Jacksonville, Fla. church jumpstarts growth using traditional methods
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (FLBaptist) -- When Pastor Rodney Keith took the helm of a troubled north Jacksonville congregation he knew only one way to bring it back to life—the tried and true old-fashioned way.
He seized a back-to-basics strategy instilled by Southern Baptist traditionalists Homer Lindsay and Jerry Vines, former pastors of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Keith was a long-time member.
"What I learn from Dr. Lindsay and Dr. Vines was to go out and knock on doors and win souls," said Keith, pastor of Gardenview Baptist Church. "We stuck with the old fashioned way. I saw no reason to reinvent the wheel."
Keith established basic steps of an outreach program through the Sunday School, developing fellowship within the congregation and closing the "back door," of departing members. The church, plagued with congregational splits before he came, grew from 100 members in 2010 to the mid-500s in 2014. And each year, 100-plus new believers are baptized.
Through it all, Keith modeled what he asked the church to do.
"Our pastor is tremendous," said Pam Echols, "He is a great soul winner and has put it in our heart to be soul winners. We love people and we want to see them come to know Christ."
"Our pastor visits 50 homes every week," said church member John Reimer his voice brimming with amazement.
"There is a warmth and welcome here," said Amanda Metter-Hodges. "You feel at home the moment you walk in."
Keith believes the key to developing committed church members is to have a congregation where people love each other and are grounded in the Word of God.
The church provides breakfast each Sunday -- a delicious fare of eggs, sausages, grits, biscuits and French toast. The meal provides a little extra time for fellowship and encourages members to get to their Bible study classes on time. Every member wears a name tag for others to get to know them.
When visitors arrive, they are urged to fill out cards in exchange for a goody bag with a jar of homemade jam, information about the church and a refrigerator magnet with the church's service times. Within hours of their visit, the pastor calls them to set up a home visit for Monday night.
Sunday School classes meet each Monday to continue the follow up, calling, visiting and giving each household a pineapple as a sign of hospitality. They contact inactive members and make hospital visits.
"We want to make sure no one is left behind on our outreach ministry. As a result, families are joining our church every week," he said.
Keith contends that visitors come to most churches overcome with stress and loneliness, but no one shakes their hands, speaks to them, or reaches out to them. "Many feel shunned or that they don't fit in.
"We are trying to be a different church where no matter what you have been through in life we want to reach out to you. We want to let you know we love you," he said.
On Sundays, Keith, with a larger-than-life personality, roams up and down the sanctuary aisles and hallways, shaking hands and awarding hugs to visitors and members alike.
"I tell everybody in our church that I love them, I appreciate them and I thank God for them," he said. The people—and visitors—respond to his folksy, low-key ways. "Once they find connection, they want to stay here."
The church targets nearby neighborhoods for outreach. This year, the church knocked on doors of every home in the San Mateo area of Jacksonville. As a result of that effort, 25 families began attending the church.
To make an impact in Jacksonville through the school system, the church held Backyard Bible clubs in three nearby public schools. At least 120 children per school attended and relationships were built with the children and their parents. The Gardenview congregation plans to continue to cultivate these relationships.
Prior to becoming pastor of the church, Keith was a full-time evangelist for the past 14 years. With three children and busy schedules, his wife asked him to pray about going back into the pastorate.
But his evangelistic zeal remained intact.
Each Sunday in worship, Keith uses a large-size EvangeCube witnessing tool to share the plan of salvation with the congregation. Decisions are made weekly. Baptism is held weekly as the death, cross and resurrection is symbolized by colored lights. Those who are baptized receive lit candles and salt in their hands, as a reminder to be a light to the world and salt of the earth. Although the presentation is dramatic, it is also compelling.
All new members are asked to take the "Gardenview Challenge" by coming for three consecutive weeks to Sunday morning, evening and Wednesday night services. They are placed in a new member class so they don't slip through the proverbial cracks and are assigned to a Sunday School.
"If they do this, 99.9 percent will never leave," said Keith. If they get in Sunday School they are going to stick. If they don't, they will be gone six months later."
David Drake, director of missions for the Northeast Baptist Association called the church's approach, "refreshing. Most churches today can't stop fighting or focusing on problems long enough to see the lost person next door."
The church's growth "proves that the old methods, like visitation with soul winning at the center, Sunday School, and expository preaching still work today.
"Not everyone is a Rodney Keith," Drake allowed, "just like there was one Homer Lindsay. They are both charismatic personalities that won't be deterred from witnessing and soul winning."
For Gardenview Church, Keith's driven personality and a passion to return to the basics has brought new days of growth and glory for God's Kingdom.