Church plant serves up dinner, friendship and the gospel with no strings attached and no trees to climb
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
Zack and Ashle Potter often think of Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree just to see Jesus, only to end up at dinner with the friend who can save anyone.
“Friendship is such a powerful tool for the gospel if we’re willing to extend the invitation,” Ashle Potter said.
But they’re not about to require their central Florida neighbors to grab a branch before dinner. That lack of arboreal adventures is good since many of Winter Haven’s orange trees are long gone.
The orange groves became neighborhoods, employers and entertainers for college students, former farmers and transplants from across America. While the community’s roots began in the 1800s, these are moments of change. So invitations are needed as this small town between Orlando and Tampa swells in population.
The Legoland theme park welcomes new arrivals from Pennsylvania or California just as much as the most-rooted residents. Likewise, water skiing on the area’s many lakes attracts descendants of the town’s founders as easily as young adults who moved here for college.
Those connections, frequent as they are, don’t equal the presence of Christ available within Lakeside, the Converge church the Potters launched this year.
“What makes me really excited about our church is seeing people who I know six months ago didn’t have community,” Ashle said. “They didn’t have people in their lives that were walking with them and pointing them to God and following Jesus.”
A new church can rechurch the dechurched
Part of the reason that community is so new to many people is that some churches around the country, not just in Florida, have hurt people. Therefore, people can respond by avoiding worship and fellowship. Others, especially those who've never been to worship with God's people, aren’t disciples because they were born and raised in primarily unchurched places.
Zack said he saw people who had never been in church and others who had not walked into a church in 10 years at Lakeside’s launch worship service in January.
“I’m here for the unchurched just as much I’m here for the dechurched,” he added.
Potter grew up about 60 miles north of Winter Haven. He said a religious movement spread through Central Florida decades ago. Many people came to Jesus, but he said the gospel came with strings attached. For example, people heard they should wear certain clothes.
“There is a little bit of bitterness amongst people who would say, ‘I tried the church, and when they told me what to wear and how to dress, I left — and I’m never going back,’ he explained. “That’s part of why I believe I’m called here. I grew up in that kind of church culture.”
Lakeside will start offering small groups in the fall so they can pursue Christ’s mission through Sunday services and home gatherings. Zack said the church wants to emphasize developing leaders through missional and attractional ministry.
The Potters apply what they see in Acts 2 to Lakeside. Therefore, the teaching from spiritual leaders and the growth that happens in homes serve the disciples’ needs.
A previous church that Zack served shifted from an attractional, Sunday-centric model to a missional and attractional approach. He said that four years of hard work to help believers become leaders significantly increased the number of people following Christ.
“The first few years are hard,” he said of Lakeside’s approach to growing people’s identity as servants. “But once there are some leaders, it becomes easier because they learn how to make hospital visits, and some of those people will do funerals, they are leading people to Jesus and they’re baptizing people.”
Winter Haven is growing so fast that the town will need disciples who make disciples and churches that plant churches.
“We probably need 10 or 12 healthy, thriving churches to keep up with this population to reach people,” he added.
One of Lakeside’s next steps in Christ’s mission comes through the 15 people trained to lead small groups. Each of those, the Potters said, can care for 10-12 people in their homes. That creates a reproducible process to make and mature Christ followers.
The church’s membership process has four steps: follow Jesus, become family, grow together and live on mission.
“I’ll know that we’re doing a good job if our church body is growing spiritually, becoming more mature and reaching people," Zack said.
Is this Los Angeles or Mayberry?
The rapidly growing community, only 30 miles from Disney World, may have 80,000 people in a few years. But, for now, it sometimes feels like a small town with farmers markets, cows and corn fields worked by friendly, proud people.
On the other side of town, a new hospital is planned and a new road system is under construction so the infrastructure can handle the influx. As a result, some blue-collar people feel like Winter Haven is becoming Los Angeles, while transplanted Californians have never driven with so little traffic.
“We came here because of the growth, the people that are coming,” Zack said. “I wanted to come back and plant churches in Central Florida.”
For the Potters and the core team at Lakeside, starting a church that can make disciples means cooking up a dinner with no strings attached and no trees to climb.
“More than I’ve ever seen before, people are just desperate for friendship, for relationship,” Ashle said. “There are people who now come to our church, and that started at dinner.”
She said many single college students and recent graduates come to their church. These people seek relationships as part of helping people meet, know and follow Jesus.
“They’re very evangelistic,” she said. “They are multiplying in our church right now.”
Lakeside’s team also invests significant energy and resources to bless young children so they walk with Christ from an early age. The Potters, who have four children, recognize that the church will include people like them and individuals from different generations and ethnic groups looking for Jesus.
“We want every generation in our church,” Zack said. “I measure the health of our church based on how well we engage our community and how well we live our lives Monday through Saturday.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.