'Drive-in' church gets new name, fresh focus

PALMETTO -- The Palmetto church known for years as the "drive-in" church is shedding the past and looking toward the future.

With a new pastor and a new name, the former First United Methodist Church, 5601 16th Ave. E., is now the Family of God United Methodist Church, a name selected by the congregation, says the Rev. Jim Martin.

Martin said the new name better reflects the direction the church is heading.

"It's exciting," Martin said. "Things are happening."

The church got its start in the 1950s, when Roy and Kathleen Jones operated the Skyline Drive-in theater not far from the intersection of 16th Street East and U.S. 41.

"They would invite local pastors to preach at the concession stand," Martin said.

In 1983, the church got its charter from the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. In 1984, they added a building to house a sanctuary. Legacies died hard and churchgoers had the option of worshipping inside, or staying in their cars, tuning to 93.7 on their FM radios and listening to the service from the parking lot.

"They had a lot," Martin said. "Several hundred cars parked in the parking lot in the winter, listening to the service."

In 1984, an addition to the building, in the form of a geodesic dome, was completed.

When the Rev. George Douglas retired last July, Martin was asked to come out of retirement to lead the church. He discovered a vibrant, emerging congregation and decided that a new focus -- and a new name -- was in order.

"I just went to the congregation," Martin recalled. "If you were going to rename the church, what would you name it?" In four weeks, parishioners had submitted 72

different names. "They ran the gamut, from 'Blessed Redeemer,' to 'Sons and Daughters of the Most High God,'" he said.

Martin devised a series of ballots. Parishioners first voted for their three favorite names. The top 15 vote-getters survived to a second ballot, where they could select two names. The top five names were placed on a third ballot, where people voted for one.

In the end, Family of God was selected.

"There is a sense we are a family of sorts," Martin said. And the family is growing, Martin said, explaining that numbers don't always tell the whole story.

"On the books, we're a small membership church, with about 80 to 90 members," he said. But when you look at actual Sunday attendance, "We're a medium, growing congregation with 230 to 250 people every week."

He says there are enough residents in the area to grow even larger.

"We've got enough permanent, full-time residents in the North River area for a medium-to-large membership church. The winter people, when they come, should force us into two services. We've got that many people."

Family of God is also active in the community, supporting many different ministries and local agencies, including a local prison ministry; providing school supplies to students at Tillman Elementary School; the Women's Resource Center; Anchor House, a ministry for merchant sailors at the Port of Manatee; Habitat for Humanity and the Florida United Methodist Children's Home.

Martin said the dynamics of the congregation are beginning to change, too.

"When I first came here, I heard almost weekly, 'Well, you have to understand, this is an older congregation,'" he said. "I'm not hearing that anymore. There is a sense that we are a growing congregation. We're a family that's reaching out to others."

Plans are also in the works to host a three-day youth revival in June. And on the horizon, the church is looking at holding Spanish-language services to attract the growing Latino population.

Family of God United Methodist Church holds Sunday services at 10 a.m. Information: 941-729-6055.

Jim DeLa, Herald night metro editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011.