transforms lives in urban neighborhood

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By Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention

November 5, 2015


With his trendy good looks, approachable personality and readiness to share his faith, Blake Bennett, 25, easily attracts young adults from his generation.,” a congregation he planted just six months ago, mirrors his edgy, hipster style from its contemporary music to its passionate, free-spirited worship.

Since launching the church in Jacksonville’s eclectic San Marco neighborhood, Bennett, has seen 30, mostly young adults, come to know the Lord as Savior. Twenty have been baptized.

“We are reaching people who never thought they would belong to a church,” said Bennett. “People who are broken and needy; single parents. People who may have had confusing experiences in church in the past are excited to see the Lord make them new. This is transformation.”

Today’s millennials—young adults aged from 18 to 30–are leaving the church in record numbers, according to George Barna and other researchers. Bennett is implementing ideas to lure them back.

But a surprising thing has happened at Not only are millennials attracted to the hip congregation but so are people of all ages, better reflecting the diverse Southside community. This has caused church leaders to widen the net in this neighborhood located in the shadow of Jacksonville’s skyscrapers.

“We are focusing on reaching unchurched people,” said Bennett, a Jacksonville native and third generation of church planters. “We may appeal to millennials, but we don’t want to be a one-generational church.”

The new church plant originally gathered on Sunday nights in the fellowship hall of its sending church, Southside Baptist Church, located in historic San Marco Square.

But a yearning to begin their services on Sunday morning led church leaders to move their worship to the nearby Knights of Columbus Hall. Their first morning service was launched in September.

That inaugural worship drew 127 persons that added 19 families to their outreach. Five persons were saved.

Each Sunday a team of volunteers arrive at the community banquet hall at 6 a.m. to transform the room by hanging black drapes along the walls and converting the bar into a children’s area, complete with new flooring, furniture and teaching resources.

To help the church plant transition to a place of its own, Southside, a congregation with a proven record and heart for planting churches, received as their sending church a $7,500 grant from the Florida Baptist Convention to invest in the move.

Southside plans to plant five churches by 2020, said Pastor Gary Webber, and the support from the state was essential to the new church’s relocation, he said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Convention’s help.”

The money provided the urban church plant with funding for the children’s area and its own sound equipment.

“The funding from the Convention was an incredible blessing,” Bennett said. “It helped us to provide a higher excellence than we would have been able to accomplish by ourselves. We are more effective because of Florida Baptists’ support.”

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