The parishioners of Saint Paul United Methodist Church know that God can be worshipped and served anywhere and everywhere, even in a catfish restaurant.
Since the days of savoring the aroma of freshly fried fish at Cafe Lakeland, a thriving and varied ministry has emerged from humble beginnings for Saint Paul’s congregation. The congregation’s 114 founding members organized themselves in 1988 under the auspices of the United Methodist denomination. They would spend the next 12 years praising and serving God in a growing ministry. That ministry has thrived, growing through a succession of less-than-conventional worship locations.
Founding pastor Richard Smith would see his parishioners through services in a new Fellowship Hall, and later in the gymnasium of the Spiritual Family Life Building, located at 2949 Davies Plantation Road in Lakeland. Worship, ministry, and attendance grew with each move, despite there being no sanctuary on the site. To visitors and regular members who worshipped in the early locations, it did not matter that their place of worship was a restaurant, a fellowship hall, or a gymnasium.
“God is here, and we can all feel it,” says Dr. Joe Geary, present pastor of Saint Paul. “Because we felt called to serve the community at large, a formal sanctuary did not seem to be the first building required to begin that work.”
Dr. Geary says that the first 12 years of ministry for the Saint Paul congregation has definite scriptural connections. “The process of the Israelites becoming a nation of God’s chosen people included wandering the desert for 40 years,” he says. “And during that time, the tents of the meeting were the setting where God was worshipped and met with His people.”
Creating a worship-filled atmosphere without a formal sanctuary did require a continued effort for staff and volunteers. Church banners were hung and wall murals depicting church windows were painted on the gymnasium walls. An Altar Guild of volunteers insured clean cloths and a shiny cross every Sunday, while a called Acolyte Coordinator encouraged the involvement of children in the worship service. A flower calendar was organized for the placement of fresh flowers on the altar each week. A new sound system clarified acoustical problems in the gymnasium in 1997. Gradually the traditional and familiar components of a Methodist worship service were added to the gymnasium worship space, encouraging an attitude of spiritual communion for congregation members.
“I’ve always been proud of how thoroughly Saint Paul’s members have understood the difference between building a sanctuary and building a church,” says Dr. Geary. “And they certainly did that in their first twelve years. It has been a rewarding period.”
But the effects of pursuing the church’s ministries without a sanctuary was growing more noticeable to the congregation. Every week since 1994, a group of volunteer men and staff members had set up, then dismantled and stored the worship arrangement of platforms and furniture to make room for gym activities.
The time came to construct a sanctuary when the congregation believed its ministry’s growth was limited by that facility’s absence. “As long as we were serving the community and continuing to grow, the extra work involved in preparing the worship location every week was a labor of devotion,” says Dr. Geary. “But once we realized we were putting forth a lot of effort in our own behalf that could be more effectively spent in serving others, we knew it was time to build our temple space for worship.”
(Please explore the rest of this website for more information on our church. Please note that St. Paul’s current pastor is Birgitte T. French and we welcome you to become part of our rich history!)
The following is an update of the History of St. Paul