Churches find creative forms of outreach

Under the direction of the Rev. Dick Wolters, of the Village of Polo Ridge, Oxford United Methodist Church is using innovative methods to attract congregants. Walters stands in front of a sign with clever wording to catch the eye of those passing by.

For those driving on U.S. Highway 301 in Wildwood earlier this month, it was hard not to notice the sign. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Music fans of all kinds instantly can recognize those words as the start of the 1984 Prince classic “Let’s Go Crazy.” But the lyrics weren’t posted in front of a dance studio or nightclub, but rather on the sign for Wildwood Church of Christ, located right off Highway 301. For some houses of worship, it’s what’s put on the signage. For others, it’s an introduction through fun events like dinners and dancing. But all of this unique outreach has one thing in common — attracting the community to check out local houses of worship.

Another local church known for its clever signs is Oxford United Methodist Church, which regularly updates its signage at 3906 East County Road 466, next to the Oxford Wawa. One of its more popular signs said “Smile in your heart, and your face will show it.”

“The church has been posting these signs long before I joined the church family,” said the Rev. Dick Wolters, who became Oxford UMC’s senior pastor in 2017. “The messages are designed to inspire the community to understand that there’s so much to the kingdom that we can benefit from, especially today.”

Wolters said the church’s Trustees, which take care of Oxford UMC’s physical property, typically update the signs and come up with new messages. The church also accepts recommendations from congregants and the community.

Maintaining ties to the community is important to Oxford UMC, and Wolters admits those ties have been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic. The church shut its doors for in-person worship for about a year, but a security camera gave Oxford UMC a lifeline.

“We have a security camera that keeps a watchful eye on the sanctuary and, with the help of an IT specialist, we were able to take that security feed and broadcast worship and other events online through our website,” he said. “That camera kept us connected. Without it, we would have been worse off.”

Currently, about 35-40 people attend services at Oxford UMC every Sunday, with a similar number watching online.

Worship takes place at 11 a.m. Sundays at Oxford UMC. Learn more at oxfordflumc.com.

At Hope Lutheran Church earlier this year, Len Robertson was asked the same question by congregants every Sunday.

“When is the Fish Fry coming back,” the Village of Amelia resident said with a laugh. “Sometimes you don’t realize something like the Fish Fry is popular until people start asking when it will return.”

The Hope Lutheran Fish Fry resumed in June after taking more than a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The church is known for its popular meal-centric gatherings, which also include the weekly Social Suppers at Hope Lutheran’s Central Campus to an annual church picnic that feeds hundreds. But it’s the Fish Fry that tends to get the most attention.

The Hope Lutheran Fish Fry started in 2019 at the church’s Lake Weir Campus in Summerfield, but got so popular it was quickly moved to the Central Campus in The Villages. Debbie Bennett, a Lady Lake native who serves as the Fish Fry’s head chef, said the June dinner proved quite popular.

“We had two seatings with about 250 people in attendance back in June,” she said. “Prior to the pandemic, we usually had one serving for 125 people.”

The church is now preparing for its next Social Supper, scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday  at the Fellowship Hall of Hope Lutheran’s Central Campus , located at 250 Avenida Los Angelos, near the intersection of County Road 466 and Morse Boulevard. Visit hope4all.church for more information and how to reserve a spot.

“The meals prove popular because it gives our congregants an opportunity to get to know one another for food and fellowship,” Bennett added. “Someone who attends a Saturday service at the Central Campus gets to meet, say, a Lake Weir worshipper at a meal and make a connection. It’s all about food, fellowship and community.”

The clogging ministry at New Bethel Community Church in Summerfield has grown so much in recent months, group leader Heather Sykes now offers weekly classes for both beginners and those considered intermediate.

“We’re not ready for an advanced class just yet,” the Village of Palo Alto resident said with a laugh.

Beginners meet at 2 p.m. Fridays, followed by the intermediate group an hour later. Both classes meet at the Youth Chapel across from the main church building, located at 8780 Southeast 157th Place.

“I’m not a particularly gifted clogger, but I enjoy doing choreography through clogging, particularly to Christian music,” Sykes said.  “The weekly New Bethel Cloggers outreach begins with prayer, followed by dancing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for church members and others to have fun and fellowship.”

New Bethel Community has also launched a chair exercise program at 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. Thursdays at the church. For more information on New Bethel Community activities, contact the church at 352-347-4001.

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.