New churches intentional about serving their demographics


Horizon Tampa Bay members worship at Wilson Middle School on West Swann Ave. in Tampa.


In the remains of long-dead Central Florida citrus groves, a new church is providing a “refreshing look at Jesus.”

Another new United Methodist Church known as Horizon Tampa Bay, using space at the Tampa Garden Club, is introducing Christianity to 60-70 people who did not previously attend church.

Horizon Tampa Bay members share communion.

Launching new churches takes a lot of time, work, organization and more than a little innovation. But for Dan Jackson, director of the Vital Church Initiative for the Florida Conference, it’s about going where people are to share the love of Christ.

“For the past year, almost exactly a year, both Brian Johnson at Citrus Church-Horizon West and Chris and Erica Allen at Horizon Tampa Bay have been gathering groups of people and holding events to start to develop a community,” he said.

“Where we used to knock on doors, social media is the new door knocking. If you look up either church on social media. you can see what they have done.”

The process starts with choosing a group called the launch team, people they can really trust. The team organizes events to raise awareness and its profile, then heads into the community with open arms instead of opening the doors and expecting people to arrive.

For instance, the Allens held a fundraiser for school uniforms at a local craft brewery.

They have spread the word through websites, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The result?

“This past Sunday they were almost maxed out on children’s ministry space,” Jackson said. “That is more exciting than total numbers.”

Horizon Tampa Bay is soon moving to nearby Wilson Middle School. 

In Horizon West, a new town in Central Florida near the doorstep of Disney, homes, schools and businesses are sprouting in what used to be citrus groves. The result is a mix of new folks moving in and joining folks who may have lived there for generations.

Johnson, the new minister at Citrus Church, is working to accommodate both groups. Sometimes, that involves a little innovation—such as holding church in a luxury theater with a toddler area in the front to entice more families to attend.

“I like to have fun with it; and we are in our third week now, and things have come along,” Johnson said recently. “We are trying to not just do worship but serve the community in tangible ways.

“Every few months, more groves come out and more houses go up. In terms of the church, we are springing up from what was old Florida.”

Young families are the focus.

“We are trying to make church where parents with young kids, who find it easier to stay home, will come to church instead,” he said.

Citrus Church-Horizon West worships in the Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas at Hamlin.

With the setting in a movie theater with reclining seats, Johnson calls Citrus “the comfiest church in the state.”

That toddler area in the front of the worship space is for helicopter parents who are not yet ready to send their children to another room without them, he said. Instead of a playground, he calls it a prayground. Johnson said he is taking negative connotations like helicopter parent and turning them in to positives.

In South Tampa, the Allens have been busy for months preparing for their church’s opening.

Chris was originally from Tampa, a product of Hyde Park near the new church’s first home. He and Erica met at seminary at Vanderbilt University. They had been in the Tennessee conference and approached the Florida Conference about coming here.

"It was a nice confluence of events.” Jackson said.

“When we arrived in Tampa, we spent the first three months meeting everyone we possibly could and inviting folks to coffee or lunch,” Erica Allen said. “We were really intentional just to listen.”

The Allens told people they were pastors starting a new church, and those they spoke with shared their passions, what broke their hearts and what they struggle with.

A group of Citrus Church-Horizon West members share refreshments and fellowship.

“Most folks we talked to were completely disconnected from a church. To be completely honest, most of the people disconnected from the church just felt like attending worship was irrelevant to their lives, and they felt that the church was unable to impact their lives or their community,” Erica said.

More than a few said they did not trust the church with their money.

“That was hard to hard to hear over and over again,” she said.

They set up a prayer team and prayed for each new person they met.

“The greatest challenge has been starting at ground zero with everything,” Erica said. “We have no building. We had no people. We had no sound equipment. A year ago, there was literally only an idea for a new United Methodist Church here.”

It was an idea that could only be achieved with persistence and a plan.

“We are really reaching people in their late 20s to lower 40s at both churches, and that is the dominant demographic in both of their areas,” Jackson said. “We were intentional about the approaches we took.”

“We are a resurrection people,” Jackson said, “and it’s very fulfilling to see that lived out as the faithfulness of one generation provides resources to reach new generations for Jesus.”

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico       


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