New welcome centers encouraging connections

A busy day at Beach UMC's Connect Center in Jacksonville Beach.

While the new centers provide extra space for churches to expand their outreach, do missions work and, in some cases offer a good cup of coffee to the flock before and after worship services, the main focus is to create space that fosters connections and makes new members comfortable.

And that’s important in the face of dwindling church attendance among all denominations over the past several years.

While some churches are building new facilities, welcoming people to the flock doesn’t always necessitate new construction, said Marion Shotwell, volunteer coordinator with the Beach United Methodist Church in Jacksonville Beach.

There, the new Connect Center is located in the church lobby, and everyone passes it on their way to services.

“It’s like a hotel concierge,” Shotwell said of the center’s operations, which began in February. She said that the idea is to bring people together and to form a community. Those interested in participating in church functions can sign up to volunteer on laptop computers provided.

New members of the congregation are the focus, she said.

Several teams take part in the Connect Center, she said, including the parking team and greeters who welcome first-time congregants into the sanctuary.

“It’s all actually in the lobby,” she said. Everyone who walks into the 2,000-member church passes by the center.

“It’s something that says, ‘We value you,’ ” Shotwell said, speaking of new church members. “It’s something to welcome them and tell them we’re glad they’re here…something to help them find their next step,” she said, adding that the response from the congregation has been overwhelming. “It has become the hub of the church,” she said.

Trinity UMC Gainesville's new welcome center was dedicated in August 2015.

When Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville dedicated its new welcome center in August, an announcement seeking volunteers said this: “We are excited to dedicate this structure …and to use it to take our Sunday morning hospitality ministry to the next level so that Trinity is the most welcoming church we can be.

“But this building isn’t going to make that happen,” the announcement said. “We need YOUR help to do it.”

Trinity Senior Pastor Dan Johnson said an “army” of volunteers showed up to dedicate the Welcome Center last fall.

The church relocated in 1999 and left a previous center behind. It took some 18 years, but the new one, which cost about $260,000, is up and running now, welcoming new members and giving existing congregants a place to connect between services on Sunday and to meet during the week.

Locating the center at the new property was a concern. The church moved from a 4-acre site to a sprawling 67-acre tract, and a lot of thought went into what the greeting center would look like and where it would go. As for funding, a gift of $50,000 was seed money, then Johnson tapped others for gifts and fundraising was off and running.

Today, the structure flows with the architecture of the church, featuring the same metal roof and cupola.  It is centrally located so those heading into church service pass through it. The open concept of the center allows for comfort. Coffee and lemonade are served, and the atmosphere encourages fellowship.

“It is used seven days a week,” said Johnson. Besides welcoming people on Sundays, it hosts preschool events, receptions and many other activities.

Whether new welcoming centers are becoming a trend in Florida and across the nation, he couldn’t really say.

“I do think that all our churches are encouraged to be welcoming,” he said. The response at Trinity has been positive. “It’s been very well received. It is the capstone of our property,” he said.

While the center is for everyone in the 4,400-member church, the new members remain the primary focus.

“New people,” Rev. Johnson said, “the last thing they want is to come in and not be greeted.”

First UMC Lakeland's new center is welcoming and warmly lit at night.

In Lakeland, about 500 people attended the November 2014 dedication ceremony of the Welcome Center and Children’s Ministry Building at the First United Methodist Church which overlooks Lake Morton.

The $12.5 million center, which took about a year and a half to build, is as much a gathering place as the sanctuary itself, said Associate Pastor June Edwards, who has been with the 4,700-member church since 2007.

“One thing that became apparent,” she said, “was that there was very little space where people could gather to see one another. We had long corridors and people who were going to or coming from services who would stop to talk and they would be blocking the hallways.

“We began to discuss ways to create space for folks to sit, meet and talk,” she said. “We wanted a space that said, in all ways it could, ‘Welcome, hospitality is found here.’ ”

The three-story, 68,200-square-foot center now serves as the main entrance to the church, which was built there in the 1950s and lacked a real place for people to gather outside of services. It also houses a preschool, an adult ministry, a café and bookstore in addition to the welcoming station.

“The Welcome Center was designed out of a need to bring people together, with an eye toward hospitality,” Edwards said.

Edwards couldn’t say if such welcome centers are a trend among older churches that just had seating for services, but this center has proven beneficial for the Lakeland church.

“Churches (that are building welcome centers) are creating space to build community,” she said. “That’s what people are yearning for. Ours is used all the time.”

People stop by there to eat lunch, to meet friends. It also is used for fellowship twice a month and for missions tasks, including packing backpacks with food for the needy once a month.

“We did all this before,” Edwards said, “but now we have a great space for it.”

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