It’s called “On Mission Together,’’ a weekend initiative in May planned throughout the Florida Conference. According to the vision of Bishop Ken Carter, it’s meant to unite congregations and empower people to do mission-type work in their communities.
For a pair of significantly different churches located just four miles apart in the Volusia County town of Port Orange the emphasis was together.
“Our church is more progressive, and I’d say a little more diverse in our thought patterns,’’ said Pastor Tom Nelson of First UMC Port Orange.
“We are, I guess you could say, more traditional,’’ said Pastor B.J. Foster of Covenant UMC Port Orange. “On paper, maybe these aren’t churches that agree on all things. Here’s a way to maybe bridge that gap. Maybe we differ. But can’t we work for the common good? Can’t we still be on mission together?’’
Beginning with a top-secret pulpit swap—Nelson and Foster went unannounced to the opposite Sunday worship service and promoted the teamwork-heavy weekend activities—the two churches linked arms. No one could tell the difference. And no one cared.
Old friendships were rekindled. New relationships were formed. It was all for one, one for all.
The Port Orange community.
And, the hearts and minds of both congregations.
Already, another On Mission Together weekend is being planned for February.
“It started with a spark, and it turned into a flame,’’ said Clint Hulcher, who was the On Mission Together coordinator with his wife Susan at First UMC Port Orange. “Everybody got in the spirit of mission work. It was a beautiful thing. We’re still just one family—a family of God.’’
“We’re not in competition,’’ said Kay Wingard, coordinator at Covenant UMC Port Orange. “Tear down the barriers, and we are one church. It was simply about all of us doing the work Jesus set out for us to do.’’
What happened at On Mission Together?
In Nelson’s words, it revolved around “the idea that churches can go out and meet the world where it’s at. Instead of sitting in our churches, we get into our neighborhoods, knock on doors and let them know our presence.’’
Nelson said he has served at three different churches.
“In each case, we were great at getting people in the new neighborhoods to drive in, but we forgot about where we were planted,’’ Nelson said. “That’s a sad thing when you think about it. This was an opportunity to really claim the ground where the church was started.’’
Several constituencies were covered—from children to young adults to military veterans. There was even a nod toward faraway mission work. More than 10,000 meal packages were assembled through the “Rise Against Hunger’’ program. They will be sent to impoverished countries.
Otherwise, most of the activity occurred within a mile or so of each church campus.
Youth groups held a free car wash and then offered prayers for all who stopped.
Other groups went door-to-door, sometimes with tools or yard work supplies in hand, offering to help with chores.
Free bags of cookies were distributed to local businesses.
Flower beds were replanted at an elementary school.
Food was provided to the homeless.
Prayer walks were organized.
“When we spoke with people, we weren’t necessarily pushing the Methodist church, but talking about the need for finding a good church home or just letting them know we were there to help,’’ Nelson said.
“It’s serving the community and finding innovative ways of bringing Christ to the people,’’ Foster said. “It was invigorating and inspiring. It was also lots of fun.’’
Through it all, the congregations of both churches were purposefully mixed together into working groups. There were about 200 active participants. Everyone shared a Friday night picnic—moved indoors by rainy weather—and a Sunday night potluck dinner.
There was also a Sunday panel discussion at Covenant. It covered highlights from the weekend and suggestions for future activities. Many people talked about doing more for veterans.
“Two days later, we get a call from the VFW next to the church, and they say, ‘We have this big fall program coming with all these vendors, and we’re wondering if we can use your church to do it?’ ‘’ Foster said. “We had just talked about it. They called us for help, and we were there. It was such a great God thing.’’
That’s what happened in Port Orange.
Two churches came together, and it was all about serving their community.
“You hear from time to time, ‘You’re always out of the country (for mission trips), but what about us?’” Wingard said. “This balances it out. I think we made an impact.’’
“We found a way to work locally and globally without ever leaving Port Orange,’’ Nelson said. “I think we’re all excited about the next one. I don’t know how many other churches are working together on this throughout the Conference, but I hope some are. It’s a good thing.’’
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.