Five years ago, Living Word Fellowship Church was an abandoned grocery store--35,000 square feet of leaking pipes and flickering light bulbs, the floor strewn with abandoned mattresses and debris from homeless people who had made the building their temporary home.
Now, 650 worshipers from 35 nations call this Lauderhill, Florida, church home, and the building serves as a model of what a congregation can do in an area where property is scarce and resources limited.
Tony Palmisano planted Living Word 13 years ago in a former Shriners Hall three miles from its current location. His desire was to build a multiethnic church, reflecting the diversity of the greater Fort Lauderdale area. But the neighborhood surrounding the church was a primarily white, affluent community--and that became the makeup of the church.
"We tried everything we could to make our church welcoming to different cultures," Palmisano says with a smile. "But everyone looked like they were from Nebraska."
The change came when Living Word was given the opportunity to purchase an abandoned supermarket three miles away in an area of town known for its cultural diversity. Palmisano recalls how the congregation of 250--with $4,000 in the bank--quickly scraped together enough cash to pay for the building.
One man offered the church $50,000 worth of stock that increased in value to $92,000 in a matter of weeks. Electricians and plumbers donated labor and supplies for restoring the building and the city of Lauderhill waived fees.
Almost five years later, Living Word has utilized all but 8,500 square feet of the facility--one that boasts a high-tech sanctuary with seats for 500, a youth center with pool tables and a snack bar, a kitchen, offices for a full-time staff of eight and children's classrooms.
"The miracle is not what we've done," Palmisano says. "It's what we've done with nothing." The secret? "We believe that our volunteers are the key. We have 150 volunteers alone to minister to the 220 kids here at Living Word."
Soon after the church moved to its current home, Palmisano's dream for a multiethnic congregation began to take shape. Now, Living Word holds an annual service celebrating the different nationalities represented by people who attend the church. The most recent count was 34.
"And these are people who were not born in the United States," Palmisano says with a smile. "I've discovered now how difficult it is to lead all these cultures in one place--everyone has to give up something to make it work."
Palmisano attributes the success in this area not only to the location change, but also to a willingness--and desire--to creatively meet felt-needs in the diverse community Living Word calls home.
"We wanted to reach the lost, but traditional methods, such as knocking on doors, have not worked here," he says. "Our methodology had to change--there were needs in this city that we had to meet."
As a result, the church is raising money to convert the remaining space in the building to a youth center and recently launched Impact Regional Development Corporation (IRDC), a faith-based community-development organization. Based at Living Word, IRDC serves needs in the neighborhood through a food pantry, computer and accounting classes and after-school activities for children.
Outreach isn't the only area in which Living Word is applying creative methodology. The church was recently highlighted in the lifestyle section of a regional newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, for its use of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style polling technology.
Palmisano became intrigued while he watched the real-time audience polling data being scrolled along the bottom of the TV screen on ESPN. He thought, Why couldn't something like this be incorporated into sermons to stimulate congregational interaction?
He discovered the solution in a company that sells a polling device for use in educational settings. The EduCue Personal Response System (PRS) is composed of TV remote-style transmitters that send a signal to a computer connected to a projection screen.
The class instructor--or, in this case, the preacher--asks a question of the audience members, who in turn punch a number corresponding to an answer on a keypad. The results are instantaneously displayed on a bar graph on the screen.
At the beginning of the service, attendees have the option of picking up a PRS transmitter in the foyer. Then, during the sermon, Palmisano will ask a question related to the text, or query the congregation on their opinion on some topic related to the sermon.
He notes that the PRS system has noticeably increased the attentiveness of the congregation--particularly those using the transmitters. It has also provided some unique opportunities for personalized ministry.
Palmisano recalls a sermon in which he was teaching on the family conflicts passed on from Abraham and Isaac to Jacob and his sons. He asked the poll question, "How many of you have issues in your family and believe that God is able to bring healing to them?" Although 92 percent answered "yes," 4 percent weren't sure, and another 4 percent answered "no."
"The whole dynamic changed as the congregation realized that there were people there who thought this problem was bigger than God," Palmisano says. "Everyone was reaching out to the 8 percent who weren't sure."
In addition to the PRS system, the sanctuary at Living Word is wirelessly networked so people who bring laptop computers to church can follow detailed sermon notes.
These high-tech additions have increased preparation time for Palmisano, and he says they have made him think more about asking the right questions and shaping his sermons to be understood by people in the pews. However, he's ready to shut it all down if it ever detracts from the simple message of the gospel and the teaching of the Word.
"You cannot put together questions and then come up with a message," he says. "I have to determine that this never takes away from the things of God."
Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministries Today.