New churches experience signs of progress, growth

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

New churches experience signs of progress, growth

April 14, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0472}

NOTE: See related article “Ethnic churches top list of new church starts; leadership development tops list of needs,” e-Review FUMNS #0471.

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

The Florida Conference leads U.S. conferences in starting new United Methodist communities of faith, and since 1995 it has begun 44 ethnic churches or missions.

ORANGE PARK — Members of OakLeaf Christian Fellowship just outside Jacksonville lay hands on a father and his child during a worship service. Photo by Brian Wages, Photo #06-337.

Of the new church starts launched in recent years a number are seeing signs of progress and developing relationships with people in their communities, including two very different congregations, North Miami’s Shalom Community Mission and Orange Park’s OakLeaf Christian Fellowship just outside Jacksonville.

The Rev. Joanem Floreal, pastor of Shalom Community, a Haitian congregation, said the mission launched with a house meeting in May 2002. Eight people attended. Floreal led a home Bible study that grew to include as many as 35 people, to the point where he said his “Florida room could no longer contain all the people. It was time for us to start worshipping on Sundays.”

Shalom Community now has three Sunday worship services attended by about 285 people. It shares facilities with St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. “Good things have been happening,” Floreal said. “People have been confessing their faith in Christ through our preaching. God has really used us powerfully to make a difference in people’s lives.”

To reach out to the North Miami community, Shalom members have organized quarterly events, “Bring a Friend Sunday,” radio and television ministries, and groups for all ages — men’s women’s, youth, children’s. They’ve also held block parties, distributed fliers to neighbors, provided blankets to the homeless, held car washes and planned other activities that connect them to their community.

“We have a vision to reach out to the second generation of Haitian Americans in Miami,” Floreal said. “The purpose of Shalom Community Church is to build a loving congregation where people from all walks of life can get connected with Jesus, grow into spiritual maturity and become active agents for the Kingdom.”

Floreal said a chief endeavor right now is building a leadership team at his congregation, with the hope of also adding more staff. Currently, from a staff perspective, only a part-time secretary helps Floreal in his efforts.

“The ministry grew so fast. It is mathematically impossible for me to nurture everyone, even though we have volunteers,” Floreal said. “They (volunteers) are working full-time. We need a part-time worship leader. We need a youth director.”

To address the need to keep the leadership hopper full of potential, Floreal took the unusual step of launching an all-day Saturday leadership training academy known as Shalom Leadership Institute. Beginning in January, he began teaching classes throughout the day each Saturday — Hospitality 101, Servant as Caretaker 101, Servant as Worshipper 101, Servant as Evangelist and Servant as Christian Educator. Different people attend the various courses, with some taking more than one. About 35 persons were involved in the seven-week effort.

Floreal said the education was been well received. “The lay people work during the week, so they only have weekends off,” he said. “I had to make the sacrifice for me to empower them, to equip them, so they can help really share the Lord.”

Another ongoing challenge for Shalom is finances. “By God’s grace, for a Haitian church we really can’t complain too much. We have some professionals in the church, a few nurses and business owners,” Floreal said. “But we have people who need the church to assist them when they cannot pay their bills. They expect the church to be there for them. We need to have a lot of financial resources for us to respond. We have the same challenges that all pastors, regardless of their culture, are facing.”

A recent graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, Floreal has lived in the United States for 16 years. He returns to his native Haiti each year with church members as a mission trip, visiting prisons, coordinating health fairs and preaching at revivals. More than 200 people proclaimed faith in Christ at one revival. Floreal also had the opportunity to preach to more than 10,000 people at one gathering. “It was amazing,” he said.

Floreal is married and has a 2-year-old daughter. “Monday is my day off. I spend time with my family. I’m trying to stay home as much as I can,” he said. “The biggest challenge right now is for me to stay anchored. I read my Bible every day. I stay close to God. I have a good sense of God’s calling on my life each morning. When I wake up I know he’s called me for such a time as this.”

At OakLeaf Christian Fellowship the Rev. Jeff Henderson leads a congregation of people mostly in the 24- to 35-year-old age range, along with a lot of college students.

ORANGE PARK — The Rev. Jeff Henderson says he and members of OakLeaf Christian Fellowship, a new church start, are trying to make the church part of the fabric of the community. Photo by Brian Wages, Photo #06-338.

Henderson and his family arrived in Orange Park in 2003 and began worship services in August 2004. The church is based at the Oak Leaf Plantation, a planned unit development that is permitted for up to 11,000 home units. It is a multi-use community consisting of residential, business and recreational uses.

“When we arrived, I knew that we were entering into a brand new community where there wasn’t any established community,” said Henderson, a married father of four. “We were among the fist 150 residents. Now, there’s probably close to 10,000 people. Being here that early, it wasn’t as though we could do the ‘Field of Dreams’ method where we just open our doors and people will start coming. I was a parachute drop. I came in here and knew no one.”

