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Subtraction leads to multiplication at Merritt Island church

Subtraction leads to multiplication at Merritt Island church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Subtraction leads to multiplication at Merritt Island church

Dec. 13, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0775}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

MERRITT ISLAND — First Baptist Church of Merritt Island recently put up a marquee that read, “If you want to see the Spirit moving, go to Georgianna UMC.”

During the Advent season Georgianna United Methodist Church in Merritt Island is applying its less-is-more vision to the church’s Christmas celebrations, encouraging both members and neighbors to remember the true meaning of Christmas. The opposite side of the sign reads, “This Sunday Simple Christmas Versus Credit Chaos.” Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #07-0716.

That movement and feeling something special is happening at the church is being driven by what members call their simplicity plan.

Georgianna United Methodist Church has been serving its community for more than a century, but when attendance began dwindling members adopted a vision of less is more, and before long they outgrew their facility.

The Rev. Jim Craig is a retired United Methodist minister who has attended the church for two decades. He says the church is striving to make life simpler and church more relevant. A plan called Simple Christmas is the most recent step toward that goal.

“People have very busy schedules 11 months a year, and I’ve seen churches just add activities to that busy schedule,” he said. “And it becomes overwhelming.”

The Rev. Corky Calhoun, the church’s senior pastor, said the feeling that the congregation and “our people were just looking exhausted” led to the Simple Christmas idea.

“People were worn out from both church and family events, and it seemed like the church holiday programs just contributed even more to that,” he said. “We asked ourselves to just not add even one more thing to the hectic schedules people face during the holidays, and 99 percent of our people have embraced it. We wanted to find a way to help people draw nearer to God.”

In the belief that the season “is supposed to be about presenting people with the solution: Jesus,” Calhoun said church members were invited to “rethink December and reclaim the holiday for God and family.”

Part of that plan includes limiting the number of services celebrating Christmas.

“Christmas Eve will be our only Christmas service,” said Chris Knight, director of the church’s children’s ministries. “That way people will have Christmas day for family and for Jesus. Our Christmas Eve service will be a family service. There will be no nursery. Children will worship with everyone else.”

Calhoun says it will be “one church under one roof.” “We usually have three services, and we are preparing to launch a fourth,” he explained. “On this day, we will all worship together.”

Ivy Iverson, the church’s director of worship, says adopting a simpler plan has a positive effect on church vocalists and musicians.

“Churches have, like, 15 services and programs for Christmas,” he said. “I’ve been in ministry for 14 years, and I know how hectic the Christmas season can be. We decided to do one blended service with prayer, a hymn sing and a message and just keep it simple. …”

Because of the simplified program and service, Iverson said, the team can now “experience communion with their families and sit with their children for the service and spend quality time with family they would have spent in rehearsals.”

Knight said the church has also given every child an advent calendar to help them focus more on the meaning of Christmas and giving rather than focusing on gifts.

“We want to help focus more on others (rather) than ourselves at Christmas,” she said. “We’re teaching our children to raise money to be given to the residents of a local nursing home.”

By spending less on themselves, Calhoun says, Christians will have more to give to those in need.

“We want to rethink our holiday and do family things,” he said. “We want to rethink how we spend our money at Christmas. … The Simple Christmas fund will eventually send a mission team to Haiti.”

Both Calhoun and Knight say members have been telling them about the changes taking place. They say there’s been a shift from giving gifts to developing relationships and sharing special meals together. Members are also focusing more on individuals and writing thank-you notes to the people who have touched their lives this year, instead of sending Christmas cards.

“For me, I find the less I am doing, the more I am totally rethinking the whole idea of Christmas,” Knight said. “The Simple Christmas is giving us time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas.”

Iverson says taking a simpler approach during Christmas and the rest of the year is “not a fad,” but rather a mindset we are hoping to keep all year long.”

“We want to filter our programming so we are not spreading ourselves too thin,” he said. “A lot of churches do a weekly dinner and have 50 people attend. We decided to change to a quarterly dinner instead of weekly. It takes less effort, and we have better results. Now, 300 to 400 attend and fellowship together.”

Iverson says simpler schedules also allow for greater outreach. “There were two tragic deaths in the community recently, including a young soccer player dying on the field,” he said. “Because we had limited our schedules, we were free to devote more time to reaching out to those suffering from these tragedies.”

Calhoun says the church does community missions once a month, tithes as a church to local parachurch organizations that are helping people in the community, and does major outreach programs six times a year.

“Lots of churches think outreach is about getting people to your property,” he said. “We believe outreach is not about getting people on our property. Outreach is about getting the message of Christ to wherever the people are who need to hear it. We want church to be happening in homes Monday through Friday and not just for five hours on Sunday mornings.”

In terms of greater participation at church, Craig believes the simplicity plan is producing results.

“Four to five years ago, we’d only see about 120 people in worship,” he said. “Now, we are up to 450 to 500 adults and another 100 to 120 children and youth each Sunday. It has been life-changing, but not necessarily easy. We have had astounding growth of new people, children and youth, but we need to remember to make sure no one is left behind.”

Adds Calhoun: “Georgianna UMC is 122 years old and has a rich history. Somehow we’ve got to find a way to connect historic and relevant. So … we take all the good things that were already at the church and use them to reach and meet new people.”

Sounds simple.


This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla.