At a time when church attendance across all denominations is in steady decline, three churches in the Florida Conference are bucking the trend.
Community of Hope in Loxahatchee Groves, Sun City Center UMC and New Covenant in The Villages are among the 25 fastest growing large United Methodist churches in the country, according to an annual report published by Len Wilson, an author, speaker and church growth strategist. Community of Hope is ranked fourth with an average attendance of 1,436 and a five-year annual growth of 16.3 percent, while Sun City Center comes in at eighth with an average attendance of 1,191 and a five-year annual growth of 9.7 percent. New Covenant is listed as 10th with an average attendance of 2,464 and a five-year annual growth of 8.7 percent.
The pastors at the three churches recently shared some of the stories behind these revealing numbers, discussing what they’re doing right, how they’re serving their respective communities and what leaps of faith they have taken.
Playing long ball
Community of Hope UMC wasn’t always the thriving, two-campus congregation it is today, and Lead Pastor Dale Locke works hard never to forget those dark days.
|An immersion of faith is experienced with baptism at a recent Community of Hope service. Rev. Dale Locke says the church has returned to the spirit of its original mission "to interest disinterested people in Jesus Christ."|
“In 2005, we went through all those terrible hurricanes, and it really demoralized our congregation and cut our attendance in half,” Locke recalls.
At the time, Community of Hope met in a local high school and—because of damage assessments—had to be closed for about 30 days. Members drifted away, overall attendance lagged and faith was tested. But it was during that turmoil that Locke and his staff began asking some hard questions.
“We were worshipping and doing all these different things, but we were not really discipling people,” Locke said. “Jesus said, ‘go and make disciples.’ He didn’t say, ‘go and build a large church.’”
So Community of Hope shifted focus, returning to the spirit of its original mission statement “to interest disinterested people in Jesus Christ and grow them into fully devoted followers of Him.”
It became a church that meets people where they are in life and in faith, a church where people who don’t yet self-identify as followers of Christ still feel welcome and loved and accepted, Locke said.
“We’re figuring community out,” he said. “I think our willingness to be authentic is really strong. I have a strong personal conviction that I’m not the guy with all the answers…and I require that of my team.”
Community of Hope also revamped its old-school notion of membership, recasting it as a “partnership.” Today the partnership process begins with a welcoming meal and informative video and works its way up to a class that covers the basics of Christianity, introduces folks to their spiritual gifts and connects them to a small group.
“You don’t have to become a partner if you don’t want to, but if you want to become a partner, you have to take it,” he added. “That class has really become the engine that is driving our church.”
And while Locke and his team of 35 staff members enjoy seeing Sunday attendance increases, they like what’s happening during the week even more.
“We’re impressed with the small group attendance,” he said. “We have about 1,500 people meeting in small groups all over town!”
They are people who are getting together to pray, study the Bible, grieve lost loved ones, care for ailing parents, stay sober, navigate the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s disease, raise autistic kids and simply do life together, and their connections have been vital to the church’s overall growth.
The small groups, Locke says, are what continually show the surrounding communities that Community of Hope is a place for everyone—even those who don’t have it all figured out.
“People come to faith in degrees,” he said. “We play long ball.”
‘People are growing’
At Sun City Center UMC, the definition of a successful ministry is a simple one.
“It’s succeeding when we connect people to Christ and connect people to each other,” said Senior Pastor Charlie Rentz.
|Since his appointment in 2014, Senior Pastor Charlie Rentz has welcomed more than 700 new members to Sun City Center UMC. "With each of those people, there's a faith story," he said.|
By that standard alone, Sun City has experienced extraordinary growth in recent years. Not only has Sunday attendance been climbing, but people are continuing to join the church and find ways to serve in the name of Jesus. Since Rentz was appointed in 2014, the congregation has welcomed roughly 720 new members.
“And with each of those people, there’s a faith story,” Rentz said. “It’s never about the numbers. It’s about individual lives. People are growing in their Christian walk. They’re finding a place to put their faith to work.”
Sun City UMC, which has a staff of 18, has found great value in opening itself up and inviting the community into its midst in non-threatening ways: Friday night movies, an annual Alzheimer’s walk, a first-responder thank you lunch, the annual blessing of the animals and memory screenings.
“The church has a reputation in the community of being the place to be,” Rentz said. “There is some type of activity going on here, it seems like, 24/7. When I get here at 6:30 on Sunday morning, there’s already an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) group that’s been meeting. Even though this church sits smack in the middle of a retirement community, this is anything but a retirement church.”
That presence in the community has afforded Sun City a measure of credibility with newcomers or skeptics or those who were a little unsure about the congregation.
Rentz says God is using the church to reach into various parts of its community with its active Hispanic ministry, its multicultural and multiracial youth ministry and church services that appeal to the very young and the very old.
“One of the highlights of my ministry here was when one of the associates and I held in our arms and baptized two newborn twins, two little boys…and during that same month, I also baptized two ladies in their 90s,” he said. “What’s happening is people are coming into a relationship with Christ, and in the words of our Bishop, they’re telling other people where to find the bread. It’s just a really exciting time.”
Casting bold visions
New Covenant UMC is not simply growing fast—it’s been one of the 25 fastest growing large UMCs in the country for the past seven years.
When folks ask Senior Pastor Harold Hendren to explain that growth, he has one answer at the ready.
|New Covenant UMC's campus at The Villages.|
“We are blessed by a great God,” he said. “I believe we are on the list because our church is very intentional in wanting the church to grow and is willing to think and plan strategically to not only help make the church grow but sustain that growth.”
Since Hendren began serving at New Covenant in 2011, the congregation has added roughly 1,000 new members. He says that growth has come about, in part, because the church family has truly committed to living out the commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves.
“They have really taken that to heart, and I think God has honored that,” he said.
One example, Hendren said, was five years ago. He and other church leaders cast a vision to launch a second campus in the Lake Deaton area.
“I could see the migration, and said, ‘Hey, we need to get ahead of this.’ That was a pretty bold commitment for the congregation.”
Today the Lake Deaton campus—currently holding worship at the Eisenhower Recreation Center—is growing and moving closer to having a permanent home.
The congregation’s willingness to prayerfully take on big challenges is also evident in the varied and active ministries that are in place to serve the surrounding communities.
“Mission and outreach and hospitality is very much a part of our DNA,” Hendren said. “Being outwardly focused is something we are getting right. We have created a thrift shop that provides hundreds of thousands of dollars that is being distributed back into the community.”
New Covenant has also built water wells in Africa through its Congo Partnership, and it provides nearby Wildwood Middle High School with 49 mentors for at-risk students. Through its Helping Hands Ministry, the church has helped build 27 homes for people in need of shelter.
“I share with our congregation all the time how blessed we are to live in a beautiful, thriving community, but to also have a thriving church,” Hendren added. “Abraham was blessed to be a blessing, and I try to remind people that we are blessed to be a blessing.”
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer based in Pensacola.