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Church can happen anywhere

Church can happen anywhere

Fresh Expressions Missions and Outreach

Spurred on by ReThink Church grants, several Florida churches are taking journeys beyond their brick and mortar traditions to embrace the 21st century-driven changes in the ways churches reach out to their congregations and the communities they serve.

It is a world that Patti Nemazie and her team of volunteers can appreciate as they start building a new church. Nemazie is campus pastor for Grace Church Sarasota, which received a new church startup grant from United Methodist Communications (UMCOM). UMCOM provides support for local church outreach efforts through its national ReThink Church ministry.

On two days a month, Grace Sarasota welcomes a food truck from All Faith Food Bank to it parking lot, and about 100 people receive food staples. Church volunteers serve as a hospitality team.

Grace Sarasota is one of Grace Church’s multi-site campuses. Other locations include Cape Coral, Fort Myers Shores, Fort Myers Central, Fort Myers Trinity and Grace Community Center in North Fort Myers.

Grace Sarasota’s grant included tee shirts and invitation card mailers for use by Nemazie’s mission team, as well as digital ads to promote the church. The tee shirts are part of team building, but their design also encourages connections. The church logo is on the front and on the back is the message “Church can happen anywhere.”

The missionaries, under Nemazie's leadership, are working to revive the former Vamo UMC in Sarasota, which closed in May 2015 after struggling with a loss of church members. In January, the church campus joined the fold of Grace Church and its other campuses. No services are being held there, but mission work is in full swing.

Nemazie is the former director of reach and send ministries at the Cape Coral campus of Grace Church, and some of her volunteers are journeying from Cape Coral to help out. The goal is to bring together enough people in the community to re-start church services. There also is hope of transforming the church's education hall into a training center to prepare volunteers for mission work or as a retreat center. That is a long-range goal that will need a funding source, according to Nemazie.

But the immediate goal, aided by the grant, is spreading the message of Jesus Christ to people in the local community through daily personal interactions. This doesn't have to be through scheduled events, Nemazie explains. It can be simply talking with people one-on-one wherever possible.

"We are going out to find people who don't know the Lord," Nemazie said.

She describes the team's mission as a parachute drop into the community.

"We essentially have a church property and buildings with no people," she said. "Basically, we are building from the ground up. We have a plan and a strategy. Our plan is to build relationships in the community."

On two days a month, Grace Church's parking lot on Vamo Road welcomes a food truck from All Faith Food Bank. About 100 people come to get food staples and church volunteers serve as a hospitality team.

Nemazie said future outreach activities could be local Habitat for Humanity builds or fun mini-events with people in the community including a movie night or a barbecue on the beach. The response so far has been positive.

"People are wanting to know what's going to happen," Nemazie said.

Other Florida churches are benefitting as 2016 recipients of Rethink Church grants.  Skycrest UMC in Clearwater and Miami Lakes UMC in Miami Lakes are receiving digital advertising grants for Easter and grants for Advent will be available in August.

At Skycrest UMC in Clearwater, Easter sunrise services have been held at a local diner.

At Skycrest UMC, Rev. Emily Hotho said the digital advertising grant is bringing positive results at her church. "Our hope is that a lot of people will see the ads and maybe come to church on Easter," she said, adding that web traffic is on the increase since the ads were placed.

Church attendance also is up, though Hotho said some of that could be from church members inviting friends. The long-term hope isn't just to get more people in the pews on Easter—a time when traditionally most churches see an up-tick in attendance—but to reach out to people who are searching for a permanent church home. Hotho said that attendance and visitors to the church's website will be tracked to assess the success of the grant.

Advertising is a cost normally beyond the church's budget, she added. "Advertising is very expensive," she said. "We wouldn't have been able to do it before."

The congregation tries different approaches in community outreach. For instance, Easter sunrise services have been held at a local diner. "All of our Holy week services bring a creative twist with them," Hotho said.

Pastor Stuart Bodin at Miami Lakes UMC also has seen more traffic on his church's website, and also more people checking out the Facebook page.

"We're excited to see how it's going to work," he said. "We're ready to track it."

The church is promoting its events and activities leading up to Easter. "We'll find something every month that we can put in front of people," Bodin said.

"We want a full calendar. You start, and you continue to have follow-up."

The main message he hopes to spread? "We're a very friendly, outgoing church."

In addition to new church grants, UMCOM awards grants for community events and digital advertising. No funds are provided directly—instead the grants cover the costs of items such as digital advertising and 15- and 30-second video spots. Promotional materials include customized tee shirts, coffee mugs, water bottles and invitation cards. There also is a low-cost direct mailing program.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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