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Fuel Church ignites a generation toward God

By Barbara Denman

June 25, 2013


LAKELAND (FBC)—A fire was growing within the heart of Mike Harrell and several fellow pastors.

Fueled by the statistic that 8 out of 10 high school students choose not to remain in the church by the time they graduate, Harrell and his coworkers felt God urging them to plant a church designed specifically to reach that young adult segment.

But they found instead, not only the younger generation, but adults of all ages are seeking a spiritual meaning to their lives. From this need grew Fuel Church in Lakeland.

Just as their younger counterparts, many adults in their thirties, forties and fifties are looking for a casual church that offers music contemporary with the rock genre they grew up with; as well as acceptance and casual comfort.

They found all of that at Fuel Community Church, a congregation launched Easter 2012 that within a year has grown to nearly 400 in attendance. To accommodate the explosive growth, the church has expanded to three worship services each Sunday in an aesthetically pleasing renovated store front.

Fuel Church is located in a strip center on Highway 98 north of Lakeland in an area where 75,000 people reside within a five-mile radius, spilling over two zip codes, according to Harrell.

The church grew through word of mouth, outreach and a rotating electronic billboard placed on the highway, a major north-south thoroughfare.

Lauren Johnson, 29, saw the massive sign and began to see her friends posting about the new church on Facebook. Pregnant in her third trimester, Johnson and her family were looking for a church where they would feel comfortable in casual attire and her husband would be accepted with his tattoos and piercings. Not only were they warmly welcomed during their first visit to Fuel but within an hour of returning home, an email thanked them for attending, she reported.

When she delivered her baby three weeks later, church members brought meals “every single night.” At that point, “we were plugged in” she said, as her husband took a role in the church’s media ministry.

Fuel Church places a high priority on being an “Acts 2 Church” said Harrell. “We are sold out on reaching the community, multiplying small groups and developing leaders.”

“It’s simple,” he said, but admitted that sometimes “it’s hard to keep it simple.”

The church stresses participation in small groups for discipleship and spiritual growth; and mission involvement in their ongoing ministries.

The “Second Saturday” of each month finds the church’s “Partners,” the term they use for members, out in the community spreading the gospel in practical ways. They participate in community service projects in parks, schools and nursing homes wherever the need arises. And in these economically challenging times they give money to people in need with little or no expectations of seeing a return, explained the pastor.

Additionally, the congregation ministers at the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes and twice a month assembles 220 backpacks with food for needy children in Polk County schools.

“Obviously our ultimate goal is to gain leverage into their life so that we can tell them about the love of Jesus,” Harrell said. “But when we do these things in the community it’s never first to evangelize—it’s first just to gain leverage and to love them right where they are. That’s our vision statement, just to love people right where they are.”

Yet Harrell engages in personal evangelism in the community and finds most people are receptive to the gospel message, “if we get over the fear” of witnessing. In the past year, the church baptized 56 people, many brought into the fold through the staff’s evangelistic fortitude.

The church staff, emulating the practice of the Apostle Paul, works as a team, and have made significant personal sacrifices to plant the church. Some have relinquished full time salaries while others have returned to previous careers and businesses to support their families. One sold his home and moved into a travel trailer to underwrite the church.

But it is sacrifice they were willing to make, said Scott May, who serves as the children’s pastor and now works odd jobs for employment. As in the children’s area, youth and students and youth adult ministries are flourishing.

The church has received financial support and start-up funds from the Florida Baptist Convention, said church starting missionary Robert Beckman, who has walked alongside the staff in this journey. The South Florida Baptist Association provided a loan to the congregation to help in the property renovation.

Beckman credits the church’s growth to “working the plan. If you are faithful to work a plan, good things will happen. God will bring the people.”

Michele Wells believes God brought her to Fuel. Their family was looking for a church where they could worship together. Seeing a yard sign on the road, they visited the church. “It was powerful,” she said. “This church is going to love on you right where you are, and are accepting. You don’t feel like you have to fit in.” Now each family member has found a place of belonging and involvement.

Wells invited her sister-in-law, B.J. Everitt, who was going through many personal struggles. She was “captured” by the “message and love of the church, something I’ve never experienced before,” said Everitt. She came to realize she “never knew God before,” she explained. And soon accepted Christ as her personal Savior and made a profession of faith. She has not missed a day since her decision.

Many of her struggles have been resolved as she sees God at work in her life. “I am a child of God. He is my Father and watches over me. I was so fearful of dying. Now I know I am going to heaven.”

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