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Multi-site, multi-ethnic congregation extends reach throughout Miami

By Margaret Dempsey-Colson

July 2, 2012


Each weekend in Miami, close to 8,000 people, representing 78 nationalities, worship in one of 17 services in any of six locations—all under the umbrella of one congregation, Christ Fellowship.


But for Rick Blackwood, senior pastor of Christ Fellowship, a multi-site, multi-ethnic growing congregation in Miami, the story of his church is more than a story about numbers.


It’s about “trusting God to do more than the human mind can even imagine,” said Blackwood, reciting his favorite Scripture, Ephesians 3:20.


When Blackwood first arrived in Miami in November 1996 to pastor First Baptist Church in Perrine, he admits being “intimidated” by the rapidly growing, largely unchurched multi-ethnic city.


“I remember flying into Miami, looking out the window of the airplane, thinking, ‘How do we even begin to make a dent in this city for God?’” recalled the winsome pastor, described by a co-worker as “really a small church pastor in a big church.” 


The Perrine church had a rich history of reaching people for God and loving memories of their only other pastor, Tommy Watson, who served the church for 36 years, he said.


Emphasizing that he did not arrive with a “strategy to change the church,” Blackwood soon began to recognize that to continue to reach an ever-changing and growing Miami for Christ, the church must adapt.


Still, he led the church to take the steps of change slowly, following God’s lead a step at a time.


In 2005, almost 10 years after Blackwood’s arrival, the historic First Baptist Church changed its name to Christ Fellowship.


“The first thing we want people to know about us is that we’re all about Christ,” explained Blackwood, adding that the church continues “to be as Southern Baptist as we’ve ever been.”


Then in 2006, the newly named Christ Fellowship took another step of change—launching a congregational site in Homestead. More than 400 people showed up for the opening worship service at the Homestead campus, making the infant congregation the largest in its community.


“The Lord burdened us with a desire to lovingly confront all of Miami with the gospel. To do that, we believed that launching multiple campuses throughout the county was a wise and viable strategy,” explained Eric Geiger, who came on board with the church in 2003 to serve as executive pastor.


Church leaders had done their homework before launching the Homestead campus. Studies indicate, they contend, that a multi-site congregational approach to reaching people with the gospel is statistically much more likely to survive and thrive than a church plant.


“Churches must multiply, and new campuses are one expression of that,” said Geiger, who now serves with Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville.


Launching multiple sites requires “high octane, highly committed Christians” to be viable, said Blackwood as church members from the Palmetto Bay campus were commissioned to help launch the Homestead campus.


That first launch of a multiple site for Christ Fellowship was the first of many.


Today Christ Fellowship has six locations throughout Miami. In addition to Palmetto Bay and Homestead, the church has campuses in downtown Miami at the former Central Baptist Church, Redland, West Kendall and, its most recent launch in late February, Coral Gables.


While each is imprinted with the Christ Fellowship “DNA,” each also is unique in that it has its own campus pastor and each reaches a specific target audience. For example, the Coral Gables congregation, meeting in the Miracle Theatre under the leadership of campus pastor Ray De Armas, hopes to reach students at nearby University of Miami.   


Multiple ethnicities are represented in each campus.


“The church is a good reflection of the city,” said Al Fernandez, Florida Baptists’ lead church planting strategist and also a Christ Fellowship church member.


“This is what heaven will look like,” agreed Bill Baggett, Christ Fellowship’s pastor of congregational care. Baggett served for many years as pastor of First Baptist Redlands, which now has become the Redlands campus for Christ Fellowship. 


Christ Fellowship leaders have helped plant a second-generation Haitian congregation through Miami’s Urban Impact Center (UIC), helping train and mentor the pastor of the new congregation and even inviting him to sit in on staff meetings with Christ Fellowship.


Also, Christ Fellowship has recognized “value in partnership with the state convention,” said Fernandez. The UIC has created a tailor-made theological education program for the congregation to help train newly minted church leaders who may have come from a lay or non-Southern Baptist background. Additionally, UIC leaders have recently begun coaching Christ Fellowship staff, helping them hone their leadership skills so that they, in turn, can coach others who help lead the congregation.


The congregation gives regularly to the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ historic plan for financial ccooperation among member churches.


Looking toward the future, Christ Fellowship may launch additional congregations in as many as four other locations in Dade County, said Blackwood, who zips his way through the city each Sunday in his 1997 Honda Civic to preach as often as he can at as many of the congregations as possible.


The ultimate goal of additional congregational sites is not to grow Christ Fellowship into a larger church, but rather to reach more people in Miami with the gospel—people like church member Linda Rump who, like most people who visit the church, was first invited to Christ Fellowship by friends.


Today the woman, whose words tumble out in a flurry of enthusiasm, describes herself as being “transformed to serve others.”


Retired from the University of Miami, Rump, who volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center, said, “I’m serving the Lord, and I’m loving every precious moment.”


The church intentionally encourages such outward focus. Other church members volunteer in myriad ministries throughout not only Miami but also the world, such as the team of students who spent their Spring break ministering in Haiti.   


“If you’re a member of Christ Fellowship and not involved in a ministry, you’re in a minority,” said Fernandez.


Much of the community outreach is tied to small groups within the growing church. The church currently has approximately 300 small groups that study a curriculum that coincides with each sermon series, according to Christ Fellowship’s small groups pastor, Omar Giritli. 


Church member Rachel Stabler, thousands of miles away from family in Alabama, meets with her small group of eight to ten people each Monday.


“You can ‘do life’ here (in a small group). I feel like I have found family,” said the young University of Miami professor.  


Such testimonies energize Pastor Blackwood as he reflects on the Christ Fellowship journey.


“When you boil it all down, this is a movement of God, and we’re hanging onto it,” he said.

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