Steady growth recently pushed Florida into the No. 3 spot as the nation's most populous state, edging out New York.
But lead pastors of three Florida Conference churches on a Top 25 national list of fastest-growing large United Methodist churches say population growth alone does not guarantee increased attendance. Church leaders must work for that.
Len Wilson, a popular blogger and church creative director, annually ranks large churches according to worship attendance figures compiled by the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration. The three Florida Conference churches that made the list released early this year serve dramatically different parts of the Sunshine State.
Community of Hope in the South Florida town of Loxahatchee Groves ranked No. 2 on Wilson’s list. The church serves midwestern Palm Beach County and achieved five-year growth of 173 percent, with an average weekly attendance of 1,050.
New Covenant UMC, a multisite campus based in Florida's fastest-growing community of The Villages, near Ocala, posted a 38 percent increase over the past five years, with average weekly attendance of 2,138.
Anona UMC, Largo, has four campuses serving the state's most densely populated county of Pinellas. Its average weekly attendance of 1,559 represents a 24 percent growth over the last five years.
Zeroing in on the Gulf Coast
|Youth drama and performance are a draw for families at Anona UMC, Largo, named one of the fastest-growing large United Methodist churches in the U.S. Photo from Anona UMC.|
Anona's senior pastor, Rev. Jack Stephenson, attributes that success to a hard-working staff willing to create a variety of services to meet the needs of young and old.
“It's really a team effort. It's not a one-pastor effort,” Stephenson said. “We have nine different services.”
He credits that array to worship arts minister Jeremy Herrington, “a young, amazingly gifted person who has crafted different worship styles for different generations, all the way from full traditional to hip hop.”
Different programs target different ages and needs. FX, or Family Experience, incorporates drama, dance and technology to attract parents and elementary school-age children. Classic Contemporary caters to baby boomers, ages 60-80.
Then there's the empty nester prototype, which Stephenson jokingly calls “the if-you-can't-get-out- anymore, we're-going-to-come-to-you model.” It’s Anona’s Pinecrest campus, named for the high-rise adult community in which it is located, home to hundreds of residents ages 80 to 100.
“Part of it is, you see, 'the church has left the building.' We're looking at how you do not expect people to come to you, but instead go to them in the style they live,” Stephenson said.
Anona also actively pursues new sites for ministry and currently has four, including one at St. Petersburg College.
“The beauty of multisite is you can target multiple specific demographics while keeping a base camp, so to speak,” Stephenson explained.
The Villages and beyond
New Covenant serves The Villages, named by the Census Bureau as America's fastest-growing metropolitan area for two years in a row. That helps fuel church growth, but it’s not enough, said Rev. Harold Hendren, New Covenant’s senior pastor.
“You've still got to deliver the goods. You still have to provide quality – quality missions, quality worship experience, quality discipleship – so that people want to come back.”
Trust is a key part of New Covenant’s recipe for vitality.
|Volunteers in the Helping Hands home-building ministry celebrate at a new home dedication at New Covenant UMC, The Villages. The ministry is among programs that involve people from the community. Photo from New Covenant UMC.|
“The secret of our success is we have no secrets,” Hendren said. “We're extremely transparent. We'll go out of our way to make sure people don't have the perception leaders are holding back information.”
Hendren said all his tips relate to being faithful to the vision: “We are a large, dynamic, multicultural, intergenerational congregation growing in our relationship with one another and Jesus Christ to be His hands, feet and voice in the world.”
He described church members as “fearless” when it comes to trying new missions and ministries, and he stressed the importance of building a community connection.
“This has to do with being outwardly focused and how we are very committed to thinking about what's going on in the community, how can we serve with the community,” Hendren said.
“We have done a very good job of serving the community. What we need to work on is asking the community what are their needs and how can we help them help themselves,” he said. Dignity Serves is a program created to nurture church-community partnerships.
Strong missions create entryways to the church. Hendren cited Helping Hands, which draws volunteers unaware that the ministry’s home-building projects are church-sponsored. Then they get to know people at the church who invite them to fellowship and worship.
Connectional Ministry helps make sure people don’t get lost in a large congregation.
“We have people calling other people within our church to touch base with them once a month and say, 'Hey, how are you doing?’” Hendren said. “This is just taking care of our own flock.”
The congregation is developing an additional site called Lake Deaton, currently meeting in a nearby recreation center, that draws hundreds for Sunday services.
Needing a bigger living room
Community of Hope was founded in late 1996 by Rev. Dr. E. Dale Locke and his wife, Beth. The first meeting, in the couple's living room, drew eight people. On a recent Sunday, nearly 1,400 attended services in a sanctuary that opened in 2011, following almost 14 years in a series of facilities rented to accommodate steady growth.
|Rev. Dr. E. Dale Locke blesses a family at Community of Hope UMC, a church he and his wife founded in their living room in 1996. The church now ranks second on a recent list of fastest-growing large United Methodist churches. Photo from Community of Hope.|
The church's predominantly middle-class followers include educators, firefighters and police officers.
“We've developed the ability to think from the outside in,” Locke said. “We begin with certain assumptions. We make the assumption people want to learn about the Lord but might not necessarily look to the church to help them.”
The church's stated mission? “Interest disinterested people in Jesus Christ and grow them into fully devoted followers.”
The church is intentionally designed with the “unchurched” in mind, providing a relaxed atmosphere of casual dress and music in a style familiar to participants, whom Locke refers to as “partners.”
“We're trying to interest the disinterested, so we consider what they would be interested in, what questions would they ask of the Lord or of the Bible,” Locke explained.
“And we give discipleship very high value in our church. Right now, we have 1,100 people meeting in small groups, every night of the week, all over town at different times.”
A huge draw for the church is the annual Christmas program, “Back to Bethlehem.” The walk-through event strives to re-create the night Jesus was born. The program runs for three nights, involves 300 volunteers and draws 11,000 visitors.
Starting Point is a monthly program to provide prospective partners with the opportunity to meet the staff, ask questions and view a video providing information about the church and its history.
“And there's really good food,” Locke said.
“All of these things are driving together,” the pastor said. “We just do it over and over again. And it just works.”
– George Wilkens is a freelance writer based in Wesley Chapel.