On a mission at Orange Avenue
The fair — which showcases the congregation’s 35 or so ministries — featured a “Help Wanted” sign from the overworked, part-time prison minister, Simeon Rolle.
“I’ve always liked edgy stuff,” said O’Neal, a father of three who owns a tile-setting business.
So, he volunteered to lead a Bible study behind prison walls — and joined the legion of members at this central Florida congregation who find an outlet to use their God-given talents.
Attendance at Orange Avenue has jumped about 65 percent since 2000, averaging nearly 400 on Sundays. A servant approach to leadership that seeks to engage each member in active service to the Lord is a big reason why, leaders and members said.
“They let you know that you’re needed, you’re wanted and loved,” said Rhonda Hammond, a mother of two who interprets Sunday and Wednesday services as part of the congregation’s deaf ministry. “Everyone seems to have a service area that they can work in,” added Hammond, an Orange Avenue member for 10 years.
“That has been wonderful for me, finding my little niche and focusing on that and understanding that you don’t have to do everything. I have a place.”
The church, about 30 miles northwest of Orlando, has grown through a combination of community outreach and attracting church members who move to Eustis and nearby towns.
Eustis is in Lake County, a sunny mecca of lakes and orange groves, with stucco and block houses built to withstand hurricane-force winds. The county’s population has leaped more than 30 percent since the 2000 census.
“The potential to grow here is unlimited,” said pulpit minister Joe Roberts, 51, a one-time Navy nuclear engineer and former Christian school principal. He joined the Orange Avenue ministry staff in 2002.
Most of the transplants making Florida their home don’t have a strong tie to a particular denomination, making it easy to develop a relationship with them and start teaching the Bible, Roberts said. “It’s not that hard to convert people and let them come to know Jesus,” he said. “I think you have a great opportunity here in Florida. It’s not bad to live next to Disney World either.”
Growth at Orange Avenue has occurred despite a split in which about 80 to 100 members left and started a new congregation with a more contemporary worship format in 1999. The split caused much pain and heartache, but the church overcame it, said elder Jeff Bay, who was a member but not an elder then.
“The key … was having a group of God-fearing, servant-elders who remained united and kept the focus on kingdom business,” Bay said. “These men, though hurting deeply themselves, provided the needed leadership to the congregation, and by example, moved forward.”
The leadership of the new congregation later offered an apology to the Orange Avenue elders about how they handled the split and asked for forgiveness. “We’re on very good terms now with that congregation,” said Rick Brown, one of Orange Avenue’s six elders.
Throughout the ordeal, the elders stayed focused on God and maintained an open-door policy that allowed any member to raise questions or concerns, leaders and members said. Even in the case of the group that split, the elders granted many of their requests but could not agree to all, they said.
“One of the reasons we haven’t had any more difficulties is because of the open eldership,” elder Mike Mabry said. “We encourage people, if they have questions about anything we do, we want to sit down and talk to them.”
Much of the church’s growth can be tied to its close relationship with the nearby Mount Dora Christian Home and Bible School. Many members either work at the home and school or have children there.
Most of the neglected and abused children who live at the home have no church background. Likewise, only about 30 percent of the 800-plus students at the K-12 school have Church of Christ ties.
“We are a built-in mission field, and our congregation takes advantage of that and sees that opportunity,” said James Moore, an Orange Avenue member who is president of the home and school.
Roberts, whose daughter, Amy, is the senior captain of Mount Dora Bible’s cheerleading squad, describes the school as the church’s No. 1 outreach focus.
“It’s not unusual for us to baptize Mom, Dad and the kids,” he said. “We’ve done that on several occasions.”
Malcolm and Natalie Yawn were baptized after their daughters — students at the school — started attending church with the daughters of church members Bill and Dru Baker.
“We know so many of the members through church, and it is just like a family,” said Natalie Yawn, mother of Jeannine and Ellie. “It’s very comforting,” added Yawn, who now takes the attendance cards each Sunday and makes a spreadsheet of visitors and prayer requests for the minister.
The Bakers, parents of Marissa, Mikayla and Caleb, said they try to live by example and hope people see the difference God makes. The approach seems to work.
Anthony Tucker, 24, works at the orange groves that Bill Baker’s family owns. Tucker was baptized recently along with his wife, Adela.
The new members praised the congregation’s warmth and friendliness.
“Everybody’s down to earth, and you’re able to talk to people without feeling out of place,” she said.
“They all welcome you,” he added.
Roberts characterizes the growth at Orange Avenue as healthy, but nothing like that of the first century church.
“We’re not turning the world upside down,” he said. “But we are trying to become more and more Great Commission conscious as a congregation.”
To help involve every member, the congregation developed a 44-page “spiritual plan.” It includes detailed descriptions for each ministry, along with specific goals and service opportunities.
There is plenty of work to keep members busy, from helping with disaster relief after recent killer tornadoes to canvassing low-income apartments near the church to invite residents to worship.
Among the works for which it is best known, the Orange Avenue church sponsors the Spiritual Growth Workshop, which every two years draws thousands from throughout Florida and other states to an Orlando hotel.
The congregation also supports missionaries in Jamaica, Ukraine and Thailand as well as a Spanish radio and television ministry in Miami.
Closer to home, the Central Florida Bible Camp, nine miles east of Eustis, is a major focus of the church.
In each case, the church believes not just in financial support but also in active involvement in the work, said Chuck Shepherd, the deacon over missions.
About 50 members and leaders go each year on mission trips to places supported by the congregation. All six elders have seen the work in Jamaica firsthand.
“I don’t think there’s anything that excites people more about supporting foreign missions than personally getting involved with it,” Bay said.
Member Mike Hill jokes that it seems like almost every man in the congregation is a deacon because there is so much to do. Actually, the church has 25 deacons and 18 ministry leaders, including women over areas such as children’s Bible hour.
Hill, 49, a father of two, first came to Orange Avenue as a 12-year-old resident of the Mount Dora children’s home. Until then, he often lacked for food and necessities. His mother was an alcoholic, his father absent.
So, serving as the deacon over the benevolence ministry seemed natural.
“I know what it’s like to be hungry, and I know what it’s like to have no clothes,” said Hill, who became an all-state point guard at Mount Dora Bible and later coached the team for 16 years.
“At some congregations,” he said, “you show up and you let a few people do all the work and they’re overburdened. … Here, if you want to get involved, there’s a place.”
Such was the case with O’Neal, now a volunteer prison minister. Despite nervousness the first few times he entered the medium-security Lake Correctional Institution, O’Neal kept going back.
About 20 to 30 inmates meet in the prison chapel each Sunday to study the Bible and partake of the Lord’s Supper.
“It’s kind of amazing,” O’Neal said, “to see somebody who may have killed somebody 30 years ago and has tattoos from head to toe, and now they are the most calm and most studious Bible student in the class. … You see Christ working in their life because they’re not that person anymore.”
FeedbackI think there is something happening at your place of worship and would like to be apart
My name is GregoryGREGORY PLAYTERChrist baseORLANDO, FL
usaOctober, 14 2009