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Moments with missionaries: Phil Hunter

A head start on the fresh start

Our mission in Wesley Chapel, Fla., chose to get a head start on the fresh start that every church is experiencing right now. Two years ago, the members of Emmanuel in Zephyrhills, Fla., decided to take a big step of faith for the sake of the gospel. They chose to sell Emmanuel’s property and nearly everything but the font and communion set. They worked with their district mission board to gift the funds to WELS Missions, asking simply, “Please do something to evangelize our booming neighbor, Wesley Chapel.”

One week before the March 2020 shutdown, I accepted the call to the new WELS mission in Wesley Chapel. My family had some sense back then how new and adventurous this mission would be. We would be establishing a totally new congregation, and the members would be excited to take some first steps.

First, though, we had to answer some fundamental questions: What is the Bible’s blueprint for a church? What’s critical, and what can we be okay not doing? Which programs should we offer? How will we invite the community?

Phil Hunter’s installation service in Wesley Chapel, Florida.
Phil Hunter’s installation service in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

A few months into 2021, our group is still studying God’s answers to those questions, and we’re still studying our Wesley Chapel mission field. We’ll spend most of this year setting up our primary ministries and finding our roles in them. God willing, we’ll launch to the public in December!

What’s changed since I was called here is that every congregation is now forced to give clear answers to the same fresh-start questions we’re asking: Why do we gather? Is our church essential? What will we offer online? Is it worth restarting that program or not? See? We’re all starting fresh. Our group was just ahead of the pack!

Our group has navigated the same practical puzzles as all other churches (meeting location, online worship, safety measures, etc.). We just already happened to be very flexible. We didn’t own a facility, so we were planning to hold simple services in unusual locations—even without a pandemic! We met in a family’s yard. We held a poolside installation service. We now lease space from a beautiful new charter school and meet on their covered patio. We smile when a breeze blows out the candles, gasp when a bird-sized moth flies in, stop the service to pray when an ambulance drives by, and consider it all part of the adventure. Outdoor worship on these Florida mornings has been so enjoyable that members have said any future facility we build should include shaded seating outside.

The pandemic has not hindered our home mission start, by God’s grace. However, it has slowed down our communication. In normal times, we could all gather for a meal and an open forum or brainstorming session. For now, it’s a combination of in person, Zoom, letters, and phone calls. It is still possible to gather input and distribute information, but it takes more time and effort. In the big picture, that’s actually a pretty easy yoke.

A final bit of news: After gathering name suggestions, our leaders narrowed them down to a final four. We took those finalists and surveyed area WELS school kids, core group members, and dozens of people at parks and stores around Wesley Chapel. The result is a name that’s both fresh and iconic, appealing to WELS kids and unchurched families, and connects well with biblical imagery and local geography: Citrus Grove Lutheran Church.

Jesus bless your church’s fresh start . . . and ours!

Author: Phil Hunter
Volume 108, Number 5
Issue: May 2021

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