A Home Away from Home

This was the year that Rusty Russell, lead pastor of New Day Christian Church, in Port Charlotte, Florida, learned that you can’t please everybody. 

“On the same week, I got two emails from people at my church, one of whom wrote, ‘I’m leaving your church because you’re not social distancing enough and taking this pandemic seriously,’ while the other stated, ‘I’m leaving your church because you’re not regathering quickly enough, and you need to get over this.’

“In the flesh, we want everyone to be happy and to like us, but I learned that you’ve got to pray, give God the council and just make a decision,” says Russell. “You can’t base your decision on how people are going to respond. Ultimately, people will respect you if they believe you thought it through and did what you thought was right, even if they disagree with you.”

To meet the needs of people in their reach in a time when people have so many views of church, the pandemic and the issues they face, New Day uses a variety of approaches to reach the diverse population. 

New Day is located in the county with the second-oldest population in the country. Because Port Charlotte has a large elderly population, the area also is home to those in the service industry who support the retirement communities. In addition, there are a lot of broken families in the area. 

“Almost nobody in our church grew up here. They are all transplants, young or old,” says Russell. “People are moving to Florida in droves in search of a fresh start, and we’re just trying to give them Jesus.”

Sally Morgenthaler wrote in her book Worship Evangelism that the church should consider the untapped potential of worship as an opportunity to draw in unbelievers. That’s precisely New Day’s philosophy as they are intentional about the songs they sing, the sermon illustrations they use and even the hues they paint their walls. 

“Our church doesn’t look like a tearoom. The colors are more in line with Lowe’s,” says Russell, noting that they try to appeal to men because evidence suggests that when you get the dad involved in the church, the whole family follows. 

“Our bull’s-eye may be young men, but there are a lot of other people on that target we want to hit,” says Russell. “We’ve had older couples tell us, ‘We think our grown children would like coming here.’ Young women have also shared that they have always attended church alone, but they think their husband might enjoy New Day.”

To help visitors feel welcome, members in every service act as section hosts, greeting those seated around them.

“Because people tend to sit in the same place each week, we’ve informally tapped [members in our church] and asked them to help guests feel welcome,” says Russell. “I think the best thing we’ve got going is we try to make sure the service is really engaging so that people feel like they met God. They see other people worshiping, and there is an electricity there that they want to be a part of.”

Last year churches had to shutter for a time during COVID-19 and move to online services. Though it was painful not to meet face-to-face, pastors certainly witnessed the silver lining of virtual worship—mainly reaching those who had never been introduced to Jesus before. Last summer a woman from North Carolina, who had found New Day Christian Church online, drove 10 hours to worship in person. A cancer patient, she asked Russell to pray over her and ask God for strength and healing. Russell also baptized a number of other folks who sought out Christ when they were searching for peace during such a tumultuous year.

“Online worship is a great tool, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s the same as being in the flesh,” says Russell, who has seen an increased yearning for community in recent months. In fact, even young people have told him that online doesn’t work. 

Though they’ll keep their online presence, the pandemic allowed church leaders to do a “restart,” meaning that they dropped those things that weren’t working previously, like the sparsely attended 8 a.m. service. They are also looking at the microsite idea that a lot of churches are doing well.

“We would like to follow the lead of other churches and get some of these folks who are joining us from far away to basically start a church in their home and use us as a resource,” says Russell.

Christy Heitger-Ewing
Christy Heitger-Ewinghttp://christyheitger-ewing.com/

Christy Heitger-Ewing is a contributing writer for Outreach magazine. In addition, Christy pens the “Now & Then” column in Cabin Life magazine. She also writes regularly for Christian publications such as Encounter, Insight, and the Lookout. She is the author of Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat.