Church shares ‘secrets’ to longevity

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church shares ‘secrets’ to longevity

Aug. 19, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0900}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

CLERMONT — First United Methodist Church of Gulfport, Miss., is 110 years old. Like many historic churches, it’s in decline. Adding to that challenge is the struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, when the church sustained at least $1 million in damage. 

The Rev. Andy Johnson, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Gulfport, Miss., takes notes while staff members at First United Methodist Church of Clermont share the success and challenges the church has experienced since members embraced a more outwardly-focused vision and mission for the church nearly 10 years ago. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0971. For longer description see photo gallery.

Although the church’s journey doesn’t exactly mirror that of First United Methodist Church of Clermont, the Rev. Andy Johnson, Gulfport’s pastor, said he wanted to visit the Central Florida church because he felt its story most closely fit his church’s heritage.
Johnson said he wanted to hear the “bumps and bruises” the church has gone through in its ministry and be reminded “of things, like the constant emphasis on vision and mission.”
He said he also wanted to see things through “a different lens and perspective.”
He and about 450 other people from all over the country had the same idea. Participants of the 2008 United Methodist School of Congregational Development spent the afternoon Aug. 3 visiting selected churches around Orlando, Fla., and Grand Rapids, Mich., host cities for the annual weeklong training event, to learn from their experiences.
United Methodist pastors, district superintendents, bishops and other leaders attended the July 31-Aug. 5 school, which used educational tracks, plenary gatherings and “teaching churches” to offer strategies and ideas for creating and developing disciple-making congregations. It was held in concurrent sessions at a church in each host city and supported by the boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando was the site of the main sessions in Florida.
First United Methodist Church, Clermont, was one of eight Central Florida churches chosen to share its story. About 15 of the school’s participants visited the 116-year-old church, which is experiencing the largest expansion in its history and building a $6 million multipurpose complex that will provide a venue for children’s events, family gatherings and concerts. 

The church draws members from a 10-mile radius, according to the Rev. Doug Kokx, the church’s senior pastor, and there are no other United Methodist churches within five miles of the campus. Average worship attendance is about 1,100, nearly double what it was 10 years ago. The church’s members are a mix of ages, with 17 percent children, nearly 8 percent youth and the rest adults, 30 percent of which the church “loosely terms” senior adults at 70 and older, according to Candy Ogden, the church’s director of adult ministries. She says the adult members also include a large group of people in its 30s and 40s.

First United Methodist Church of Clermont began a more concerted effort to reach out to its community about 10 years ago. Since then its average worship attendance has doubled, and the church is in the process of the largest building expansion in its 116-year history. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church, Clermont. Photo #08-0972. For longer description see photo gallery.

The church’s pastors and leaders say the church’s continued vitality is due to the congregation’s determination to help people in their community “encounter Christ.”
Meeting the neighbors

Kokx said a churchwide understanding of the congregation’s mission and a commitment to achieving it didn’t happen overnight.
He said the realization that the church needed to be more outwardly focused was a gradual process, one that began during a Celebrate Jesus Mission about nine years ago.
During Celebrate Jesus missions, teams of volunteers from visiting churches spend a week helping home churches reach out to their communities, typically by canvassing neighborhoods and praying for residents or doing acts of kindness. The mission sites typically hold a block party to end the week’s activities, inviting the neighbors to attend.
Kokx said the block party at his church drew an “overwhelming” response — about 3,500 to 4,000 people. “It was an awakening for our church to see our community and who they are,” he said.
After that, the church saw some growth. Kokx said church leadership also began to change, with many leaders coming from a business background. That, in turn, caused a change in perspective and direction to focus on becoming more productive and efficient. Leaders realized they needed to figure out how to meet the growth and serve the people.
Church leaders surveyed members several years ago before the expansion process began to gain their input on whether the church should relocate or stay in its current 10-acre location, which is surrounded by businesses and residential development, limiting expansion. Kokx said 92 percent of responding members said the church should stay and start satellite locations if necessary. Since then, the congregation has been buying properties around the church that become available to increase its space for ministry.
About five years ago church leadership went through a visioning process and decided the church should focus on three goals: intentionally connecting people to God through Christ, reaching out to the community, and creating a sense of community and common purpose among members.

The Rev. Doug Kokx shares the steps members and leaders of First United Methodist Church, Clermont, took to embrace a mission and vision focused on their community. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0973. For longer description see photo gallery.

Although the church emphasizes “radical hospitality,” Kokx said, being “outwardly focused” is still a challenge. He says members are encouraged to continually ask three questions: do we care about others in the community, does the church reflect the community and do we reach out to the community?
Kokx said the church no longer has drastic shifts in attendance caused by seasonal membership. It’s also no longer “the most Anglo place on Sunday,” he said, better reflecting the racial mix of the neighborhood, at least in the church’s contemporary services.
Kokx said reaching the area’s 18- to 35-year-olds and the large senior population in surrounding retirement developments “with not many people going to church” is also a challenge. He says “maybe 10 percent” of area seniors are part of a faith community, and there’s “a huge disconnect in the senior adults we’re going after.”
‘In this together’

Kokx and about seven church staff members who were on hand to share the ins and outs of their ministries agreed the process hasn’t always been easy.
They said members’ willingness to embrace the church’s vision and work through their issues has been key to moving forward.
Incorporating contemporary music into its services about 10 years ago was one of those issues. “It was a very difficult time,” Kokx said during his presentation to the school’s participants.
Kokx recounted a comment made at a leadership council meeting to discuss the issue. A church member said, “I don’t agree with contemporary music, but if it will bring people to God, we need to do it.”
“That swung the vote,” Kokx said, adding the church today has “60, 70, 80 people in the social hall doing Sunday morning contemporary service.” “It’s full-blown,” he said, “with a coffeehouse atmosphere.”
The church also has a contemporary service Saturday nights and a Sunday morning service just for children called “God’s Kids Rock,” where children learn the same songs being used in the adult contemporary service.
Kokx said the greatest source of tension over the years has been over space and how the church’s facilities would be shared. “You have to sell it” and help people understand “it’s not about turf,” he said. “The difference is about God changing lives.”

