He's helped bring the gospel to diners, hair salons, tattoo parlors and drug dealers, so it's no surprise to find Rev. Michael Beck, senior pastor at Wildwood United Methodist Church, at a dog park early Saturday morning talking about the Bible. Welcoming familiar faces with a handshake and a shake of a paw or two, Beck invites newcomers to join in, then quietly takes a step back, encouraging others to lead and participate.
|"People can't always get to church on Sunday morning, so getting out into the community and allowing people to experience the Church outside the church is an amazing experience," said Paws of Praise regular Denise O'Rourke.|
Amid barks, yelps and mad dashes by a small pack of friendly dogs, the unflappable Larry Gaboury—referred to by Beck as the pastor of Paws of Praise—leads the free-flowing gathering, reading short Bible passages and encouraging others to share their thoughts.
Up to 15 other dog lovers join Gaboury on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month, 9.30 a.m., at BarkPark of Wildwood in The Villages, about 30 miles south of Ocala.
“We saw there were people here (at the park), and a lot of us have dogs, so we thought why not swing in and try to spread the Word that way,” said Gaboury, who co-founded Paws of Praise a year ago with Beck as part of the Fresh Expressions movement.
Born in the U.K. in 2004, Fresh Expressions reaches out to those who are not a member of any church, crafting informal micro-ministries around community gardens, pub meetings and yoga classes. In recent years, thanks to the support of UMC leaders, Fresh Expressions have sprouted in every Florida Conference district.
Of the 115 or so active Fresh Expressions across Florida, Beck’s fingerprints are on more than a few.
“I’ve been doing Fresh Expressions ministries since before they were called that,” said Beck, who in addition to his work as a pastor at Wildwood UMC, also helps cultivate Fresh Expressions in his district. Beck, who oversees eight Fresh Expressions gatherings at Wildwood UMC, is also the South Atlantic coordinator for Fresh Expressions U.S., a job that has seen him travel across the country training pastors.
“Every Christian (group) is in decline,” said Beck, citing census figures that show the only growth when it comes to faith, or lack thereof, is among those without any religion—“nones,” as they are sometimes known—and religions other than Christianity.
“The reason I do this is that there are people out there who do not know that God loves them, and they are never going to know it if we just keep doing things the way we have been doing them. One of my motivations is to create churches that my adult children will actually come to,” said Beck, who is raising a blended family of eight children, aged 9 to 23, with his wife, Jill. Starting as an assistant pastor at St. Mark’s UMC in Ocala in 2009, Beck moved to Lochloosa UMC in 2011, where he served until 2012 and moved to Wildwood.
It’s a life few would have imagined for Beck as a young man, but his life experience has helped the energetic young pastor open doors for Fresh Expressions others could not.
|A short prayer circle ends the informal gathering of dog lovers that meets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Paws of Praise is one of eight Fresh Expressions at Wildwood UMC.|
Raised by his Methodist grandparents in Ocala—Beck’s mother struggled with drug addiction, while his birth certificate lists his father as “unknown”—Beck faced his own struggles with addiction in his teens. Reading his mother’s Bible, “one she had left from one of her jail visits,” the 19-year-old’s life changed. “I was very convicted by what it said, and I just got down on my knees in the shower, and I encountered my savior.”
He was never far from the Church, even in his difficult teen years. “People in the Methodist Church took me in almost like an orphan,” Beck recalled, who grew up a member of St. Mark’s UMC. Rev. Holland Vaughan would become Beck’s mentor, a debt he honors every Sunday when he dons Vaughan’s robes to lead the traditional service at Wildwood.
“While Fresh Expressions might sound like a modern concept, it's really bringing Methodism back to its roots,” said Lorraine Zimmerman, a retired UMC minister from New York who attended the Paws of Praise service. “It’s John Wesley,” she said. “He went out preaching around the minefields when the miners were coming out of the mines. It’s rooted in our Methodist tradition that you bring the Word to the people where the people are.”
“It’s a very intelligent way to reach out to people who otherwise might not be reached, and Michael has done an excellent job,” said Paws of Praise participant Art Minier, crediting Beck with bringing more than 40 new members into Wildwood UMC through a profession of faith.
“He is making people feel comfortable going to church. He makes it feel so alive. It’s just exciting to be a part of his church. I’m 78, and this church just tops them all.”
--Kevin Brady is a freelance writer based in Brandon.
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