“Lord, send us the people nobody else wants”

By Elizabeth Glass Turner

Jorge Acevedo never pictured himself as the lead pastor of a multi-site congregation. A self-described “pagan” before his conversion, Acevedo came from an unchurched background before landing in the United Methodist Church. For 13 years, he’s been pastor of Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida. Shortly after this interview with Elizabeth Glass-Turner, he was recognized as the 2009 Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church by The Foundation for Evangelism. As much as ever, he feels the compelling push of the Great Commission.

What sparked you to plant multiple campuses?
The whole multi-site strategy for us was really birthed out of a practical necessity. When I came in 1996, there was plenty of space and room to do everything. There weren’t a lot of people, and things weren’t going real well. On my first Sunday, we totaled 330 people in one service. Last weekend, we had somewhere between 2,600-2,700 people in 10 weekly services on three campuses. So things have changed quite a bit.

We came to realize that if we were going to grow, we had to grow on multiple campuses. At the time, I hadn’t seen any United Methodist churches that had done it, but I had seen other churches that had. I really wondered whether there was enough liberty and stretch in our United Methodist polity to do that, and found out that there was.

How did the transition get started?
In late 2003, I was having some conversations with my district superintendent about a dying, declining congregation in a nearby community that was starting to really explode in growth. There was a serious conversation about closing it. I asked the superintendent and bishop if we could adopt that campus. To my surprise, I got a full go-ahead. Then we went to work.

We had 25 people who were attending Cape Coral, who were driving 17 miles to come to our church. We had become a regional church. I asked those 25 people if they would prayerfully go back to their community to partner with this church, which would be a campus of Grace Church. It would have the same DNA, a different preacher, but the same kind of preaching. By the grace of God, that thing just started to grow. We’re now finishing our 5th year. We’re now running over 400 at that campus.

So honestly, at the time, it wasn’t the plan to be a multi-site church. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We started seeing things happen. We became multi-site by accident. That was really our first campus.

By 2005-2006, we started saying, “Hey, this multi-site thing will really work!” At the campus I was appointed to— Cape Coral—we were out of space. We could put about 1,500-1,800 in three services on Sunday morning; then we added a fourth service on Sunday morning. But that was about all we could do.
We had tried to buy property around us, and we couldn’t. Our leaders agreed that there was no way we could shove many more people into the campus and that the only way to expand was to become multi-site. That’s how it was a practical necessity for us. We seemed to be kind of stuck. We now believe that that was kind of a divine thing, and that God was really setting us up to be multi-site.

In 2006, we felt the leading of the Holy Spirit to buy a vacated Winn Dixie grocery store that was on 8 1/2 acres: 57,000 square feet under one roof.
Six and a half days a week, the resulting Grace Community Center is basically a holistic ministry center. On Sundays, because we had no more space a half-mile down the road, we asked about 150 leaders to come and start the new worship service there. We’re running between 250 and 300 at that service right now on Sunday mornings.

Why do you think many growing churches think primarily in terms of building programs?
I heard a guy one time at a multi-site conference say the only people who like big church buildings are pastors and architects!

What we discovered is that congregational diversity was a good thing; if we could keep the vision and the DNA the same, but put it in new wineskins, in different parts of the community—it would look a little different, but beneath the surface, it’s the same stuff. And that looks different at each of our campuses. We discovered that you can reach more people by using multiple sites.

There’s a church next door to us that has the same amount of acreage that we do. For years, we’d been trying to buy that property. Our hope was, we could build a 1,500 to 2,000 seat auditorium and park people. But as we began to do the math—what it would cost us to buy the property and build the sanctuary—it was two to three times more than it would cost us to buy an existing building that’s bigger than we could have ever built. So in terms of a stewardship issue, it seemed obvious.

But here is where the pastor’s ego has to be put aside. The pastor has to realize that he or she isn’t going to be standing in front of 1,500 to 2,000 people. And we’re not doing a video venue; we have live preaching at all our sites right now. We’re a real blue-collar congregation and we’re simple. We don’t have million dollar plasma screens. We all preach the same basic message—same Scripture, same points. We now teach as a teaching team, and our church is healthier because it’s not personality-driven. There’s an efficiency that happens with these multi-sites.

You’ve had people who are committed enough to the vision of the church that they’ve been willing to help launch the other campuses. There are a lot of great people who would be willing to do that kind of thing—but a lot of other people wouldn’t.
We still bump into that. For every one that went, there were 10, 15 who stayed. There are some brave, apostolic souls out there. Notice I said we sent 150, not 500, to start the new campus. I wish we had, frankly. It would open up space here, and it would really jump start the other one.

