By YVETTE C. HAMMETT
The crazy growth in southern Hillsborough County has resulted in one church experiencing a huge uptick in attendance over the past five years.
While attendance at denominational churches across the country is in serious decline, the United Methodist Church of Sun City Center has seen its attendance double.
Dr. Charlie Rentz, the church’s pastor, calls it a “perfect storm.”
“I’m in my fifth year. It was a good church, a strong church and growing when I arrived,” Rentz said. “But we have way more than doubled in attendance and membership since I have been here. Our average attendance went from 600 to 700 to about 1,650.”
The retirement community in which the church is located has not dampened its mission as a welcome and loving place plopped down in the midst of a fast-growing community.
“Although we are in the middle of a retirement community, we are not a retirement-minded church. We have ministries for retired working people, children, young adults,” Rentz said.
Members of the church are eager to get out into the community regularly to spread the love and the word of Jesus Christ, Rentz said.
Nondenominational churches tend to be the only churches seeing growth these days. The “nons” as they are referred to, doubled in the United States between 2000 and 2016, according to a Gallup poll cited in a Christianity Today article titled “The Rise of the Nons: Protestants Keep Ditching Denominations.” About one in six U.S. Protestants now consider themselves nondenominational Christians.
This has resulted from two trends according to that article: The decline in Protestants overall and those shirking all religious affiliations, known as the “nones.”
But not in Sun City Center.
The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church prepares reports for various churches in the conference, so they know where they stand statistically. They prepare reports for the district superintendents on the church’s health, missional vital signs, then look at attendance numbers and at finances.
Looking back five years, according to those conference reports, Sun City Center was averaging 531 people in attendance on Sundays. In 2018, that number increased to 1,329.
That number rose slowly since 2005 and then, since 2012, it has been a steady increase.
Rentz attributes the growth to the congregation’s non-retirement attitude.
“That spirit was here when I got here, of being an active church that did a lot of community outreach and connections and a lot of congregational care,” Rentz said. “We have a couple hundred people that are homebound, but are seen and visited and cared for by the Congregational Care Team, with more than 100 members.” They even take communion from home.
Rentz said he is really not surprised by what is happening.
“We do a lot of things like free movies on Friday night, blessing of the animals, the Alzheimer’s walk and something I’m really proud of, a First Responders Appreciation every year. We have them come to church where we feed them and honor them and send them off with a care basket.”
The church also has one of the largest Hispanic congregations in the nation, Rentz said. “We are drawing kids from there. They celebrated their sixth year this past August. They do a tremendous amount of outreach, drawing from Ruskin, Wimauma, Riverview and all around. It is a younger congregation.”
“It probably is one of the largest in the state,” said Pastor Yamiley Martinez, who preaches in the Hispanic services.
She said the Hispanic ministry has been so successful that the church is looking for a satellite location to open in the future.
Martinez said she believes the small group ministries the church endorses have helped with the growth.
“We have girls having Bible study for women and we have Bible study of both women and men, and I also have a group for youth and also for youth and adults between 18 and 24.”
About 140 are attending the Hispanic service on Sundays.
Rentz said another aspect of the church he believes draws the crowds is its music program.
“One of the things we have done is we had a contemporary service that has become very cutting edge,” Rentz said. “The music is what you hear on Christian radio. It’s the most up to date music. We also have some incredible, talented singers for that service.”
That trending music has drawn a younger crowd from the growing areas surrounding the church. Southern Hillsborough County is, by far, the fastest growing areas in Florida, with hundreds of homes going up on a regular basis.
“There is so much growth of new homes and families moving in that we are now surrounded by young families and schools and working people,” Rentz said. “I sit behind the school buses every day coming to work.”
The area has grown by 8,000 homes in the past four to five years, he said.