Nontraditional outreach leads to welcome growing pains

SUN CITY CENTER – Carolyne Roberts knew the first time she walked into the church, her 4-year-old daughter in tow.

“Right from Day One, I felt a link to the group,” said Roberts, who found her church home in an unlikely spot: a retirement village in southeastern Hillsborough County. 

Groundbreaking at Sun City Center UMC
 Drew Paulson, 9, is surrounded by church leaders  at Sun City Center UMC's groundbreaking ceremony for a new life enrichment center.  He told the crowd, "I break this ground for the children -- the future of our church."

Roberts lives in Riverview, about 10 miles from Sun City Center UMC, which is nestled in the heart of a community founded on golf and age restrictions. She enrolled her daughter, Nikki, in Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the urging of someone at the child’s preschool.

When Roberts came to claim her daughter at the end of the first day, the VBS leader invited her to join in as youngsters discussed how they felt about the sky. Roberts told a story about seeing the sky over the Grand Canyon.
Nikki came home excitedly talking about her day. The family attended services on Sunday, another positive experience.

“Nikki was like a different person when she went to Sunday school,” Roberts recalled. “She was so animated with the love of Christ.”

Roberts is convinced that the welcoming atmosphere and outreach beyond the church’s traditional borders is the reason behind the $2.5 million, 16,000-square-foot Life Enrichment Center going up behind the sanctuary.

“This church seems to me to be much more children- and family-oriented,” she said, noting that she and her husband, Steven, had been attending a church in Brandon for several years.

“They’re prepared to listen to parents and family.”

Sun City Center UMC is one of a few churches in the Florida Conference that is bursting at the seams, even though church membership across the U.S. is down and the economic climate makes raising money for expansion more difficult.

About 100 miles north, another church is beating the doldrums. Younger in terms of development but with similar deed-restricted age limits is New Covenant UMC in The Villages, a retirement community near Ocala. 

New Covenant UMC addition
New Covenant UMC in The Villages is adding a family worship center to accommodate growth.

That church broke ground in February on a 43,000-square-foot Family Life Worship Center, expected to be completed early next year. The center will include a worship area, classrooms, a youth room and spaces that can be used for different activities, from basketball to Bible study.

“The initial focus for New Covenant during its initial decade was on the retirement community,” said Senior Pastor Harold Hendren.

“That has shifted over the last several years to embrace those residing immediately outside The Villages, so that we are now a large, dynamic, multicultural, intergenerational congregation growing in our relationship with one another and Jesus Christ, to be His hands, feet, and voice to the world.”

Like Sun City Center UMC, New Covenant has reached out to the surrounding community, including a partnership with smaller churches in the less affluent, neighboring community of Wildwood. New Covenant supports a food pantry at Wildwood UMC and a soup kitchen at Wildwood Presbyterian Church.

To the south, Sun City Center UMC offers English classes two nights a week, attracting about 50 Spanish-speaking people from nearby Ruskin and Wimauma, said Linda Whitt, assistant director of ministries. Included is a nursery for infants and toddlers and a Kidz4Christ program for older children to attend while the grownups study.

The church also offers Spanish lessons for English-speaking members.

The most dramatic growth has been in the youth program. Three years ago, the church counted three children who attended services with a staff member, Whitt said. Today, children and youth have four programs to choose from, and this summer saw Sun City Center’s first youth mission trip. The church recently hired a new youth director. 

Sun City Center UMC rendering
 Artist's rendering shows Sun City Center UMC after addition of a 16.000-square-foot Life Enrichment Center.

Dr. Warren Langer, Sun City Center’s senior pastor, said worship attendance has nearly doubled in five years to about 1,000 and it’s still growing by 10 percent to 15 percent each year.

“We have made a conscious effort to reach out into our extended community, beyond the 2.5 miles radius of Sun City Center, to help make a difference,” Langer said.

 “We have encouraged expansion of our ministries fostered by a lay-driven leadership.  That transition has taken place, and the results have been dramatic and they continue.” 

Both of those churches secured financing through the Florida United Methodist Foundation. First UMC, Palmetto, in Manatee County, also is pursuing that route in its goal of building a $300,000 standalone thrift shop on the church grounds.

Sales from the thrift shop, founded by longtime church member Virginia Smith in a rented facility, have helped fund First UMC’s youth and music ministries and pay for church building improvements for 20 years. The shop has served a dual purpose as a community outreach, said Pastor Esther Robinson.

“Having the new thrift shop located on our property [will be] enabling the community to easily make the connection between the shop and the church,” Robinson predicted.

Even smaller churches can realize the dream of expansion.

Wacissa UMC near Tallahassee spent about seven years planning and saving until the congregation had about halfhe money needed to pay for a new building, said Pastor Jim Gamble. The church borrowed the rest from a local bank. 

Wacissa UMC fellowship hall
 Folks gather for an ice cream social in the new fellowship hall at Wacissa UMC.

“Our old fellowship hall was too cramped and two crowded,” the pastor recalled. “We added a fellowship hall that’s bigger than our sanctuary.”

The church has a membership of about 105 and average attendance of about 70 at Sunday services.

“A lot of things have just been happening to make our church grow a bit,” Gamble said. “We occasionally host a bluegrass festival or some other kind of gospel music performance and invite folks from all over this county and neighboring counties to come.”

Since opening late last year, the hall has hosted ice cream socials, youth activities and Vacation Bible School.

Gamble thinks the building is drawing more community interest that could lead to new disciples of Jesus.

“We did it on faith that we would be able to keep up the payments, and we are,” Gamble said.

His advice to other churches with a yen to grow?

“Pray about it and save your money.”




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