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Planning to pack the pews

As Pasadena Community Church celebrates 75 years of growth, it looks forward to one day having 2,000 worshipers in each of its four services.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- In its early days, Pasadena Community Church broadcast its services to overflow crowds through outdoor loudspeakers.

Today, as the congregation celebrates its 75th anniversary, the United Methodist church is hoping to woo worshipers with an updated version of its drive-through broadcasts.

Beachgoers, tourists or the painfully shy need only park their cars in the church lot and tune their radios to a designated frequency to become part of the fellowship inside.

This concession to modern-day flurry is just one indication of the church's focus on the future, even as it celebrates the past and savors the present.

"The most important thing that we have focused on in the future is our planning," said the Rev. Clifford Melvin, who arrived at the historic St. Petersburg church three years ago. "We've had extensive groups within the church who have done "futuring' sessions together and we have been reading what the church experts have been saying about the future of the church. And then through our time of prayer and study and seeking God's vision is how we have come up with our plans for the future. . . . Some of the things that we are currently doing are what we believe will lead us into the future."

One is the introduction of a refurbished contemporary service, a 21st century package of drama, music played by a praise band, and spiritual messages delivered with the aid of television and movie videos.

The church also is planning a Christian life enrichment center, a complex that will include gymnasium, stage, classrooms and offices. It is being planned with an eye on growing membership and the church's school for 2-year-olds through fifth graders. With city approval, Melvin said, an autumn groundbreaking seems likely.

Melvin last fall introduced the contemporary service, which has been given the name Direct Connection. Average attendance at the 9:30 a.m. service, which competes with another worship geared to "mature" singles, is 300.

"The contemporary service is for those folks who are seeking something and it's not church in the usual way," Melvin said.

More than two dozen people who regularly attend the service have signed up for the church's new membership class, he added.

The popularity of Direct Connection, billed as "worship for the new millennium," is gratifying, the minister said.

"It's telling me that we are meeting a need in the community. It's also telling me that it is reaching the people we see as a target audience, people between 25 and 40. But there is a broad range of people attending that worship service."

Peggy Murrell, who has been a member of Pasadena Community Church since 1955 with her husband, Dr. William Murrell, an optometrist, said: "It is amazing the mixture of people who attend it."

Mrs. Murrell conceded that she prefers the traditional service at 10:45 a.m. -- it has the largest attendance. "But that's the nice thing about a big church," she said. "You've got something for everybody."

There is a fourth service, at 8:15 a.m., which Melvin said is "for those people who want to come to church and have the rest of the day."

Melvin envisions a future when each Sunday morning service is filled. That would be 8,000 worshipers. This morning he will give his congregation an anniversary message that will encourage the church's current 2000-plus members to continue its mission of making disciples.

Listening will be a gathering of some of Pasadena Community's past leaders. One of the church's most revered ministers, the late Dr. J. Wallace Hamilton, will be represented by two of his three children. One is St. Petersburg lawyer John Wallace Hamilton.

Dr. Hamilton, who arrived at Pasadena Community in 1929 from Ontario, was part of the church almost from the beginning.

For the first services, which were held in a real estate office, worshipers fetched their own chairs. By 1925, the tiny congregation had built its first sanctuary at 70th Street, behind the current church. Though the building was enlarged, by 1938 overflow crowds had to be seated on benches outside the sanctuary or remained in their cars, where they could listen to the service through loudspeakers. This outdoor worship area was known as Radio Park.

Membership continued to grow, reaching 1,000 by 1949. The church built a sliding glass wall behind the pulpit and added rows of benches outdoors to accommodate those seated in what became known as the Palm Garden Sanctuary.

Church records show that on Easter morning in 1951, 10,500 people turned up for the service.

"That's amazing when you think of it, but you didn't have a church on every corner then. We were 7 miles out from downtown and just the only church," said Mrs. Murrell, a member of the church's 75th anniversary planning committee.

One of the reasons Pasadena Community attracted so many people in those early years, Mrs. Murrell said, was that those who attended came from many denominations and states. In addition, Dr. Hamilton was a well-known preacher and winter visitors to Florida often sought him out when they came to town.

As the church continued to thrive, it became obvious that a new sanctuary was needed. The first service in the new 2,000-seat building at 112 70th St. S, was held on March 13, 1960. About 7,000 attended.

Dr. Murrell, an usher at Pasadena Community Church for more than 35 years, remembers the overflowing crowds.

"It really happened usually around from Jan. 15 through Easter, when visitors were here and usually the church doors would open about 9 o'clock," he said. "They would have one section that they would let the visitors come in and, once that was filled, there would be no one else.

"At the time, like on Easter Sunday and Christmas Sunday, it was generally known that only members could get in for that."

During those years, there were about 40 to 50 ushers just to handle the crowds outside.

There will be no need for that today, though attendance is expected to be high for the anniversary celebration.

Dr. Murrell plans to be at his post.

"I'll be there," he said. "I'll be there to get a piece of cake."

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