Whether on the property of a declining, derelict United Methodist church, or in an old Winn-Dixie, Jorge Acevedo is haunted by the red letter words of Jesus’ great commission to go. Pastor of a church that has sprung from one location to three in the past thirteen years, Acevedo insists that having multiple locations was not part of the original plan. But as he and his congregation searched for ways to reach their community, what resulted was a unique series of opportunities between Grace Church and their target community: “the people nobody else wants.”
The phenomenon of big churches becoming small is a familiar one. Systemic congregational decline has been a problem for years. What is unfamiliar? A big church deliberately becoming small. And in adopting a struggling congregation, that’s exactly what Grace Church did. By taking on a shrinking location, the vision of the leadership was to turn decline into mission.
“When I first walked into the Ft. Myers Shores fellowship hall, it was filled with yard sale stuff,” Acevedo recalls. “The Sunday school classrooms were packed to the ceilings with it, because they needed to sell it to keep the church doors open. They had to do fish fries. So even though yes, we’re a big church, because we have three campuses, our second campus was a typical United Methodist church. In fact, it was smaller than the typical: we averaged about 40-50 in worship attendance when we got there.”
Acevedo acknowledges that small churches often have bad self-esteem. By adopting an existing, struggling church, Grace Church was able both to reach into a growing community and to encourage the folks who had been watching their congregation decline. With 25 people from Grace Church joining, the new site was energized, and after a work day, the church had been repainted, fixed up, cleaned, and was ready to be renamed as a part of the Grace Church community.
What were the results? That location now averages 400 people in worship on Sunday mornings, with a thriving Upward sports ministry that has introduced “the working poor” in the community to the lively congregation. As Acevedo insists, “the church was always supposed to be an irresistible force, a movement. It was the Jesus movement, it wasn’t anything other than the move of the kingdom of God into the world.”
With the flourishing results of the adoption of that congregation, Grace Church began to feel compelled to find other ways of expanding its reach into the surrounding communities. Having taken on decline in a nearby local church, Grace Church found itself taking on decline in its community when the opportunity came to purchase an empty Winn-Dixie. The new location provided a wealth of practical ministry to the surrounding area, increasing contact yet again with “the people nobody else wants.”
“The unique thing about Grace Church,” Acevedo describes, “is that our church reaches huge numbers of addicted, broken people. Last weekend, in our three Celebrate Recovery’s, we had 650 people. So, our church is filled with Harley Davidson people; the tattooed, the pierced; exotic dancers; folks who were drug dealers. Our vision and goal is to lower the crime rate in our city. And we know that by the grace of God we’re doing that, because we’re seeing felons—lifelong felons—experience the transforming work of Jesus in their lives.”
Acevedo acknowledges that the ministry gets messy. “We get taken. These guys who were doing well go back out and use, go back out and get arrested. We’ve done funerals for our addicts who decided to go out and use again, and the addiction killed them.”
But this is how Jorge Acevedo and his congregation feel led to serve. Rather than a program of growth in a relatively easy, white suburban neighborhood, he fervently believes that much of ministry is “letting Jesus build his church”—however that may look. In particular, the pastoral leadership experiences a blue-collar burden: the distinct call to reach the working poor. The average income at Grace Church is $42,000 a year, per household. The community has the highest foreclosure rate in America.
Acevedo is passionate about urging other churches to feel the compelling call to reach out to blue-collar folks. As he puts it, “carpet is cheap; people are precious.” The facilities at all three Grace Church sites are meant to be used and dirtied. This gritty, flesh-and-blood, hands-on outreach comes from a long season of reflection and discernment.
“I’m a good Wesleyan, and I believe in prevenient grace. I was completely unchurched. I was a pagan, alcoholic drug addict that Jesus found. I landed in the United Methodist church in Orlando. I believe the hand of God led me into the United Methodist Church, where I learned, but I didn’t apply to my life, that beautiful Wesleyan commitment to both personal piety and social holiness.”
Throughout the beginning of his ministry, Acevedo felt the tension between ministries of the soul and ministries of the body. “As I read and reread Wesley, there was no divide,” he realized. “It was something that we had just kind of drifted to, to this great divide.” It sunk into Acevedo that offering one or the other was offering only half of the gospel. “We’d see God clean up the insides of people, but the outsides were still damaged, broken, tattered, and torn. Addiction and sin had robbed their capacity to have a job, to get their education, to have food, to have medical care.”
“The gospel is about the full restoration of our lives,” he affirms. “It’s not just souls going to heaven. We want to help rescue people not only from the hell they’re heading to, but the hell they’re living in.”
It was a visit to Wesley’s famous New Rooms in Bristol, England, that broke Jorge Acevedo. While touring the site where Wesley had trained lay preachers, a fellow traveler asked the guide whether the old-fashioned, boxed-in pews had always been there. Acevedo recalls the response: “They said ‘no, when he was here, there were no pews. There were simply chairs and benches for morning services. And then afterwards, they would be moved out of the way, to either feed hungry children, or have a hospital clinic, etc.’ And I just began to sob, because I grew up in the Wesleyan/holiness tradition, where it was about saving souls, and I was passionate about that. But I realized that I wasn’t being true to my tradition, and more importantly, true to Scripture, if we weren’t holistic in our ministry.”
The resulting, robust ministry of meeting both physical and spiritual needs had another effect, as well. “I knew there were a bunch of people sitting in my church for whom the best expression of the love of Jesus was to hand out a bag of food. And we didn’t have that opportunity for them to do that, in our church. We weren’t helping those people grow to full devotion in Jesus, because we didn’t have any place for them to do that.” What Acevedo discovered was that the ministry of filling stomachs also filled souls—and not just of the recipients, but of those participating in the practical ministries.
As Grace Church continues to look for ways to let Jesus build his church, Acevedo still hears the haunting words of Scripture: “we didn’t only give you Jesus, but we gave you ourselves.”
“As a big church that averages 2,600-2,700 on three campuses, it’d be real easy to say, ‘Okay, we’re big enough. There are enough people that we’ve reached.’ But in my city, there are more lost, addicted, broken, hurting people that still haven’t heard the gospel. And I think we need to let Jesus build his church.”
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.