Dawn Fryman, director of children’s ministries at First United Methodist Church, Clermont, describes some of the ways the church is reaching out to the area’s children for church leaders from around the country touring the church’s campus. Fryman said the church strives “to connect kids to Christ and connect parents to Christ.” Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0974. For longer description see photo gallery.

“(You have to) call it out for what it is and embrace it and work on it,” he added.
Through the process, he said, people who “don’t see eye-to-eye” have let go of their agendas.

Dawn Fryman said what impressed her about the church when she joined the staff about a year ago as director of children’s ministries was the majority of members “walking around and talking the vision and mission.” She said she could feel people’s support of both.
Valuing all generations

Like many churches, First, Clermont, is trying to reach children to younger adults, but it’s also trying to connect with a sizeable population of seniors who don’t go to church.
With that has come a concerted effort to balance the needs of all generations. One of those needs, Kokx said, is space for the church’s many ministries. Another is staff resources dedicated to them.
In its commitment to reach children and youth, the church has expanded its ministries. In addition to a Sunday morning Bible study and Sunday evening youth group time, the church offers a “jam session” Thursday afternoons for youth to practice playing many of the instruments used in contemporary worship. Angelo Ballestero, the church’s contemporary music director, said one kid plugged in a new amplifier one recent afternoon and excitedly said, “I can feel it!”
There is also a skate park on church property that’s open twice a week for skateboarders and rollerbladers. Ogden describes it as a ministry for “fringe kids in the neighborhood.”
A thriving preschool offers a Christian-based curriculum to 163 of the area’s 2- to 4-year-olds and has a waiting list of 100 children. The preschool is “our number-one mission field,” Kokx said. “We decided several years ago that it would be a ministry of the church.”
The addition of Fryman to the staff as children’s ministry director, a job that previously fell to Odgen, among other responsibilities, has enabled the church to focus on seniors, who, Ogden said, were beginning to “feel neglected.”
Ogden said she and her team of volunteers were “all gung-ho” to begin “discipling these people,” but found they had to first develop relationships and build trust, especially with all the changes being made at the church.
“You really have to hear them and value them,” Ogden said. “You really have to dig behind what’s really hurting them, and, boy, do the ministries start developing.”
Kokx agreed. “The problem is never the problem when there’s a problem,” he said. 

The Rev. Andy Johnson, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Gulfport, Miss., and Carol McCracken, lay leader and director of adult ministries at Orange Beach United Methodist Church in Orange Beach, Ala., listen as staff members at First United Methodist Church, Clermont, explain both practical aspects of their ministries and the challenges they’ve faced in helping the church’s membership embrace a more outwardly-focused vision and mission. McCracken said she was hoping to learn how her 15-year-old church could improve its traditional service and further develop its contemporary worship. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-0975. For longer description see photo gallery.
Based on more concerted efforts to get to know and listen to the church’s seniors, Ogden and staff developed a ministry to help grandparents raising grandchildren, a growing trend. After learning that seniors really enjoy social events, the church began a vacation Bible school for senior adults and a group that finds ways to serve others.
Ogden said she struggles with the Florida Conference’s designation of seniors as 50 and older. To avoid the age issue, Odgen says the church invites any adult to “senior” activities and ministries. The large majority of the church’s active seniors is in its 80s, she said, adding, “and they are active.”
Church leaders began providing opportunities for different generations to connect as one more way to lessen the perception among seniors that everything was being done for youth.
That next Wednesday, Ogden said, a group of seniors and youth would be attending a professional baseball game together. That Friday, seniors and children planned to make homemade ice cream and watch old movies together. Ogden said the children would probably become bored watching the movies, but they’d likely enjoy making ice cream the old-fashioned way. The point of the gathering was to have the two groups spend time building relationships.
In an effort to encourage younger women to become involved in the church’s United Methodist Women (UMW), Ogden and the group’s leadership invited them to an evening of dinner and music. The music ranged from jazz to Broadway tunes to “ballad-ish contemporary music,” Ogden said, to appeal to the variety of ages. Ogden said the church’s contemporary worship musicians at first resisted her restriction to use only an acoustic guitar and no drums, but eventually agreed. The result of the evening: each generation did something for another generation and the number of UMW “circles” or groups grew from four to seven.
When asked by one of the day’s visitors how church leaders deal with members who say they liked it better when the church was smaller, Kokx said they always try to acknowledge people’s issues and help them connect with other members and ministries.
But, he says, the purpose of the church is “not about keeping people happy. That’s not what ministry is about.”
Being the church, he said, is “growing disciples for Jesus Christ. We can’t stop doing that.”
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

Contact Us

The Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

450 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33815

(863) 688-5563 or toll free (800) 282-8011