Churches add programs to start new year

The Rev. Eric Wilkins, left, and the Rev. Michael Beck, both of Ocala, have started a multicultural service at Wildwood United Methodist Church. The service takes place Sundays at 11 a.m.

Area houses of worship welcome 2022, as well as the snowbirds spending the winter in and around The Villages, by adding worship opportunities and introducing new initiatives to welcome congregants to their sanctuaries. Wildwood United Methodist Church launched what it calls a “multicultural” service Jan. 2, and will continue at 11 a.m. Sundays. The service was the brainchild of the Rev. Michael Beck, co-lead pastor of Wildwood UMC, and church associate pastor the Rev. Eric Wilkins.

“I’ve known Eric for several years,” Beck noted. “I am happy that he is involved in this initiative.”

Wilkins said the multicultural service is based on the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles, where everyone became filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues.

“The service is a safe spot for all cultures,” he added. “We’re not trying to mimic other churches, but rather it can be an opportunity for different people to come together and worship God as they see fit.”

Beck, who marks his 10th anniversary at Wildwood UMC this year, said the multicultural service comes at a time where the church continues to change. When the church was founded in 1882, Beck noted, it was a congregation that supported slavery.

“It wasn’t until the last six years when we had our first Black church member,” he said. “But we’ve made inroads through, among other things, our Fresh Expressions initiative, where we brought church to tattoo parlors, restaurants, dog parks, and other places where there were people not comfortable with setting foot in a sanctuary.”

Another milestone arrived in 2018, when Wildwood UMC merged with Wilkins’ Remnant Fellowship Worship Center.

“Since joining the Wildwood UMC family, I have seen growing interest in our church, particularly from those that call The Villages home,” Wilkins said. “We hope the multicultural service will continue that trend.”

Hope Lutheran Church launched its weekly Compline service this past Wednesday, and will continue to hold the service at 6 p.m. Wednesdays at its Central Campus in The Villages until Lent.

“The Compline service is a ‘night service’ that lasts about 20 minutes where we sing, pray, and read from Scripture,” said the Rev. Jon-Marc MacLean of Hope Lutheran Church. “In the winter, or ‘dark’ months of the year, we change our weekly prayer service from Vespers, which is an evening prayer, to Compline, which is a night prayer.”

St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Wildwood has added a sixth weekend Mass to accommodate the snowbird population. The service, at 2 p.m. Sundays, launched Dec. 26 and is expected to last into spring.

First Baptist Church of Oxford is modifying its Sunday schedule by 15 minutes this year.

“Our first Sunday morning service has been moved from 8:15 to 8:30 a.m.,” said Sally Guerette, advertising coordinator for First Baptist Oxford. “We also have Sunday school at 9:30 a.m. and a second worship service at 10:30 a.m.”

And Live Oaks Community Church will welcome its snowbirds back in style on Jan. 14 and 16 with a series of events including a dedication of its new building expansion on its Woodridge Campus in Oxford, as well as two concerts featuring musician Steve Green.

And while there are many reasons for area houses of worship to be celebrating to start the new year, there are concerns about the omicron variant causing COVID-19 cases to rise again in Florida. Many area houses of worship are modify schedules and actions if needed.

In Oxford, United Church of Christ at The Villages has brought back several protective procedures in response to omicron.

“Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is asked to wear a mask while in the building,” said the Rev. Joe DiDonato of UCC Villages. “Please keep socially distanced from one another in the building, and donations will only be collected in the lobby collection box. We will not be passing the plate,” and fellowship time also has been halted.

Wildwood UMC is closely monitoring the omicron variant, said Beck, who also runs Living Room Church on Facebook.

“When the delta variant subsided, we saw attendance decrease for Living Room Church events,” he said, “but now those numbers are increasing as omicron takes hold.”

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or