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Church says no secret formula for growth: connecting to ministry is key

Church says no secret formula for growth: connecting to ministry is key

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church says no secret formula for growth: connecting to ministry is key

By J.A. Buchholz | May 15, 2009 {1018}

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles about churches that have experienced growth in professions of faith and average worship attendance, measures of two of the five practices of The Methodist Way. See related story, “Analysis shows conference churches making strides,” at:

LUTZ, Fla. — Van Dyke United Methodist Church has experienced significant growth during the past several years, but the Rev. Matthew Hartsfield said there isn’t one specific practice he can point to as the catalyst for the results.

In 2008 Van Dyke United Methodist Church was one of 229 Florida Conference churches ranked in the top 10 percent in one or more of six categories related to growth in professions of faith and average worship attendance. It was also one of 17 experiencing growth in more than one category. Photo courtesy of Van Dyke United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1176.
Van Dyke United Methodist Church had the third highest number of professions of faith among Florida Conference churches in 2007 and ranked second in terms of greatest increase in average worship attendance — from 1,660 in 2006 to 1,902 in 2007. The church recorded 233 new members in 2008, and so far this year about 125 new members have joined.

“I wish I could say we did one, two, three or some formula, but it’s not been a science,” said Hartsfield, who has served as senior past of the Tampa area church for nearly 16 years.

One thing the church has done, he said, is be intentional about living into its mission statement: “To lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“Our staff, lay leaders, members … if you cut them, they bleed that mission statement,” he said.

Other than that, he says, the church is not doing anything he would call out of the ordinary.

A big part of the guest services ministry is helping guests feel welcomed. Church leaders say volunteers play a critical role in that goal. Photo by Karen Peel. Photo #09-1177.

“We do the basics of what it means to lift up Jesus, surrender to Jesus, grow in Jesus,” he said. “If the scripture tells us anything, it is that when Jesus showed up, the crowds showed up. What we try to do is show people that Jesus shows up in their lives, that he cares and wants to be intimately involved in their lives. It’s not about Van Dyke.”

Connecting members from the start

Another way the church is becoming stronger, Hartsfield says, is by requiring all prospective members to take a six-week membership class before joining.

The class, which meets during worship times, is designed to help people interested in becoming members learn about themselves, as well as what the church expects of them as members. The goal is to help each person discover his or her spiritual gifts and ways to align them with a ministry of the church. That process, Hartsfield said, helps church ministries find passionate servants, while the servants are immediately plugged into the areas for which they are “created” to serve.

Karen Peel, who directs the class and heads the church’s newcomers ministry, said the two-hour class has changed over the years. Today it focuses on S.H.A.P.E. — spiritual gifts, heartbeat or passion, abilities, personality and experiences.

“We realized that we could not continue to front load and make members and have them take a one-hour orientation class and later have them drift away from the church six months later because they weren’t firmly connected to it,” said Peel, who has been on staff at the church for more than 13 years. “Now we have this class, and the goal is for people to come out transformed.

“We tell them that right now is all about you, finding out how God created them, and the rest of the time after they join will be about working outside of the church once they realize how they are hot-wired for Christ.”

Volunteers help members and guests navigate the church parking lot. Photo by Karen Peel. Photo #09-1178.

The church offers many ways to put those spiritual gifts to work. Members can volunteer for the Care Ministry team, which helps people through crises and difficult times in their lives, or Second Saturday Serve, a ministry that takes place the second Saturday of each month and gives church members the chance to help people who are chronically ill, seniors, single mothers and others with home chores and yard maintenance. The teams also help nonprofits groups and local ministries by serving meals or painting living areas of residential programs.

Members can also help at the church — in guest services as parking attendants, greeters, security volunteers and guides; in the puppet ministry; at the upcoming summer sports camp; with youth and children’s ministries; and other opportunities.

Bob Baggett and his wife, Donna, took the class after visiting the church for a year. Their son had joined immediately.

Bob said he had been raised in the Baptist church, but was scared away from it, going for years without any faith. He said he felt a spiritual void before visiting Van Dyke United Methodist Church.

“I joined because after I took the class I knew what I was getting into,” Baggett said.

Those who take the class don’t just attend; they have homework and a Bible reading plan. They are also taught to talk about their spiritual story and live out their Christian faith on a daily basis.

Peel conducts five or six classes each year, ranging from 20 participants to a high of 99 people last year. She said even lifelong United Methodists must take the class before claiming membership at the church. One such potential member wanted to join but didn’t understand the rationale about taking the class, Peel said, but he eventually participated and raved about the class to others, touting its excellence.

A church member serves as a security attendant as part of the church’s guest services ministry. Photo by Karen Peel. Photo #09-1179.

“It has exceeded what we have expected,” Peel said, adding 98 percent of participants serve in ministry once they complete the class. And instead of placing members by need, they serve based on where they feel called. The result, Peel said, is having members who are energized about their ministry and not drained from doing something they don’t really want to do.

Churches must do more with people than simply get them to join the church, Hartsfield says. Equally important are leading people to and helping them grow in Christ. He said a church couldn’t accomplish the two components independently and still maintain integrity.

“We want to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples,” Hartsfield said. “Any church can do what we do; there is nothing revolutionary about it. The church has been doing these things for 2,000 years.”

Hartsfield is confident churches that are faithful to the principles of Jesus Christ will see an increase in reaffirmations and professions of faith.

“There will be a fresh stream of redeemed souls,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is not less powerful. Every single church is capable of transformation and making an impact on its community.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

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