Children's ministry spurs baptisms, church's growth

EDITORS' NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)--The way to reach an entire family with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is through exciting and meaningful ministries to children and teens. So says Rodney Gage, pastor of Fellowship of Orlando, a church started six years ago by Gage and First Baptist Church in Orlando.

After convening in several successive locations, the young church is now located in a former retail facility and is booming, having grown in the last 18 months from 100 to about 500 attendees.

At the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at San Antonio in June, LifeWay Christian Resources honored the church and Gage with a pastor's excellence in evangelism award. For the 2005-06 church year, Fellowship's record of baptisms ranked among the top 100 SBC churches with 400 members or less. Fellowship's membership is about 275.

Fellowship set a goal of baptizing 100 people this church year, Gage said, and has baptized almost 50 people thus far. On July 22, Fellowship held a "celebration of baptism" on Cocoa Beach and baptized 34 people.

"We're reaching a lot of unchurched young families through our ministries to children and students -- they're like a store window display," said Gage, who added that parents of children involved in Fellowship's ministries will eventually "peek behind the curtain to see what their kids are so excited about."

"That's when they realize, 'Hey, this is for me, too.'

"We're also reaching unchurched lost men who would never, ever think of attending church -- but we're reaching them through their children. And then we see the whole family come to Christ," Gage said.

Fellowship's founding intentions were evangelistic, he said.

"Our mission and vision from the beginning was to start a church that would aggressively reach unchurched people," Gage said. "We challenge our people consistently to invite their unsaved friends, and we direct our messages to be relevant and evangelistic."

Gage, who for 14 years before entering the pastorate was an itinerant evangelist, also attributes Fellowship's growth to his practice of inviting people to commit their lives to Christ in every church service.

"We're also are intentional about baptism," he said. "We encourage people to go public with their faith," telling them that "baptism is a declaration of their obedience to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

"We want them to own their salvation first, and then to act on it through baptism."

Baptism, Gage believes, is the most biblical expression of one's initial public commitment to Christ -- not aisle walking. That explains Fellowship's emphasis on the ordinance.

"We're not re-writing the book on church. I agree with Solomon who said that there's nothing new under the sun. The stuff that worked hundreds of years ago still works today -- it just needs to be repackaged," Gage said. "I cut my teeth on the SBC. It's all I've ever known. But, it's a new day and a new culture."

For years, Gage has seen the need for church change. Reflecting on his years in evangelism, focused mostly on teens, Gage said he noticed how some teens who attended public school assemblies he held weren't made to feel welcome in traditional church settings when he invited them to attend church revival services.

"What happened was the kids felt awkward and unaccepted because there was a low level of acceptance, and apprehension about having lost, pagan kids in church," Gage said. "It was like oil mixed with water."

Such disappointments, coupled with a "dream for a church atmosphere that was relevant, contemporary, and would fully embrace kids and lost people," led Gage and his wife, Michelle, to commit their lives to church planting. That commitment came while attending a church planting conference.

"I felt that holy tug on my heart, and I just knew what it was," he said. Gage said he and Michelle knelt in prayer and committed themselves to church planting. "We knew this was what God wanted for our lives."

Gage's ministry shift from evangelism to church planting eventually landed on the ears of Jim Henry, then-pastor of FBC Orlando, who wanted to help plant a church in the city.

Thus, on Easter Sunday 2001, Fellowship of Orlando began in an elementary school with a handful of people, some of whom were First Baptist members. Since then, the church has met in a variety of facilities until a former grocery store became available in December 2005.

"Moving the church so many times was like starting all over again," Gage said. Undaunted, however, Gage believes that "what God initiates, God orchestrates."

"And soon after our last relocation, we began to see God's hand at work."

Gage's passion for people is reflected in outreach evangelism events, too. Last Thanksgiving, he led Fellowship to collect and distribute hundreds of pounds of food and turkeys to needy families. This ministry piqued the interest of Veral Neuschaefer, a skeptic who had little time for church, but whose wife attended Fellowship. Neuschaefer volunteered to help in the event, and the church's generosity and compassion he saw eventually led him to commit his life to Christ and be baptized.

"Now, reading the Scriptures and going to church and talking about God is never boring," Neuschaefer said. "I love talking about God, and am excited about Him in my life."

Neuschaefer also applauds Gage's preaching: "Pastor Rodney puts together great sermons. He does a phenomenal job. He's not boring, and he makes the sermon interesting. I really get lots out of the sermons. I feel inspired that I truly have learned some things."

Fellowship member Robert Harness agrees.

"Rodney is not a 'make-you-feel-good' kind of preacher. He lays it on the line," Harness said. "If you leave church uninspired, then you were probably asleep."

Harness said he and his wife had spent more than 15 years actively serving in another church, but were starving for spiritual food through teaching and preaching.

"When I first walked into Fellowship, I sensed there were needs in the church. I said to myself, 'I see something I can do here,'" recalled Harness.

"What really hooked us on Fellowship was the sidewalk carnival for children on Easter Sunday two years ago." Harness said. "It was our second visit to the church, and when I saw what was happening, I said, 'This is too cool. We've go to do this.'"

The church is like a "spiritual shot in the arm," said Harness, who, along with his wife, has multiple roles of service in the church, and is so committed to the church's vision of reaching people for Jesus that he took a week off from work to serve in Vacation Bible School.

"Our time at Fellowship is a fulfilling venture in our lives that we hope doesn't end anytime soon, because it fills a void we endured for a long time," Harness said.

While Gage is pastor of what some may call a contemporary church, he hasn't lost sight of his SBC roots, as he has led Fellowship to give 10 percent of its undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program.

The church, he said, is committed to ministering both abroad and at home.

"We hear a lot about foreign missions," Gage said. "But our neighbors across the street -- they're as lost as they can be."


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