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Riverview church adds skits, videos to boost attendance

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It could be a scene from a dance club or aerobics class. An infectious beat sweeps over the people on the floor. A team of teenage models dance-steps on stage: "Jump!" "Step-touch!" Overhead, colors swirl and song lyrics crawl across a screen. • But this is Sunday morning. Church. A dozen children wriggle and stretch and kick in front of the stage, while bashful participants bop at their seats farther back. Nobody hears "shush" while squirming on a hard-backed pew. There are no pews, no hymnbooks, no preachers droning on at a podium.

Alexis Behnken, 4, in flowery sundress and light-up flip-flops, reaches for the hand of a new friend, Reagan Robinson, 6. Both girls are oblivious to their role in what United Methodist Church leaders hope will become the revival of the millennium.

"I like to dance," Reagan confesses later. "At our other church, they let us stand and sing, but they wouldn't let us dance."

• • •

The girls and their mothers were part of the turnout for "Family Experience," a fast-paced weekly service crammed with music, skits and videos that started in the Summerfield community's South Shore United Methodist Church about three months ago.

Pastor John Legg said similar programs have been around in Methodist churches for several years, but rarely occur more than once a month. The idea is to introduce virtues from the Bible to children and parents, who can then practice the lessons at home.

Offering it weekly, along with four other Sunday services and numerous small worship gatherings in Riverview and Apollo Beach, keeps Legg, his staff of four and about 50 volunteers hopping as much as the children they serve. But the pastor sees it as key, not only to forging a new congregation on a campus founded 20 years ago as Big Bend United Methodist Church, but to getting people back to church in the midst of a nationwide slump in attendance at most mainstream Christian houses of worship.

"It [the church] still has some prophetic value and a message of hope for the world," Legg said in a recent interview. "We've just forgotten how to package it."

In Hillsborough County and across Florida, he said, churches had grown almost by default since the 1950s as the state population swelled. National statistics show church attendance and membership dropped significantly in the past decade. Big Bend fell victim in the past few years, leading to a merger of Big Bend and South Shore last spring.

"When we came in 2004, it was huge, like 300 people on Sundays," recalled Sharron Brunk of Apollo Beach, a former Big Bend member. "At the time of the merger, it was about 80."

Former Big Bend members interviewed said a leadership resistant to change drained enthusiasm. They declined to provide details, saying they prefer to look forward.

"People don't come simply because you open the doors up," Legg said. "You have to have something going on that speaks to people's hearts."

Legg and a handful of people founded South Shore in 2005, leasing some office space in an Apollo Beach strip center. Church leaders hauled video, sound and music equipment to local schools for Sunday services, including most recently East Bay High School.

While Big Bend, the congregation with a permanent home on a big grassy lot, withered, the vagabond upstart blossomed. Both faced financial challenges, Legg said. South Shore was shelling out almost $4,500 a month to rent East Bay's auditorium, while the dwindling membership at Big Bend was left with few people to pay for and maintain its church campus.

The first service for the newly merged congregation occurred on Easter Sunday. Now, with Sunday attendance at all services hovering near 500 and growing interest in special fellowship opportunities, the congregation is quickly outgrowing the Big Bend campus, Legg said.

Not that he's complaining. The statistics about declines in church attendance, particularly among Protestants and especially in Florida, are sobering. To be at the helm of a growing congregation, which state United Methodist leaders say has a shot at becoming a regional church for South Hillsborough, is an enviable position.

Legg practiced his brand of spiritual guidance as a youth pastor at a church in Largo for nine years before completing his studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. The Florida United Methodist Conference had tried to seed a congregation in South Hillsborough before, but it ended up merging with First United Methodist of Brandon.

A Ruskin native, Legg asked whether he could come home and give it a shot.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, head of the Florida conference's Office of Congregational Transformation, visited the congregation in October. Dressed in jeans, an open-collar shirt and sport jacket, Stiggins addressed a crowd of about 200 at the main service.

"This congregation has the capacity to be a regional church for this area of the county," he said. "It's like a beehive here on Sunday mornings. It's a cyclone of stuff going on here."

Legg said he's open to just about any kind of service that will help people connect with God and with each other. He's even willing to add a traditional service, he said, noting that not everyone likes the contemporary music-based format.

"It's loud, it's fast-paced and it's energetic," Legg said. "That's not right for everyone."

Delmar "Bud" Winchester, 88, of Apollo Beach was once a good example.

"At first I wasn't for contemporary too much," he said, adding that he has been a Methodist since age 2 and traditional sermon-and-choir worship "was all I knew." He said he was a former Big Bend member who moved to South Shore when it started up. He serves on the board of the newly merged congregation.

"It was quite a change, but it was the only way to bring people in," Winchester said.

"Now I've gotten used to it; I enjoy it."

Susan Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

NOT KEEPING

THE FAITH?

Although some experts say there has been an uptick in church attendance recently, several studies in 2007-2008 showed a marked decline over the previous five or six years.

An estimated 41 percent of Americans never attend church or go once a year, compared with about 27 percent worshiping once a week or more (General Social Survey, 2008, Association of Religion Data Archives, Pennsylvania State University).

Attendance at Methodist churches nationwide declined about 10 percent from 2001 to 2008. Attendance at Episcopal churches declined 18 percent; at Presbyterian churches, 16 percent; and at Evangelical Lutheran churches, 15 percent during the same time period. (Lewis Center for Church Leadership at the Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.)

Sources: christiancentury.org, thearda.com/quickstats

Riverview church adds skits, videos to boost attendance 11/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 3:30am]

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