Rare coin collector turned minister brings entrepreneurial ideas to church



e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service
      
 

Rare coin collector turned minister brings entrepreneurial ideas to church

Oct. 5, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011 
tparham@flumc.org  Orlando {0922}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

The ideas just don’t stop for the Rev. Gene Yotka.

Since arriving at First United Methodist Church of Cocoa in central Brevard County last year, Yotka has helped the church launch a radio ministry and a mobile coffee café, adding to the out-of-the-box drive-in worship service the church has provided for years.

An “usher” gives a bulletin to a worshipper attending First United Methodist Church of Cocoa’s weekly drive-in service. Photo by Larry Booth. Photo #08-1017. For longer description see photo gallery.

Bringing new ideas to fruition is a priority, this second-career pastor says, because he and the church's members refuse to give up when it comes to spreading the gospel to people who are hurting or seeking God. And they are not at all deterred by ministries that fail to find their footing.

Off the air

The radio program was such a ministry. It started in September 2007 and ended about six months later.

The daily address, called “Means of Grace,” was heard Monday through Friday for half an hour beginning at 4:30 p.m. on WNIE 1510 AM. The station reaches the Cocoa area and as far away as Orlando and Vero Beach.

Yotka was live on the air on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays there was an edited sermon, and Thursdays featured an interview with a seminary professor.

Members of the congregation tuned in, but so did non-members. The church credits the radio ministry with attracting 10 to 12 new members.

It was a hit for the station and the community, Yotka says, but financially it wasn’t feasible. The church has around 300 members, many of whom live on fixed incomes, and they just couldn’t sustain the ministry.

The congregation presses on, however. “We do vision casting here,” Yotka said. “If we hit a wall, we don’t give up; if we feel strong enough, we persevere. Preparation is key. God will help water good ideas.”

Pajamas, dogs and fast food

The church’s drive-in ministry is one of those good ideas, and it's been a good one for years.

The Rev. Gene Yotka visits with worshippers before beginning First United Methodist Church of Cocoa’s drive-in service. Photo by Larry Booth. Photo #08-1018. For longer description see photo gallery.

Much like at a drive-in movie theater, parishioners pull onto the property next to the church and tune their car radios to 88.5 FM. Depending on the season, typically 50 to 80 people attend the 8 a.m. service each Sunday.

Yotka, who uses a wireless headset, walks from car to car and occasionally receives an “amen” via a car horn blast. There are hymns, an offering, communion — all the staples of a regular worship service, except people also bring their dogs, eat fast-food breakfasts or wear their pajamas.

“It suits older people who are handicapped or those who use oxygen,” Yotka says. “There are some people who need assistance just getting in and out of their cars, let alone the church.”

Yotka says there are also individuals who just don’t feel they can walk into a church “for whatever reason.” “This is a way for them to take a step and start attending,” he said. “That has happened with someone who joined the church that way.”

While it may seem a little remote — lacking the face-to-face interaction between members worshipping together inside a church — Yotka says people who attend the service stay connected through the church’s newsletter and weekly Tuesday night dinners.

Emma Gene McKinley has been a member of the church for 19 years. She says she’s excited about the fresh ideas and ministries Yotka has breathed into the church and many church members are fired up by what Yotka has been able to do. She said it’s a shame the church can’t afford some of the ideas, like the radio ministry, due to the financial strain the church is experiencing.

Worshippers receive bulletins from “ushers” as they wait for the drive-in service to begin. Photo by Larry Booth. Photo #08-1019. For longer description see photo gallery.

A gift for ideas

While it may come down to having enough money for some ministries, money isn’t the primary consideration in Yotka’s vision for the church. It never has been for the man who was earning more than $150,000 by the time he was 19 years old — in a life that came before he was drawn into the ministry.

When Yotka was 13 years old he began buying and selling rare coins. He became well-known in the coin business and traveled all over the country. By the time he reached his 20s he was wealthy, but as he grew older, he felt something was missing in his life.

After attending a religious retreat, Yotka and his wife decided to dedicate their lives to God’s work. He sold his coin business, and together they opened a Christian coffee house called The Cross Café in Sea Grit, N.J. The café had an extensive menu but no prices. Customers, ranging from the homeless to the very wealthy, paid what they could afford.

The business was a success, but Yotka felt something was still missing, and he became a youth pastor for several churches in the area. In 2002 Yotka made the decision to move his wife and their five children to Florida where he entered Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando.

The Rev. Gene Yotka shares his message with worshippers attending the drive-in service at First United Methodist Church of Cocoa. Photo #08-1020. For longer description see photo gallery.

First United Methodist Church, Cocoa, is his first appointment.

“I guess I just have an entrepreneurial mindset,” Yotka said.

That’s evident in his ideas for the church, including one targeting single parents. Yotka thought a mobile café might reach the demographic, which makes up about 59 percent of the population living in the immediate area around the church. He also thought the café would appeal to people looking for an alternative to the bar scene, wanting to hear scripture in a non-traditional setting or just wanting a good cup of coffee.

The mobile Christian Café will feature coffee and food. At 180 linear feet in size, its 12-foot sections can easily be assembled and broken down in various locations. The Café recently completed a trial run, and pending approval from city officials, looks to make its first official appearance at a local park in the coming weeks.

”I don’t want us concentrating on ourselves,” Yotka said. “I want us to be moving out, being focused on others.”

More information about the church is available at http://www.fumc-cocoa.org.

Diane Norton contributed to this report.

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*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.




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