Editor’s Note: This is the first story around the theme of resilient churches.
At a time when many denominational churches are in decline, the United Methodist Church of Sun City Center is bucking that trend. Attendance there has doubled in the past five years.
Some call it a resilient church, said Janet Earls, director of Congregational Vitality for the Florida Conference.
Pastor Charlie Rentz called it a perfect storm.
“I’m in my fifth year. It was a good church, a strong church and growing when I arrived,” Rentz said. “But we have way more than doubled in attendance and membership since I have been here. Our average attendance went from 600-700 to about 1,650.”
The church, he said, is an open, welcoming, loving place in a growing community.
“Although we are in the middle of a retirement community, we are not a retirement-minded church. We have ministries for retired working people, children, young adults.”
Church members are working in the community to help their neighbors and spread the love of Jesus Christ, Rentz said.
|A group of Sun City Center's confirmands.|
The only churches typically growing these days are nondenominational.
“We discussed whether this is resilience or whether it is survival,” Earls said. “But survival is just remaining open. When we say they are resilient, they are really vital and making a difference in the world.”
The “nons” as they are referred to, doubled in the United States between 2000 and 2016, according to a Gallup poll cited in a Christianity Today article entitled The Rise of the Nons: Protestants Keep Ditching Denominations.
About one in six U.S. Protestants now consider themselves nondenominational Christians.
This is the result of two trends, the article states: the decline in Protestants overall and those shirking all religious affiliations, also known as the “nones.”
Not at Sun City Center.
Earls’ job includes preparing statistical reports for various churches in the conference, so they know where they stand. She prepares reports for district superintendents on a church’s health, missional vital signs, attendance and finances.
"We take all that data and pour it into reports that help us understand the health of the churches," Earls said. "I provide them with those reports so they can see who is doing really well, who needs extra help and who do we need to have some serious conversations with concerning their future."
Five years ago, she said, Sun City Center was averaging 531 people in attendance on Sunday. In 2018, that number increased to 1,329.
“There has been a slow incline since 2005,” Earls said. “And since 2012, it has been a steady increase.”
Rentz attributes the growth to the congregation’s non-retirement attitude.
That spirit was here when I got here, of being an active church that did a lot of community outreach and connections and a lot of congregational care,” he said.
“We have a couple hundred people that are home-bound but are seen and visited and cared for by the Congregational Care Team, with more than 100 members.”
They even take Communion from home.
“We do a lot of things like free movies on Friday night, blessing of the animals, the Alzheimer’s walk and something I’m really proud of, a First Responders Appreciation every year,” Rentz said. “We have them come to church where we feed them and honor them and send them off with a care basket.”
|Youth celebrate their baptisms.|
The church also now has one of the largest Hispanic congregations in the nation.
“We are drawing kids from there. They celebrated their sixth year this past August,” he said. “They do a tremendous amount of outreach, drawing from Ruskin, Wimauma, Riverview and all around. It is a younger congregation.”
That ministry has been so successful that the church is looking for a satellite location, but said no firm plans are yet in place.
What is already in place are the small groups said Pastor Yamiley Martinez, who preaches in the Hispanic services. She believes they have helped with the success of the Hispanic congregation.
Programs include Bible study for women, an additional Bible study for women and men, a youth group and a young adult group.
They follow the advice found in 1 Peter 5:2: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.”
To accomplish that, Martinez takes people into the community to preach the word of God on Saturdays. They hand out flyers and put up signs encouraging people in the Hispanic community to attend.
About 140 are attending on Sunday.
Rentz is also quick to point out what an awesome music program his church has.
“One of the things we have done is we had a contemporary service that has become very cutting edge,” Rentz said. “The music is what you hear on Christian radio. It’s the most up to date music. We also have some incredible, talented singers for that service.”
That music has attracted a younger crowd from the growing areas surrounding the church. Southern Hillsborough County is, by far, the fastest growing sector in the county, and long-term projections expect that to continue.
“There is so much growth of new homes and families moving in that we are now surrounded by young families and schools and working people,” Rentz said. “I sit behind the school buses every day coming to work.”
The area has grown by 8,000 houses in the past four to five years, he said.
“All of a sudden they are over 1,000 members,” Earls said. “That is a large church. Most of our churches are under 100, about two-thirds of them.
“To see what this church has done by good leadership and meeting needs and keeping its finger on the pulse of the community, they have done an excellent job."
—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer from Valrico.