Churchgoing: First United Methodist Church in Orlando

By Balmer, Randall | The Christian Century, March 10, 1993 | Go to article overview

Churchgoing: First United Methodist Church in Orlando

Balmer, Randall, The Christian Century

Orlando can reckon 1965 as the turning point. It was a pleasant, almost sleepy town in central Florida when Walt Disney quietly began assembling parcels of swampland into a huge tract south of the city. The opening of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971, quickly transformed Orlando into the theme park capital of the world, with such other attractions as Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios, Universal Studios, Sea World and Gatorland Zoo. In 1989 approximately 13 million pilgrims found their way to the city which boasts more motel rooms - nearly 80,000 - than any other city in the country.

Highway 192 south of Orlando is a kind of paean to American consumerism. There are restaurants and motels of every imaginable kind. Electronic message boards flash news of the latest prices on running shoes, sea shells, mugs and T-shirts. No pilgrim, after all, returns home without a bag fun of relies. just beyond this neon corridor lie sundry time-share condominiums and sand-colored vacation villas clustered around synthetic lakes.

With land that sold in the '60s for $180 an acre now commanding six figures an acre, the Orlando area has changed dramatically. The population of the three counties surrounding the Magic Kingdom - Orange, Seminole and Osceola - has grown by an average of 102 people a day since 1971-a 92 percent increase in residents since Walt Disney came to town. The population of Orlando stands at 165,000, as compared math 65,000 in 1950; 1.1 million people now live in the metropolitan area. The last orange grove in Orange County collapsed beneath the bulldozers in 1977.

Predictably, this in-migration has also altered the religious landscape. Conservative and evangelical groups, sensing the opportunity for growth, have moved in with a vengeance. Armed with market-research surveys and telephone directories, they have targeted the unchurched in the Orlando suburbs, and their yields have been impressive. The Assemblies of God in central Florida, for instance, grew from 38 churches in 1980 to 64 churches in 1990, nearly doubling its number of members. The Christian and Missionary Alliance grew from 18 to 28 churches in the same period, and the conservative Presbyterian Church in America nearly tripled, rising from four to 11 congregations. Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) grew much more modestly, rising from 58 to 65 congregations during the '80s, with an aggregate gain of roughly 3,000 members. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) added only one congregation and fewer than 300 members (Adelle M. Banks, "Central Florida Churches Cultivating New Ground," Orlando Sentinel, December 22, 1991).

And numbers don't tell the whole story. Central Florida has several megachurches whose adherents don't show up in denominational membership statistics. These behemoth structures, surrounded by acres and acres of parking, bear names like First Baptist Church and Calvary Assembly. Orlando Christian Center, headed by the flamboyant and controversial charismatic preacher Benny Hinn, claims a membership of 7,000. These churches offer entertainment along with preaching - the distinction isn't always clear - and, plying their own form of religious merchandising, cater to the special interests of their congregants. An ever-increasing number of churchgoers in the Orlando area find this kind of "shopping mall Christianity" to their liking.

It's not difficult to discern who gets left behind in this religious migration toward conservative evangelicalism in the suburbs. The First united Methodist Church in downtown Orlando, one of Christian Century's 12 "great churches" in 1950., has not tasted the sweet numerical success enjoyed by evangelicals outside the center city. Indeed, its attendance at Sunday services has declined precipitously since mid-century. In 1991 First Methodist had a membership of 2,907 and approximately 850 attended its Sunday services; in 1950 the church had a membership of 3,605 and drew about 4,500 every Sunday. …

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