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Bluegrass packs 'em in, grace keeps 'em coming

Bluegrass packs 'em in, grace keeps 'em coming

A bluegrass band leads worship on Saturday nights at Alva UMC in southwest Florida. Photos from Alva UMC.

ALVA – On the banks of the Caloosahatchee River, about 20 miles inland from Fort Myers, is a little white church that is busting at the seams with people coming to worship.

Alva UMC doesn’t seem like it could be a “growth church.” It is 150 years old. Its sanctuary has no running water, and the rural town it calls home has a population of 2,500 people.

Just a few years ago, the congregation still had folks who claimed pews as their own. Worship attendance was stagnant at best and even declining.

Since 2009, though, the congregation has grown 33 percent, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down.

Exterior of cross and flame on Alva United Methodist Church
Alva UMC has adopted a spirit of hospitality and the slogan "Little Church with the Big Heart."

What do you do when your Sunday worship attendance outgrows your sanctuary? In Alva, you add a toe-tapping, hand-clapping Saturday night bluegrass service and watch your numbers soar.

That’s what Pastor Ralph Cotten and the Alva congregation did in October. This “Little Church with the Big Heart,” which is the Alva UMC slogan, has experienced a transformation over the last few years and seen double-digit growth in nearly all Missional Vital Signs, including weekly attendance, membership, giving and professions of faith. Worshipers now average 220 each weekend.

Not so long ago, the church looked like it was headed in the other direction, with declining attendance and broken spirits. In 2009, Zig Bays took charge as pastor and began to change the operations of the church, Cotten said. The congregation began to pray intentionally for new hope for the church.

“They met every Monday evening and prayed for hours,” Cotten said. “They prayed from their homes and from their Sunday morning pews. They asked God to be at work. They prayed to have the heart of Jesus. They prayed that the Holy Spirit would be at work in the months and years ahead. They prayed that God would help the church and prepare the church to be a light in the community.”

When Cotten came to Alva in 2012, he challenged the congregation through a sermon series, “Make Fishers of Men,” and asked the congregation to be more welcoming and inviting. It has paid off. Soon, there were too many people attending the two traditional Sunday morning services for the seating capacity.

After a lot of prayer and discussion about the overflow, they decided to introduce the Saturday night bluegrass worship service. Cotten, a musician with more than 30 years in the United Methodist clergy, realized that bluegrass was popular in the town. To get the service started, Cotten asked a church member talented in the genre to lead and asked leaders in the church to attend the Saturday service and bring their friends.

“I promised them I would, for at least two months, preach a different sermon than Sunday,” he said.

He said the service is very different from the Sunday morning version and usually gets revved up as the band with a banjo plays songs like “I’ll Fly Away,” “Down to the River to Pray” and other bluegrass-style music found through the congregation’s regular copyright license subscription. Attendance ranges from 25 to 80 people each week. 

“We had the complete freedom to follow where we were led,” Cotten said. “I [now] preach the same message as I do on Sunday. It is very simple, casual and laidback. It is the only time in my life that I’ve worn jeans and a black T-shirt to worship.”

The Saturday service is drawing a mixed group of people, mostly adults. Some have switched over from a Sunday service. Others are former churchgoers who had left Alva, and still others are brand new to the congregation after hearing about the music. In fact, the bluegrass music has been so popular, that the Alva church will be sponsoring a bluegrass festival in town next month.

But the church didn’t just add a service with new music, the pastor said. The transformation has been deeper than that. The church concentrates on reaching out to new faces.

“From top down, we have to demonstrate love and grace all the time,” he said. “We’ve learned how to show extravagant grace. I tell them, ‘If someone is sitting in your pew, tell them thank you and sit someplace else.’ We’ve had to work at it. But this has been our focus.”

“We are focused on loving God, loving one another with as much joy as possible,” said the 56-year-old pastor. “One of our church leaders likes to say, ‘Can you believe we are having this much fun?’”

– Julie Boyd Cole is a freelance writer based in Gainesville.