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Church receives award for evangelism efforts

Church receives award for evangelism efforts

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church receives award for evangelism efforts

By J.A. Buchholz | Aug. 6, 2009 {1061}

The Rev. Jamie Westlake was a little surprised when he learned several years ago that he and his family would be moving from Cypress Lake United Methodist Church in Fort Myers, Fla., to First United Methodist Church in Brandon.

The Revs. Jamie Westlake and Matt Wallis share their church’s efforts to reach new people with laity and clergy attending the 2009 Florida Annual Conference Event in June. Westlake and Wallis are senior and associate pastor, respectively, at First United Methodist Church in Brandon, Fla. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1279.

He thought he had more to do at the Fort Myers church, but he respected and believed in the United Methodist itinerant system and answered the call to serve the Brandon church. Westlake and the Rev. Matt Wallis, associate pastor of the church, were appointed there in 2007.

Westlake and Wallis began their ministry at the church by asking the church’s leadership a series of questions to gauge the spiritual direction of the church. One key question was, “On a scale of one to 10 how comfortable are in you inviting your family, friends and acquaintances to come to church?”

The average answer was five, which Westlake interpreted to mean that the people in the pews would answer around two. Westlake said the average number for church leadership should hover around eight or nine so that members could reach five or six.

“People needed to get excited about what we are doing,” Westlake said. “It’s not about advertising dollars. If people feel good about what they’re doing, that gives a church good word of mouth.”

That word of mouth soon spread, causing visitors to join the church and the church to earn the Harry Denman Evangelism Award at the 2009 Florida Annual Conference Event.

The award is named for the late Dr. Harry Denman, a distinguished lay evangelist who was born Sept. 26, 1893, in Birmingham, Ala. Denman founded the Foundation for Evangelism, which sponsors the award, in 1949 and is most remembered for his leadership of the Board of Evangelism of The Methodist Church. Dr. Billy Graham called him “my mentor in evangelism.”

The award honors exemplary effectiveness in fulfilling the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Brandon congregation received 76 people on profession of faith in 2008, an increase of 26 people over 2007 and the most professions of faith the congregation has received in more than 10 years. Only five Florida Conference congregations received more people through professions of faith that year. At the same time, attendance increased by 156 people a weekend to 992. No other congregation increased their attendance by as much.

The numbers are the product of pastoral leadership and congregational involvement.

Westlake said the first thing he did at the church was preach a five-part series on The Methodist Way, a process of disciple-making that focuses on five practices — intentional discipling, passionate worship, salty service, radical hospitality and extravagant generosity. Westlake said he encouraged the church to realize who they are as God’s people and step up to deliver.

“I pushed really hard for everyone to be actively involved in a small group,” he said. “I also had the goal for everyone to be involved in either ministry or mission. Ministry is defined as participating with a group within the walls of the church and mission as taking part in activities outside of our walls.”

The church also regularly scheduled new member classes and pushed for consistent church attendance.

Westlake said that involvement has helped people become excited about being members of the church.

“So many people at a lot of our churches sometimes feel that they are on a sinking ship,” he said. “Longtime members may not get off, but they are not going to be busy inviting family, friends and acquaintances to the church so they can get on board with them.”

Members with a mission

Skip Wilson is one of those members who looks forward to inviting people to his church. He carries a card in his wallet imprinted with the church’s name, address, times of worship and directions so he can be ready to invite anyone he meets. When he gives a card away, he receives another from the church.

Wilson has been a member of the church for more than 40 years, and in that time he has seen many pastors come and go, but he says some new things are happening at the church that excite him and other members.

“We have a new mission statement,” Wilson said. “We had so many over the years. We sat around in a meeting and couldn’t remember any of them. We may remember the subject of one or two, but I know the one we have now: ‘We exist to make more and better disciples of Jesus Christ.’ I haven’t forgotten it in two years. We judge everything we do by that, and it’s been wonderful.”

Wilson said a joyful worship style with an outstanding music team is also making a difference, and he thinks the congregation is responding positively to the weekly altar call, during which church members are encouraged to move forward and share concerns with a pastor.

The early survey Westlake took also prompted some changes in his preaching. He said the members wanted fewer personal stories and more focus on scripture during sermons.

“I know it sounds silly … they don’t really care what I have to say,” he said said. “They only want to hear from me what connects them to a deeper and better relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Wally Ingram joined the church in 1987 and has served in many different ministry areas since then. He agrees now is an exciting time. “I look forward to going to small groups and church,” he said.

Ingram said there is strong unity within the church, which he credits to the church’s mission. He said everybody understands it and has “latched onto it.”

It’s something the church’s fifth-graders can recite, Westlake said, and everything the church does has to pass through the filter of the mission statement.

“Sometimes we have to say no to what we want to do to say yes to God’s best,” he said. “We just want to be clear about where we’re going.”

Westlake says he is certain God is in control and that everything taking place at the church is God’s doing.

“We are getting excited again about being a church,” Westlake said. “It’s been a great challenge, and I love getting to work on it.”

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.