When Pastor Bob Suter came to Crossroads United Methodist Church, the beleaguered church in Sarasota, Fla., only had several dozen members left.
A thriving church in the 1980s, membership had dwindled from a high of 200 as the neighborhood had declined. When he arrived, Suter says the neighborhood was beset with prostitution, drugs and violence.
“We had someone murdered right across the street—a couple of businesses down from us,” Suter says. “It’s a drug area, and you’ve got a lot of low-budget motels too.”
But rather than holing up inside the church, Suter reached out to the community—going door to door to meet the neighbors. What he discovered shocked him: More than 40 percent were single parents making less than $15,000 annually.
“That was quite disturbing to me,” Suter says. “I knew this was why God sent me to this church. It was to tackle this problem and to actually be the church—to be the hands and feet of Christ.”
Under his leadership, the church started outreach ministries: feeding the hungry, clothing the needy and befriending the discouraged. With support from local businesses, the congregation began delivering boxes of food to people in the community.
“We started delivering door to door,” Suter says. “We dropped them off at every single house in the community where we knew kids existed.”
At first, many people were skeptical of the help. But over time, some started coming to church. At one point, a dozen people helping deliver the food didn’t even attend the church.
“At first, they would say how much they hate church or how much they hate religion,” Suter says. “I would tell them straight up, ‘I agree with you. If I was treated the way you have, if I’d gone through the things you’ve gone through in life, I may have the same attitude. But that doesn’t make wrong right. So, tell me how I can help clear things up?’ I didn’t fall in love with them because of religion or church. I fell in love with them because they became real to me.”
Meanwhile, Suter—a musician who once had a video on MTV and whose band, the Bob Suter Band, has released two albums in recent years—also made some changes at the church, including a switch to contemporary worship music.
Today, church attendance has nearly returned to levels last seen several decades ago. At the same time, crime has dropped too. And Suter estimates the church’s efforts have helped get about 200 families off the streets.
“We’ve had a couple of motel owners say there seems to be a change in the attitudes of people: ‘They seem to be kinder,’” Suter says. “I honestly believe it’s due to the move of the Holy Spirit.”
The church is far more diverse today too.
“We have become what we set out to become when we started, and that is a multicultural church that is looking more and more like our community,” Suter says.
Bob Doll, a 61-year-old systems analyst and the church treasurer who began attending the church in 1983, says he’s amazed by the church’s transformation.
“We’ve become a whole lot more welcoming,” Doll says. “Basically, what we did was turn our focus from inside the church to outside the church. That was the big thing we’ve tried to do. Don’t focus just on us. We need to focus on those outside of the church who need our help. That’s what we’ve done that has played the biggest role in attracting new people.”
Read about more churches that experienced a turnaround thanks to a renewed commitment to outreach:
A Church Rebounds With a Change of Heart
New Vision Fuels a Church’s Movement
A Culture of Invitation