Lessons from Ocoee

A little caveat: The lessons here are ones I needed to learn. The criticisms implied are self inflicted, because I was in a position to fix these issues, and didn’t. I went back and forth about posting this because a lot of people were very passionate about this ministry. In the areas I outline below, I feel that I failed them. Please don’t read criticism of others into this.

March 22, 2008 was the first day we met at the Ocoee High School. First Orlando @ Ocoee launched as a video venue in a 900 seat auditorium, with 2 video streams, D&B audio, full band and a few hundred people.

Last Sunday, we met for the last time in the Ocoee High cafeteria; small band, 1 screen, live preaching and less than 100 people. After 20 months, these people have formed a lasting bond. Sadly, the economy has pushed the church to a place where they don’t want to be. While small groups will continue to meet, the facility cost was just too much to continue. Those who do not wish to drive to the main campus for worship were encouraged to attend a local church we have begun ministering with, Oak Level Baptist.

My wife has been very active here. I attended when I was off from the main campus, but she and my kids have been involved in the Kidz Church ministry at Ocoee from day one. She, and others like her, are trying to figure out where to plug in next. Will it be the Saturday service? Or will they drive in on Sundays again?

Times like this, when things don’t go as expected, I like to step back and see what happened. When we started we never thought we would be stopping less than two years later. I would not presume to talk about general ministry aspects of First Orlando @ Ocoee, I will leave that to others who know more than me about that. But I will look at a couple of tech/cost related issues I experienced in my work. What lessons can I learn?

Count the Cost:
We didn’t. The first year we spent over half a million dollars. That’s $500,000+. Most of that was start up costs. We started buying tech gear, and found a church that had just stopped meeting in the same location to buy some gear from. We rented the auditorium, cafeteria and class space every week. We made awesome signs, printed bulletins, and provided tons of donuts and coffee. We spent a lot of money before the first group ever met. There are better ways to do this kind of thing.

There are other “costs” as well. It takes a lot to get a video venue going, and it takes more to keep it going. In addition to everything necessary to keep a church start going, there is a lot of coordination between the venue and the main campus. It takes a lot of attention. Churches who have been successful at it change a lot about how they work. We shouldn’t have just expected the venue to flourish because the main campus did. We didn’t make the changes necessary in how we operate to transition from a one campus church to a multi-site church.

Spectacle isn’t the goal:
We expected the spectacle to draw. It did for a while, but when we had to cut back because of the budget, those drawn to the flash faded away. The main campus worship service has all kinds of tech. Ocoee started out with that, but tech doesn’t disciple.

When the budget tightened a year ago we moved out of the auditorium, cutting over half the facility cost. We also lost a lot of tech ability. Quickly we stopped using video as the sermon source. And we lost a lot of people, either back to the main campus or elsewhere. Yesterday the congregation that remained was not coming because the technology was amazing. They didn’t come for sound or lights or video. They came because of relationships. Now the budget tightens again, and we see those with relationships shift toward small groups.

I was once asked if I thought that this venue would threaten the existing churches in the area? I replied that it shouldn’t. If every seat in every church in west Orange county was filled, there would still be thousands on thousands in the community that didn’t have a church home. There is still a need for thriving churches out there. I hope that places like Oak Level will continue the ministry we started there. Maybe someday we will take what we learned from this and do it again, better.