Growing Churches in the Florida Conference
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 UMC in Loxahatchee Groves, Sun City Center UMC, and New Covenant UMC 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. You can read their stories at this link.
Two Are Sometimes Better as One
While Christians around the world celebrated new life in Christ this Easter, two Jacksonville churches celebrated a different kind of salvation. Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church have entered into a covenant to share the downtown buildings of First Church.
It’s not a merger, said the Rev. Jay Therrell, district superintendent of North East District. Each congregation will maintain its identity, ministries, and staff, but they will share space and expenses. In a time of political and racial polarization, the agreement makes a powerful statement to the church and the community. First Church Jacksonville is a predominately white congregation; Simpson Memorial is black.
“The overall objective is to see how the two congregations can be a greater witness to the Kingdom of God in the shared space,” said Rev. Lawrence Barriner, pastor of Simpson Memorial. “It gives the churches an opportunity to live into what we proclaim as a denomination in terms of inclusivity, to be a people of God allowing the Spirit of God to transcend race and culture.”
Both churches are steeped in history with congregations whose families have been members for decades.
First Church Jacksonville grew out of the work of circuit rider John Jerry, who began holding worship services in 1823 on the second floor of a dry goods store in the newly established city of Jacksonville. The congregation grew with the city and was buffeted by history. During the Civil War, Union troops used its sanctuary for prayer and worship. Half a century later, the church and most of the city was destroyed in the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. The current sanctuary dates to the 1960s, an era when Jacksonville was wracked by civil rights disturbances, including the infamous “Ax Handle Saturday” (August 27, 1960), when white supremacists attacked black demonstrators just a few blocks from the church.
Simpson Memorial was founded in 1884 in the new residential neighborhood of Springfield, north of downtown. It was Jacksonville’s first neighborhood, with stylish mansions in the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival style adjacent to a thriving business district. But over time, the fortunes of both congregations have waned. Membership has dropped; finances dwindled. Hard decisions had to be made.
“Ours is an aging congregation,” said the Rev. Tony Chance, pastor of First Church Jacksonville. “We’re not keeping up with the losses from deaths and people moving away. We have a membership of 250 with anywhere from 70 to 125 in worship. We’re classified as a small church.” It’s a small church with three big buildings—a sanctuary, an educational building, and an administration building. It’s so big that they rent space to two nonprofits.
Simpson Memorial’s building is in poor condition, and repairs are beyond the means of the congregation, which has 232 on its rolls but only 80 in attendance. “It really takes away from our ability to do more effective ministry,” Rev. Barriner said.
In January 2017, during a cross-cultural pulpit exchange, a conversation got started between the pastors about whether there was a way to extend the legacies of both churches. In October, with Therrell’s blessing, six members of each congregation began meeting weekly to take a hard look at what it would take for both congregations to come together—side by side—under one roof. To read more about this merger of two congregations unfolded,