sure whether anyone would show up, but were gratified to have 36 people at their first service.
After four months at Ellis Park, the new church moved to West Innes Street and some of the former offices of Fuchs Systems. After a few years, the church name changed to LifeWay, reflecting how one can experience a new life through Christ, the Dillards say.
“We wanted a name that was relevant,” Pastor Dillard adds.
The former fish camp just proved to be the next logical step four years ago, and it has helped the church become more family-oriented and community-minded.
“It all fell into place,” Dillard says.
He likes to describe LifeWay as a spirit-filled church that sticks to the Scriptures — “not flashy stuff.”
Besides the Dillards, the church staff includes Connections Pastor Sheila Frost. Dillard also loves that 53 individual church members have taken various leadership roles.
Shoaf says the former fish camp property has been good for the church and great for him as a landlord.
“We think Danny is one special person,” Shoaf says. “… I hope I can hold on to them.”
He doesn’t want this fish to be the one that got away.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.