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    Church plans to expand, reach out

    With 3,500 members, Anona United Methodist hopes its larger campus will draw more young people and African-Americans.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


    Anona United Methodist Church, one of the oldest churches in Pinellas County, is planning a multimillion-dollar expansion that will make it one of "the most cutting-edge churches" in the South, its pastor said.

    The plans include constructing a second sanctuary for its contemporary worship services, 25 new classrooms, six rooms to practice music and performance arts and 165 additional parking spaces.

    "This will be one of the major Methodist campuses in Florida," said the Rev. Jack Stephenson, the church's pastor. "These are pretty cool things for the oldest church in the area to be doing."

    Cost estimates range from $5-million to $7-million.

    The project will be done in at least two phases as the church raises money from members during a fundraising drive that starts in April. Hoping to avoid the pitfalls of going deep in debt, Anona does not plan to borrow money.

    "We will only build what we can afford," said Andrew Craske, a member since 1978 who is on the church's finance committee. "That's what we'll do and we'll move forward. There's no fear of doing something that will be detrimental (to the church). It's smart."

    Through the expansion, Anona hopes to attract more young people and African-Americans.

    "We hope to reach the next generation," Stephenson said. "And we would love to bridge that cultural barrier."

    The first step, however, will be to create more parking spaces, which has been a problem for a church that draws 1,100 people for its three Sunday services. Anona has just 235 parking spaces.

    Building construction would begin in 2002.

    Anona has about 3,500 members. During the winter, another 2,000 seasonal residents attend.

    The church's contemporary services are held in its fellowship hall. Contemporary services were started about five years ago to reach out to people who prefer a more interactive form of worship.

    It is a far different form of worship, one not practiced by many other Methodist churches. There are no sermons. Instead, a message is acted out by members. There are no hymnals; words to songs are projected on a screen. And there is no choir -- a band plays computerized drums, synthesizer, guitar and bass.

    "It reaches out to a lot of people," said Marian Goodman, chairwoman of the church's building committee.

    The new sanctuary would be about 1,400 square feet larger than the fellowship hall.

    Expansion plans actually began a decade ago, when church leaders were asked for their vision of the church by 2000. About three years ago, some of those leaders who still were at Anona met again to talk some more about their vision, which was called "Revision 2000."

    During the past year, church officials have been meeting with architects to put that vision on paper.

    The additional rooms would be used by young people to practice drama and dance and work on computer graphics and the church's Web site design.

    "We're trying to be very cutting-edge in having young Christians leading and teaching in a whole new way," Stephenson said.

    The classrooms will be connected to the sanctuary, where traditional services are held, and to the fellowship hall -- an element to the plans that is particularly exciting to many parishioners.

    "Churches are like families," Goodman said. "If you get too spread out, you lose touch with one another. It will help our whole church family to be closer together."

    About the church

    Created: 1872

    Year-round members: about 3,500

    Location: Indian Rocks Road, near Wilcox Road

    Size: 10 acres

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