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Jacksonville area church sees results with ‘lost generation’

Jacksonville area church sees results with ‘lost generation’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Jacksonville area church sees results with ‘lost generation’

Jan. 27, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0789}

An e-Review Feature
By Steven Skelley**

Oakleaf Christian Fellowship has set aside its first five parking spaces for expectant mothers. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #08-0736.

ORANGE PARK — The first thing visitors will notice when they pull into the parking lot at Oakleaf Christian Fellowship is five parking spaces reserved for expectant mothers.

The second thing they’ll notice is the number of children, teens, young adults and parents walking through the front doors of the church.

That’s because this growing United Methodist church is intentional about reaching a younger membership in ways that appeal to them.

Creating a familiar space

Just inside the church, which is a converted warehouse with a concrete floor, is a coffee shop and foyer with bistro tables and chairs designed to create an intimate, conversational atmosphere. Flat screen televisions are mounted on the walls, and trendy water bottles imprinted with the church logo are given as gifts to visitors.

In the sanctuary hundreds of chairs face the platform. Surrounding them are tables and chairs and sofas with throw pillows for those who prefer to sit Starbucks-style, sipping their coffee and tea from the café.

Gary Webb, a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and the church’s director of Prayer and Discipleship, says the church offers a “very welcoming, casual environment.”

“We are very open to seekers, and we want to help folks who may not know what church terms mean,” he said. “They may have gone to other churches in the past and not really understood what was done or said so we want to offer them a strong sense of hospitality. We communicate in understandable language.”

The church is three to five years old, with about 100 members, but 350 adults and 125 children and youth attend worship weekly. Twenty-three new members joined the church between 2005 and 2006, placing the church sixth among the top 20 Florida Conference churches with the highest increase in membership.  

“We started building relationships in 2003 and had our first service in 2004,” the Rev. Jeff Henderson, the church’s pastor, said. “We decided on a 25,000-square foot warehouse building because we studied the trends and patterns of this age group and found a burgeoning new area.”

Oakleaf’s worship service takes place Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. There is also a Wednesday night service called Gathering. It’s a combination of worship service and discipleship classes designed to help people consider more fully questions about God and their faith. Small groups called Life Groups offer another opportunity for members to learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and a way to connect more personally with other churchgoers.

Targeting younger members

James Larson has attended Oakleaf for a little more than a year and plays drums for the worship band. He says people tell him they feel a personal relationship with God at the church and are drawn to the church’s messages, which they say help them delve deeper spiritually.

When asked why he attends Larson says it’s because of the relaxed atmosphere, how the people “are real” and how Henderson quickly becomes a friend.

Henderson, a fit 43-year-old who sports a stylishly trimmed mustache and goatee, says the church succeeds in reaching younger people because of a distinct vision.

Children play in the bounce house at Oakleaf Christian Fellowship. The church organizes outreach events at local parks and soccer fields. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #08-0737.

“I think we succeed because we know our DNA. We know our purpose,” he said. “We want to reach that lost generation. We want to see people coming back to church so we intentionally gear toward that demographic.”

Henderson says the church’s non-traditional building and worship service have contributed to an attendance that’s 80 percent young families.

“Our entire facility is set up to be family-friendly. We have no Sunday school. We offer home-based Life Groups so people build those special, close relationships with each other, not a building,” Henderson said. “We feel that loving people where they are is important. We just say, ‘Come hang out with us.’ ” The presence of God is magnetic. He’ll do the rest.”

Church member Nicole Olinksi agrees and says the church’s inviting atmosphere and spiritual focus draw younger members.

“Our average age is probably 30 to 40,” she said. “We have newborn babies all the time. There are 10 or more women who are pregnant right now, and we just had a bunch of babies. It is unreal. We are bursting at the seams with families, but we really appreciate when older members join, too, because they have such meaningful life experiences to share.”

Jessica and Bryan Collins say they started attending the church because many people they knew were talking about it.

“Our kids have friends who were going here, and we saw the kids going to events the church hosted for them,” Jessica said. “There are things for everyone here, ways to get involved and be comfortable. This is not a churchy-church. It’s a place where you can be a part of something special, not just attend something.”

After relocating from Savannah, Ga., Betty McCarthy said she and her husband found immediate acceptance at the church.

“Right away, we felt like we fit in,” she said. “We have met the neatest people. We feel like family. People here latch on to you and care for you even though you’re really a complete stranger. I love it.”

Making connections

As Rebecca Buterstein rushes from the church kitchen to the parking lot carrying trays of food for a church chili cook-off she says, “We’re investing in each other’s lives.”

The Rev. Jeff Henderson, pastor at Oakleaf Christian Fellowship, says 80 percent of the people who attend the church are young families with children. Members say they are drawn to the church’s welcoming and intentionally comfortable atmosphere. Photo by Thomas Routzong. Photo #08-0738.

“People are searching for something, and they want to belong to something,” she said. “They want a family. I now have an amazing extended family that I can call on, and it’s amazing to me. We share and cry and laugh together. It’s about real life, real issues and real love. That’s what real family is for.”

Her husband, Bryan, says he feels a special sense of commitment in members at the church. He agrees people seem especially down-to-earth and willing to help each other.

“You can call on people for help with just about anything, and they will be there in a minute,” he said.

Carrie Wages volunteers in the hospitality ministry and feels the church’s sense of community is what makes it special.

“Everyone seems so close and so open,” she said. “We all open our lives and homes to each other.”

Wages says the hospitality volunteers make sure each new person is welcomed. After newcomers have visited, someone from the church calls them or sends them an e-mail to see how they can help them get more connected. They are told about the church’s Life Groups and ways to become involved in the church’s ministries.

Church member Leigh Bishop says the Life Groups are places where people can get together weekly or bi-weekly to study and grow closer, quickly becoming “best friends.” She says there are women in the church whose husbands are in the military. Through the groups they support each other.

“It all comes down to loving people. We want to share life together, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Webb said. “Just meeting people in the community, building relationships and getting to know people. A lot of our growth comes from those relationships.”

“We’re reaching a generation that otherwise might be lost,” said Jackie Newman, a church member who relocated from Zimbabwe. “It’s exciting!”

More information about the church and its ministries is available at or by contacting the church at 904-866-8750.

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