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Christians sing at the Equip Conference in Orlando, Fla.
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Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

The happiest place on earth?

In Disney World's shadow, Equip Conference brings together pandemic-weary Churches of Christ.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Mickey Mouse may be the big draw for millions of tourists who flock to Central Florida each year.

But for the roughly 1,000 Christians meeting at an Orlando hotel this weekend, the chance — at long last — to sing, pray and mingle with fellow believers beats Walt Disney World.

Brandon Smith

Brandon Smith

After over a year of virtual services and social distancing, the Equip Conference, a regional gathering of members of Churches of Christ, is abuzz with handshakes, hugs and happy reunions.

“I hope this is the next chapter to normality, you know what I’m saying?” said Brandon Smith, a worship leader for the Fifth Avenue Church of Christ in St. Petersburg, Fla. “This is awesome.”

For nearly four decades, Equip — formerly known as the Spiritual Growth Workshop — has helped strengthen ties among church members in Florida and beyond.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biennial event moved online last summer, featuring a shortened, two-night program on racial reconciliation. The success of the coronavirus vaccines allowed the in-person conference to return.

“It was a great, great event online, but we are thrilled to be back together,” said Larry Cline, a former University of Florida football player who directs Equip. “It’s so much better.”

Wesley Leonard, evangelist for the Southside Church of Christ in Orlando, Fla., leads a prayer at the Equip Conference. Also pictured, from left, are Equip director Larry Cline and keynote speaker David Young.

Wesley Leonard, evangelist for the Southside Church of Christ in Orlando, Fla., leads a prayer at the Equip Conference. Also pictured, from left, are Equip director Larry Cline and keynote speaker David Young.

COVID-19 impact still felt

The four-day conference’s attendance numbers are down, particularly for the children’s program, Cline said, amid concerns over COVID-19’s delta variant and rising numbers of infections in Florida.

A front-page editorial in Saturday’s Orlando Sentinel characterizes the Sunshine State as “at a tipping point.” The banner headline begs, “Please, Florida, get vaccinated this weekend.”


Related: Just when worship gatherings seemed safe again, delta variant raises renewed concerns


“I think some people were apprehensive about coming,” said Cline, who preaches for the Hardin Valley Church of Christ in Knoxville, Tenn. “But for the ones that are here, I don’t know that I’ve seen more excitement and the desire to connect across all lines. It’s just really been good.”

A few participants — along with registration desk clerks at the Rosen Centre Hotel, where Equip is being held — are wearing masks, but most see no need to do so.

“It’s great, especially being vaccinated, to feel safe to shake hands with everyone, to give hugs, to talk and be in close proximity,” said Roslyn Miller, an Orlando church planter who is attending Equip with her husband, Andy. “I’ve seen so many old friends and people I’ve known for years.”

Andy Miller added: “It’s encouraging to see some that we haven’t seen in over a year. It’s also encouraging to see how God is working in different places and to see people’s enthusiasm to move on with the Lord’s work.”

James Moore, left, accepts the Batsell Barrett Baxter Legacy of Ministry Award, presented by Herald of Truth President Greg Swindle and Glenn Newton, the ministry’s director of organizational advancement.

James Moore, left, accepts the Batsell Barrett Baxter Legacy of Ministry Award, presented by Herald of Truth President Greg Swindle and Glenn Newton, the ministry’s director of organizational advancement.

Equip founder honored

A racially diverse event, Equip highlights Black and White presenters as well as a special program for Spanish speakers, along with a separate track for teens. 

James Moore, a longtime minister and church leader in Central Florida, was instrumental in the conference’s creation.

Rhonda Fernandez, a member of the Concord Street Church of Christ in Orlando, Fla., greets friend and longtime minister James Moore at the Equip Conference.

Rhonda Fernandez, a member of the Concord Street Church of Christ in Orlando, Fla., greets friend and longtime minister James Moore at the Equip Conference.

Moore was honored at Friday night’s main session with the Batsell Barrett Baxter Legacy of Ministry Award, presented by the Herald of Truth. Baxter was an influential preacher who was the face of Herald of Truth’s national television ministry in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I knew Batsell Barrett Baxter, and yes, I listened to his Sunday morning addresses,” Moore said in accepting the honor. “I wish I could be half the man I knew him to be.”

Kenny Bachhaus, minister for the Orange Avenue Church of Christ in Eustis, Fla., said in response to Moore: “Those are the same words and the same sentiments that my generation is saying about you, brother.”

Moore said the theme for the first Spiritual Growth Workshop was “Becoming What You Believe.”

Four decades later, he said, “We’re still working on becoming what we believe.”

Attendees pray at the Equip Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Attendees pray at the Equip Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Giddy to be together

At one time, Equip drew crowds of 3,000 people. 

That number has been closer to 1,200 in recent years, said Wesley Leonard, an Equip board member and the evangelist for the Southside Church of Christ in Orlando. The last in-person Equip occurred in 2018. 

Leonard’s congregation just returned to in-person worship on the Fourth of July.

“The pandemic, of course, knocked us down and slowed us down and fractured our fellowships across the board,” Leonard said. “So this first big gathering we’ve had where a lot of the restrictions have been lifted — no masks, no 6-foot distancing — it’s good.

“Equip is all about giving people tools to help them in their walk with God,” he added. “And so, there’s two prongs: We get the information, and it’s like a family reunion, really, after three years.”

Joy Shepherd

Joy Shepherd

Attendees interviewed by The Christian Chronicle seemed almost giddy.

“Oh, it’s wonderful to get to see the people and be with so many fellow Christians, especially in the assemblies, and hear the singing and hear the preaching and hear the amens,” said Joy Shepherd, an Orange Avenue church member whose husband, Chuck, serves as an elder.

Mike Johnson, lead minister for the Mandarin Church of Christ in Jacksonville, Fla., came with his wife, Sandi, and their 13-year-old daughter, Hannah.

“We’re absolutely delighted to be here and just soak it in,” Johnson said.

Likewise, Tim Archer, director of international ministry for the Herald of Truth, said he’s “thrilled” to be at Equip.

“I really feel that we’ve learned how to be apart, but we’ve also learned the importance of being together.”

He reflected on the lessons learned during the pandemic.

“I really feel that we’ve learned how to be apart, but we’ve also learned the importance of being together,” said Archer, an elder of the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. “And I think the pandemic has helped us even learn to appreciate a little more the value of being together.

“So actually being able to be face to face with people and sit down and talk — it just means so much more.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Central Florida Coronavirus Covid and church COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccines Disney Equip Conference James Moore National News Orlando Top Stories Walt Disney World

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