There are—and I think they’re in every church, by the way—those men and women who feel that calling. I think there are always those frontier, pioneer kind of people in every congregation. When I was in seminary, I was a youth pastor at a relatively new church. When the district started talking about starting a new congregation, a number of people who helped start my church were pretty excited to start going back to a high school and starting all over again. There are those people who have that kind of anointing in their life.

As the denomination talks more openly about church planting, what advice would you give?
First off, we need to figure out a way to engage the blue collar and the poor. I think we’ve got to go to places where nobody else is going. We’ve got to figure out a way to reach the urban areas and the rural areas where the church is not prevailing.

And then I think there’s something to be said about our strategy—for our United Methodist churches that have strong DNA, to do what we’ve done and adopt some of these dying, declining churches and help new life come again. Is it hard? It’s very hard. It’s a whole lot easier just to go out there and start a new thing in an upper/middle income white neighborhood and we’ll grow a whole bunch of big churches. We need to figure out a way to multiply our efforts with these large churches and go to other places that typically the church isn’t going to and, interestingly enough, our Muslim friends are. They’re going to the inner city.

What do you want to say to United Methodists who want to see denominational renewal, reform, and revival?
I have a guarded optimism about our denomination. My guardedness is birthed out of a concern that we tend to put all our renewal hopes in the general church. I’ve been to General Conference three times, and frankly I’m not convinced that renewal in our church is primarily going to come from there. I appreciate the crystal clear mission of the United Methodist Church. I believe the four focus areas are right on, but I also think that renewal is going to begin for our denomination in the local church. We’re going to have to have vibrant, vital, reproducible congregations of all sizes and in all places, led by God-honoring men and women who are passionately committed to personal piety and social holiness if renewal is going to come to the United Methodist Church.

I am hearing this kind of talk among the leaders of our church and this is a good thing! But we need to ask ourselves what we are personally doing in our local congregation that is significantly making an impact for the turn-around of the United Methodist Church. We can fight about church issues at annual conference and general conference, but we need to really ask ourselves what our local churches are doing to reverse the decline.

A number of years ago, I heard Bishop Peter Storey of Johannesburg, South Africa, talk about the hellish season of Apartheid in his country. One of the things he said was, “You can either shout at the darkness, or you can light a candle.” What I fear is that as United Methodists if all we do is shout at the darkness then nothing will change. Instead we need to light some candles. Vital, vibrant, healthy, and holy local churches will attract the lost and broken of our world. People will beat the doors down to be in a place where Kingdom life is being experienced. It’s the fire of early Methodists. It’s the fire of Pentecost.

Shouting at the darkness seems like such an alluring temptation. Do you see this same kind of challenge at the local level?
I have to deal with this every week. Some of my best friends in the church work in one of our ministries where they refill the pockets in the sanctuary chairs. One of the things we do is let people eat and drink in our sanctuary. We just don’t feel it’s a big deal for there to be coffee stains. And my friend emailed me and said, “Don’t you think that maybe we don’t have to have coffee in the sanctuary?” And I said, “It pains me to even disagree with you, but I have to lovingly disagree. Because it would be inconsistent for us to say that we’re a church for people that nobody else wants and nobody else sees, and then not do everything to be hospitable to them.”

We don’t have coffee in the sanctuary because we’re trying to be cool. We have coffee in the sanctuary because people who are barbarians, who are pagans, who are barely saved, if saved at all, we want them to be comfortable, to feel safe so that we can give them the dangerous message of Jesus.

How do you stay fresh and inspired?
Well, for me, there’s my personal devotional life, prayer time, and commitment to Christian community. I’ve been in a pastors group for about 16 years. We keep each other from taking long walks off short docks. We remind each other that we need to stay in the game, and that God and our city are depending on us to be faithful. I’m in two men’s groups here in my church. So for me, community is a big part of that, staying community-connected.

I don’t like the term, but on the “professional” side of my career, I am most concerned about giving the ministry away and not caring who gets the credit. I do believe that a lot of ministries are dwarfed by leaders who are afraid to give the ministry away. All the trails end up sneaking back to their desk. I’ve worked very hard and very diligently at trying to empower our staff and our leaders to own their ministry and to manage the problems that come with owning their ministry. If we don’t do that, it’s going to kill us. I struggle with that. Perfectionism and control are two areas of recovery for me right now. But I’ve just discovered by sheer exhaustion that I can’t juggle that many balls in the air.

So, I’m still a work in progress. I struggle every day with not allowing my clock to rob my time with God. I’d love to tell you I hit it seven days a week. It’s probably more like five days a week I get my devotions in, reading Scripture. And then I end up losing, and if I get too many strings of those days hooked up together, then I’m not of much use to God.

Elizabeth Glass-Turner is a freelance writer, and a gardener with more enthusiasm than skill. Passionate about robust, sacramental faith and an avid reader of murder mysteries, she resides in central Kentucky with her husband and two dogs.

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