Florida Conference trustees recently purchased a bowling alley. And the Florida United Methodist Foundation helped them do it — with a $4.5 million loan from its Development Fund.
It’s not a new business venture for the two agencies, however. It’s the future home of Horizon Church, a new United Methodist church in Tampa.
“From the beginning we have felt the vison to be part of the new day God is creating,” said the Rev. Erica Allen, co-pastor of the church with her husband, Chris. “Then the pandemic had people crave and explore and question their purpose. Over the past year, we have focused on helping people discover their purpose.”
It’s a vision that’s been five years in the making. The Allens arrived in Tampa in the summer of 2017 to lay the groundwork for the new church and immediately immersed themselves in networking, community events, walking groups, “dragging our kids to playgroups,” and even Bowling Alley Sunday mornings, treating the “unchurched” to free games.
“We see new people we had no idea were even searching,” Chris said. “In the early days, we invited directly. Since the pandemic, people have been finding us.”
Casey Ellison and his family were among the first. They’ve been involved for more than three years and are excited about what’s next for the church.
“Moving into the bowling alley is an incredible idea — the reach, the location, the exposure.” Ellison said. “Then, not looking like a traditional church will be a plus. The building will create community in ways the traditional model has lost in recent years.”
Built in 1956, the facility comes with 56 parking spaces and 16,304 square feet of space that was home to 16 lanes, an arcade, snack bar and pool table. It’s located at the intersection of South Dale Mabry and Gandy Boulevard, and area with traffic estimates exceeding 80,000 vehicles each day.
The congregation currently worships at a middle school several blocks from Hyde Park United Methodist Church. The bowling alley will take them to South Tampa, where there is no United Methodist presence.
It will be a place, Erica says, that reaches out to people who aren’t going to church.
“We realized we’re not competing with other churches,” she said. “We’re competing with yoga and brunch and community events.”
Ellison agrees and says the church “is finding a way to reintegrate faith into daily life.”
He also says the Allens are the right pastors for the job. “Erica is amazing,” he said. “She has the tools to change the model while society continues to lose anything faith-based.”
Like a miracle
Returning to Florida has long been a dream for the couple. Both were commissioned and ordained in Nashville, Tennessee, where they had been serving before moving to Tampa.
“There is no reason the foundation should give us $4.5 million; no reason Methodists should trust two young leaders to do this. … I don’t know if we’ll see The Promised Land, but I’m super proud we’ve had the courage to say yes to God over and over again. The best is yet to come.” — Rev. Erica Allen
Being closer to family and hearing a call to serve people who are disconnected from church brought them home.
Chris grew up at Hyde Park United Methodist Church. He then went on to attend Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, where he met Erica, a senior at nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her call to ministry was reaffirmed in Tennessee, and she completed her Master of Divinity at Vanderbilt University via a Turner Leadership Program Scholarship.
“What a gift of God’s grace that was on my life,” she said. “I want to highlight that gift and recognize how important that kind of support is for young pastors.”
In late 2016 everything came together for the Allens. They made the decision to relocate to Florida, met their adopted son, David, and then received a call from the conference about starting a church in South Tampa.
“This was an opportunity to serve in ministry for the people we had prayed for by name,” Erica said.
But it’s a long way from praying for a vision to seeing it come together. The foundation’s loan has come into focus years into a project birthed in prayer and built on hard work, tears, small beginnings, encouragement, joy, belief and opportunity.
And it’s the first investment of this scope for the conference in several years, said Craig Smelser, conference treasurer.
“Because of the ministry they have been able to do since its beginning, even through several temporary homes, the church has established a presence that is vital,” Smelser said. “They have been able to reach younger generations that are important to the future.”
The new location also fills the need for a United Methodist church in the community after the area’s Manhattan Avenue United Methodist Church closed. Proceeds from the sale of that church helped launch Horizon Church.
Both pastors said operating from the former church would not have been possible — people were no longer in the habit of going there, preconceptions about the church among the unchurched and de-churched would be difficult to dislodge, and any meaningful renovation was financially untenable.
The Allens believe the bowling alley won’t be saddled with the memories or limitations of the previous church. Instead, it will be associated with fun and fellowship.
“This will be somewhere people can find joy and goodness and abundance,” Erica said. “Imagine what it will be like to give it to Jesus.”
It’s also a unique property, Smelser says, and the kind of partnership — between the conference and local church — that makes innovative ministry possible.
“This is moving into the future for the sake of the Kingdom, and it’s the only way we can get into this part of South Tampa,” he said. “This jumpstarts our ability.”
For Erica, it seems like a miracle.
“It’s like God just split the Red Sea,” she said. “There is no reason the foundation should give us $4.5 million; no reason Methodists should trust two young leaders to do this. … I don’t know if we’ll see The Promised Land, but I’m super proud we’ve had the courage to say yes to God over and over again. The best is yet to come.”
Chris has another take on the experience. “It’s about creativity and passion for the gospel to reach people,” he said. “It’s been so much fun to fully live that out. We’ve changed the model. This is the next fun step. It’s audacious but deliberate.”
And at least one family is fully on board. “Looking to the future,” Ellison said, “our family is committed.”