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SEC 2017 speaker revitalizes struggling church

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Rodney Keith was ordained into the ministry at the age of 21, at Jacksonville, Fla., First. Since then, Keith has dedicated his life to sharing the Good News.

After being a full-time evangelist for 14 years, Keith felt the Lord was urging him to take a pastoral position. That is when the Lord put Jacksonville, Fla., Gardenview on his radar.

Gardenview is on the north side of Jacksonville, the city with one of the largest landmasses in the continental United States.

When Keith became pastor of Gardenview, the church had suffered extreme attacks by the enemy involving the two previous pastors. It was almost enough to make those in the church plant throw in the towel, but God had other plans.

Discouraged, many members left the church due to scandal and lack of unification in the church body.  Through the Lord’s guidance, Keith, however, saw opportunities for growth and evangelism and hit the ground running.

“When I (became pastor) they were very discouraged,” Keith said about Gardenview. “They ran 50-80 depending on the Sunday and never had more than 200 in Sunday School because both previous pastors split the congregation and started other churches. It has been phenomenal blessing to be able to take three hurting churches and turn it around to reach other people that had almost no confidence in any pastor.”

Under Keith’s leadership, Gardenview has exploded with growth. Now, Keith said there are some Sundays that they have as many as 26 people joining the church on a single Sunday.

The church runs more than 700 people in worship attendance, and more than 350 in Sunday School, “and we’re still growing and God is still blessing,” he said.

What steps did the church take to experience such rapid growth? This is something Keith will discuss in depth at the State Evangelism Conference (SEC) at Del City, First Southern, Jan. 30-31.

“We are reaching people from all areas of the city of Jacksonville, and we run everything we do as a church based on Sunday School,” said Keith.

In a Sunday School class of 20 people there is one Sunday School leader, an outreach director and four small group leaders, each group consisting of five people.

“Sunday School basically becomes a mini church,” said Keith as he explained Gardenview’s model. “If it’s done right, the teacher doesn’t do all of the work, the group leaders and outreach leaders are there to help.”

Keith further explained, “The group leader’s job is to call each of the people in their small group throughout the week and talk to them, pray for them and minister and just be a blessing to them.”

The outreach leader checks in on the small group leaders in the same way, and the Sunday School leader checks on small group leaders and outreach leaders.

Because of the system placed in front of those attending the Sunday School class, it relieves the staff of the church, “Instead of them calling the staff and getting someone they may not know as well, members are calling their Sunday School teachers,” Keith said.

“You can do the work of 100 men or let the 100 men do the work of 100 men,” said Keith when asked how they came up with this way of conducting Sunday School.

In addition to the support system that is Sunday School at Gardenview, the church takes additional steps to welcome those who visit.

Members of the church deliver cookies and a card to visitor’s homes expressing how much their presence was enjoyed at church that morning.

“I personally call that Sunday afternoon each person that visits for the first time and thank them for visiting, then try and set up a time for me to come visit them. If Monday doesn’t work, then Tuesday and so on,” said Keith.

When Keith visits for the first time, he comes bearing gifts including items like homemade jelly, a pineapple, to symbolize southern hospitality, and other various goods to make them feel welcome. After the initial visit from the pastor, small group leaders take over and make home visits.

Keith discussed a challenge the church issues visitors, “We challenge each visitor with the Gardenview Challenge. Give us three services, and if you don’t like us, can’t connect, you’ll never hear from us again. I would say 90 percent of the time they join on their second visit.”

In addition to the emphasis on Sunday School and on visitors not falling through any cracks, Gardenview started after-school programs at schools around Jacksonville.

It has been through these avenues and many more that Keith has helped grow the church family at Gardenview through the Lord’s guidance.

Keith will lead a breakout session at SEC on learning and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“There are so many things that churches can do that pastors and members may not know about,” said Keith, “I am looking forward to being in Oklahoma and thankful to be invited to share my experience.”

Keith will be speaking at SEC during the Jan. 31 afternoon session, which begins at 1:30 p.m..

Those who wish to register for SEC can do so at www.bgco.org/sec or in person at the event.

Emily Howsden

Author: Emily Howsden

Emily Howsden is a staff writer for the Baptist Messenger.

View more articles by Emily Howsden.

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