Tampa church goes global with revitalization program

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Tampa church goes global with revitalization program

By Larry Macke | Jan. 22, 2010 {1128}

When people discover something that works well for them, they generally want to share it. Whether it’s an amazing book, an unheralded destination or a way of handling a particular situation, people like to tell others so they, too, might benefit from the same positive experience. Sometimes they even feel like telling the whole world.

Members of a reCONNECT small group at Hyde Park United Methodist Church display their program books. Photo courtesy of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church Photography Ministry. Photo #10-1377.

With the help of the Internet and Cokesbury, the retail division of The United Methodist Publishing House, Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa is telling its news from the modern equivalent of the mountain.

The secret it’s sharing is the reCONNECT program, a six-week, congregation-wide experience designed to help people connect more deeply, individually and collectively, with God’s power through prayer, his presence in worship, his generosity in giving and his transformation of the world through service.

The program, which was developed by Hyde Park staff and laypeople, includes a leader guide, planning guide and 122-page workbook, and is available for download from Cokesbury’s Web site for a $1 donation to Hyde Park’s Open Arms homeless ministry. The site links back to Hyde Park’s Web site, where visitors can learn more about their experience with reCONNECT. At $1, it’s a bargain and a blessing.

Perhaps more surprising is the fact reCONNECT wasn’t created to be available for virtually nothing, virtually all over the world. Hyde Park’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish, is an author with several titles published by Abingdon Press that are available through Cokesbury, including his latest, “Simple Rules for Money: John Wesley on Earning, Saving and Giving.” That connection proved to be the key.

A “hand prayer” helps people learn how to prayer for friends, loved ones and the greater community. Photo courtesy of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church Photography Ministry. Photo #10-1378.

“We produced (reCONNECT) for our own use at Hyde Park and were wrapping it up when I had a meeting with my editor,” Harnish said. “He was there talking about another project, and the conversation turned to reCONNECT. Before I knew it, it was next in line.”

Beyond its interest in the material, Abingdon decided it wanted to experiment with a new way of providing content, which led to the uncommon online offer. The publisher plans to track the popularity of the program and share the story of how it grows, changes and travels — Pinetown Methodist Church in South Africa is one congregation that’s using reCONNECT. Still, at $1 per download, nobody expects Hyde Park’s Open Arms ministry to find itself awash in cash anytime soon.

“In terms of taking the content seriously, there is value in people having to pay something,” Harnish says. “We didn’t think that this would lead to a financial windfall for Open Arms, but we did see it as a way of drawing attention to our ministry to the homeless.”

Open Arms provides members of Tampa’s homeless population with a nourishing Sunday morning breakfast, emergency assistance and an invitation to worship. The program also collects and distributes toiletries and clothing. Beyond these things, Open Arms strives to make God’s love real to the disenfranchised by impressing upon volunteers the need to treat guests with dignity and respect.

Despite its innovations, Hyde Park cannot take full credit for the conceptual underpinnings of reCONNECT. Several members had participated in another program that employs scriptural study in a process of congregational renewal, but there was a feeling that something was missing.

“We decided that we wanted to customize (a program) for our congregation,” said Deborah Richards, a writer and member of Hyde Park and its reCONNECT development team. “One key factor was that Rev. Harnish has a real gift for pulling together a diverse group of people to work together toward a common goal.”

A sign and display encourage church members and guests to participate in the reCONNECT program. Photo courtesy of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church Photography Ministry. Photo #10-1379.

At the heart of reCONNECT is a continuing cycle of individual scripture reading, prayer and reflection, followed by consolidation in a small group setting. Its themes are reinforced further through Sunday scripture and sermon topics. The benefits to a congregation can be pervasive: not only do individuals attain personal growth and a closer connection to their small group cohorts, but they also find common conversational ground with all congregants studying from the same page.

“It really created a deep sense of a common experience,” Harnish said. “We saw new, deeper commitments in involvement, service and giving, which we hoped and prayed for. Besides that, it was a lot of fun.”

Richards agrees. “It was a unifying event and a real boost for the congregation,” she says. “There was a great buzz leading up to it, and it felt like we were all working toward the same goals. We really did what we set out to do.”

The reCONNECT study is available at http://www.cokesbury.com. Information about Hyde Park United Methodist Church and its Open Arms ministry is available at http://www.hydeparkumc.org/ and http://www.openarms-hpumc.org/, respectively.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando

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

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