LONGWOOD, Fla. (BP) – Leading a declining church through change and revitalization takes a sense of humor and lots of patience says Charles “Buddy” Parrish, pastor of First Baptist Church Sweetwater.
“It also takes an absolute conviction that if God’s people are willing to trust Him and get on board with Him, there is nothing that He cannot accomplish,” Parrish said. “If we commit to seeing it through and trust in the Lord in all things, rebuilding what was broken is possible.”
Parrish led two other churches through a revitalization process before coming to First Baptist Sweetwater three years ago.
Launched in 1975 as a mission of First Baptist Church in Winter Park, Fla., First Sweetwater is about 15 miles north of Orlando, between a large residential area and Wekiva Springs State Park. The church has two campuses across the street from each other – one that hosts the current sanctuary built in 1994 and one that served as the church’s original worship center and now hosts a Spanish church and soon a Pakistani congregation.
Several months before Parrish was called as pastor in 2018, the church had gone through a crisis that ended in the loss of about two-thirds of its members, including most of the young adults and children.
“We knew we needed to make some dramatic changes top to bottom,” Parrish said, “but how you do it is as important as change itself.”
During his first year at Sweetwater, the new pastor prayed a lot and spent time listening and talking with Sunday School classes and small groups. Part of his message, he said, was, “It’s not about what you did 20 years before; but will there be a church here 20 years from now?”
Just prior to and during the church’s closure for several weeks last year due to COVID-19, changes were instituted for the Sunday worship music, transitioning from a traditional choir and orchestra to a praise band and contemporary style.
When they reopened for services not everyone was happy, but some had caught the vision. A member of the church orchestra told Parrish “If we can start reaching young people and see this church turn around, I’ll put my instrument back in my case.”
Another change was making the church’s part-time children’s full time. With only one child attending on Sundays, some members did not see the point.
“If you don’t start making children’s ministry a priority, we’re done,” the pastor said.
The children’s minister, now serving full-time, has created an atmosphere that children want to be a part of, and now 30-plus children attend on Sundays.
Some church leaders have told Parrish if it weren’t for what they are now doing, the church would not have lasted another five years.
“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve lost some folks who were unhappy about the changes,” Parrish said. “But we absolutely cannot go back, we can only go forward.”
Sweetwater Church “has a very good, caring, compassionate heart. We want to find ways to get that heart out into the community,” the pastor said.
“We’ve always been a church that sees the need and writes a check. But we also need to get our hands dirty, walk with people to help them out of the darkness they are in.”
He has challenged church members to pray and ask God what He is calling them to do.
“I want to give our people the freedom to pray and watch how God leads them to new ministries in our community,” Parrish said, “no matter if it is to the down-and-out or up-and-out.”
One such innovation is a Grief Share ministry started by a couple in the church. The congregation was “stunned” at the response, Parrish said.
“We don’t think that affluent areas like ours have needs, but the needs are enormous,” he said. “Grief Share has become an outreach of the church as we connect with people, minister to them, build relationships and lead them to Christ.”
Parrish believes a key to revitalization is helping people really learn to trust God.
“Victories have not been in the number of people who show up, but it’s been in teaching them to pray with hope, expectation,” he said.
Over the next three to five years, the pastor expects to see a significant difference in the community as the church steps out in faith and outreach.
“This process will deepen the discipleship of people as they grow, mature, and will strengthen this church in ways that today they would be hard-pressed to imagine,” he said.
“I want to help our folks believe that really with God, all things are possible. You get a church that believes that and there are no limits to what God can accomplish.”