Realizing he needed to establish himself in the community, the energetic Henderson, also a recent Asbury Seminary graduate with a long background in commercial real estate, spent the first six months doing nothing but getting to know people.

“For the first several months we didn’t have a home here. It was being built. We lived about 30 minutes away,” Henderson said. “I would literally go to the community pool every day and hang out. I recently baptized a lady I first met in waist-deep water.”

Henderson said he invested heavily in their neighbors, and most of them are part of the church. “Invest in the people closest to you” would be a sustainable process for growing his church, he says.

In February 2004 OakLeaf partnered with another church to study Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” material. The church had about eight or 10 small groups at the time, with about 85 people participating. That led to a 2004 Easter service in a tent on the grounds of Oak Leaf Plantation that had a successful turnout.

“A mistake was we had no idea how to follow it up,” Henderson recalls. “Folks asked where they could find us next Sunday. We said, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’ There are no facilities within five miles of Oak Leaf. We ended up renting a warehouse that is five or six miles from the plantation. It was an absolute box. We had to construct the sanctuary. We did it all ourselves.”

OakLeaf conducted several “preview services,” then launched Aug. 15, 2004, with about 75 people attending. Near the end of 2005 more than 225 people were regularly attending, and the church experienced a 2005 high of about 275 people on Easter Sunday. The church has purchased 20 acres of land for future growth.

A full-time family pastor and worship leader, one part-timer, and two worship interns help Henderson lead the growing congregation. The part-time staffer does “relationship coordination,” such as follow up, assimilation, hospitality and small group development.

OakLeaf offers one worship service that has a youth or college ministry flavor and is, as Henderson puts it, “loud.” The worship is similar to the “Passion” albums and concerts that have exploded in popularity during the past six or seven years. Henderson recruited his worship leader from the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University. 

Another lesson learned, Henderson said, was perhaps raising the bar too high for small groups after the “40 Days” endeavor. Those particular groups were not dependent upon actual leaders, and “folks were looking for the next, great national curriculum,” he said. “We realized from there we needed to have a wider array of home group type of offerings. We now have men’s studies, women’s studies, couple’s studies, ‘Life Together’ groups, a worship group, a group for young married couples.

“I really labored over what was the best approach to small groups. My view is that context is everything. Neighborhood groups are great for spontaneity, but affinity groups are great also. Sometimes people want to get together with others who are going through divorce or recovering, something like that.”

OakLeaf has also made a deep investment in the community’s new elementary school. When it opened, the principal invited the church to anoint the doors and pray in every room. Henderson established a ministry there that includes church staff serving in the cafeteria every Monday —waiting on tables, serving food, cleaning up. OakLeaf also launched a scouting program at the school. “In every class there’s a kid that’s in our church,” he said. “They get to tell other kids, ‘That’s our pastor.’ We’ve had the chance to minister to other kids, as a result.”

Henderson also coaches in local sports leagues. “We’re not dominant, but a thread that is woven through the events in the community,” he said. “Our DNA is to be a church that enters into community. We don’t make only those who believe become a part of things. You can belong before you believe.”

Henderson said he has been strongly influenced by the writings of the late Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones, who “wrote stuff in the 1920s that is relevant for today.” In particular, Henderson was affected by Jones’ book “The Reconstruction of the Church: On What Pattern?,” which discusses ways to reconcile the church based on the lay-driven model of the church at Antioch in the Book of Acts. Another key influence was the book “The Gospel Blimp,” which is a parable demonstrating how good intentions in Christian ministry can lead to a withering away of New Testament principles in the pursuit of “success.”

“My calling has been shaped by a strong desire to see the church become the most significant impact in any given community,” Henderson said. “I think we (the American church in general) have kind of surrendered that to where we just feel lucky to be noticed. These days, in the best and worst of times, the church needs to be a light on the hill. I believe in the 80-hour-a-week church. We ought to be impacting the community seven days a week.”

Henderson said OakLeaf’s long-term vision is to allow the greater community to use its resources in a way that honors God, such as allowing a high school to have a graduation party at the church or a business organization to have a regular breakfast gathering there. The church is also negotiating a partnership with the YMCA to share facilities.

Henderson wants to offer words of encouragement to other church planters in the conference.

“I think it’s vitally important that church planting pastors have either a burden for planting or a burden for a community,” he said. “There’s got to be a level of holy discontent within you when you look at a community and realize there’s no church reaching a certain demographic or ethnicity. My encouragement would be to locate the source of your holy discontent.

“When you tie together the passion with the need, something intrinsically honors God and things just happen. I think the old model of planting churches where you buy land and then find a pastor to come plant a church — I think that’s dead.”

“It’s been incredible,” Henderson says about his experience at OakLeaf. “I just try to get out of the way.”


This article relates to New Church Development.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

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