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Church finds its niche by catering to customers

When Senior Pastor Ed Russo teaches other ministers how to make their church a suc-cess, he talks about his "restaurant philosophy."

He explains: "First you need good food. It should be well prepared and feature a broad menu with different flavorings.

"Second, you should provide adequate surroundings.

"Third, provide good service. Greet the people and tell them it is a privilege to serve them.

"When you do these things, you will have satisfied customers, get repeat business, and gain new customers through word of mouth."

Has this philosophy worked at Russo's church, Victorious Life Assembly?

Well, here's one measure of its popularity: Members hid 10,000 eggs last Easter.

We're talking BIG _ Nine hundred members at last count and growing.

Victorious Life Assembly is on Old Pasco Road across from the Quail Hollow Golf and Country Club. As city dwellers seek the suburbs, the church is in the middle of a growth area. Yet, Russo said the church not only draws from the local community but also from as far away as Lakeland and St. Petersburg. What's the draw?

"A relevant ministry," Russo said. "We identify a need, and once we identify it, we program to meet that need."

Russo is just one part of a team that works to accomplish that task.

Joining the senior pastor are two full-time assistant pastors _ Tim Harrison, pastor to youth in sixth grade through young adult, and Norm Hewitt, pastor for children nursery age through fifth grade. The group also includes administrative assistant Lynn Garafolo, who uses her advertising background to advance church growth. She has been with Russo since 1987, when 52 members first met at her home.

Both Harrison and Russo bring a management background to the mix. At one time they worked for competing companies, Pillsbury and Carnation, and later Harrison worked for Coca-Cola and Russo for Pepsi.

It was while Harrison was serving as a volunteer at the church when word came that he was to be transferred to Washington, D.C., and become a regional sales planner for Pillsbury.

"It was really a shock," Harrison said. "It was a huge opportunity for me to go to Washington, big pay and climbing the corporate ladder."

But Harrison wanted to work in ministry.

His decision was made when the church asked him to become full-time. It was exactly what he had been waiting for since becoming a Christian while attending Florida State University.

"At first God didn't make sense," Harrison said. "But when I saw the change that Godly principles made in my sister's life, it impacted me.

"Even as a teen I was serious about my future. I really didn't enjoy school, but my mom said it wasn't necessary to enjoy, but to make a difference in someone else's life."

Harrison said with the impending church growth, there is much opportunity to use what he has learned about how to develop and motivate people.

"Now I spend most of my time teaching young adults to teach teens, to impart the same things my parents taught me, and to train them specifically to teach how we do what we do."

Harrison said to maintain the church growth, "you build an infrastructure, not only of facilities, but also developing growth."

Harrison's wife, Stephanie, works with him in the youth ministry. They have a son, Tim Jr., 15 months.

The young children's ministry is under the guidance of Norman Hewitt, or Pastor Norm as he is called. He has been in full-time ministry since he was 19. Along with his wife, Liz, they have put together the University of Kids ministry for children in first through fifth grade.

"The whole program was written to help kids use their talents for God and to show them that they have a place in the church to use their talents," said Hewitt, who often ministers to the kids dressed in western garb in front of a life-size backdrop of a western town.

They also take the Victorious Life message to other churches through the Kids Can Club! The club includes an award-winning puppet team, life-size gorillas, radio-controlled talking puppet heads and other eye-grabbers.

"By capturing their attention," Hewitt said, "we share our vision with other churches. The idea is not to leave your children sitting in the pew. Get them involved in the ministry. Get them active in the body of Christ today. That is what we have to do. When kids don't have a place in the church, they look for a place in the world."

The energetic Hewitt wants to invite everyone to Western Family Day on July 15. There will be a greased-pig race, a watermelon seed spitting contest, sack races, horses, country music, barbecue food and a pie eating contest.

"Usually, kids go one place, teens another and adults go another. We are trying to provide activities that are fun that can be done together as a family."

Using all this church talent, Pastor Russo said the church vision is to reach the unchurched and the unsaved through relevant programs and to equip people to do the ministry. The two Sunday morning participatory worship services feature contemporary music and instruments, a state-of-the-art sound system, casual dress and a message relevant for today. You will be greeted at the door.

Russo and his wife, Janis, live in Wesley Chapel with their children, Kevin, Brian and Megan. Russo coached Land O'Lakes Little League for seven years.

For information on the activities and many groups at the church, call (813) 973-2230.