your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love,
and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
— 1 Thessalonians 1:3
These words from the earliest of Paul’s letters in the Bible, possibly the earliest Christian writing still in existence, feel so fresh to me 2000 years later because they might as well have been written about our own congregation. There is no better way to sum up what Atonement has been about over the past 25 years than to look at these three important outcomes of a mission-driven church: 1. works of faith; 2. labors of love; 3. inspired endurance.
It was a work of faith that first brought hope-filled Christians to buy a piece of property on State Rd. 54 when there was little else here but swamps and cow pastures. Bruce B. Downs was the road from Tampa to nowhere, and people all went into Zephyrhills to shop or eat out. Everyone knew this area was ripe for growth and no one knew the day or hour it would happen, but my friend Matt Cox heard God’s call and moved his ministry from Montana to a storefront in an out-of-the way crossroad called Wesley Chapel.
By faith a building was built and consecrated, and a baptismal shell fished from the depths of the sea formed the centerpiece of a multi-use worship space. A newsletter was developed called “The Shell-seeker.” The shell as a symbol of baptism inspired the building’s design as well as the logo for the congregation, reminding us always that who we are and what we do all spring from our identity as children of God, cleansed and claimed by the water of life.
Through the years, countless labors of love became the expressions of that faith. Through partnerships with the mission in Dade City and Christian Social Services in Land O’Lakes, Atonement’s members reached out and into the community through Share programs, an
annual Giving Tree and Christmas Bazaar. Local support groups and scout troops were given meeting space in the building. Then came the incredible Helping Hands Food ministry, which has made a name for us in the community more than anything else. But who can count all the many individuals over the years who came here seeking help and also found a compassionate welcome from the people of Atonement?
Still, the tale of Atonement’s first 25 years seems mostly about inspired endurance. In my own records, I have a list of over 1000 different families (besides members) who have worshiped at Atonement since I have been the pastor here. But even before I arrived, this church counted over 50,000 worshippers who came through the doors. When Atonement faced a financial crisis and was contemplating closing, church consultant Gus Smith wrote the following in a letter:
Over the years I have called and asked for assistance for other congregations who were carrying heavy financial burdens. This time I am going all out with the total of my being for this particular congregation…because I strongly believe in them, and feel that I want to help them in every way possible to fulfill their mission. Every once in awhile a congregation comes along that has a special spark about it, that you just know that it will take off eventually and become exceptionally strong in its Mission and Ministry. Atonement is one of those exceptional ones. On this one, I think we need to think much less of the return on the financial investment in the congregation and more on the very essence of its being and highly promising future. It is not a country club or social organization or in business to make a profit. This is a church of God that has and continues to make a difference in this community.
Thanks to the inspired endurance of Atonement’s members, former pastors and interims, along with the bishops and church leaders who saw the “special spark” of the Holy Spirit igniting lives for Christ — and most of all, thanks to God — we are celebrating 25 years of exceptional ministry. How amazing to look back and see that we finally did “take off,” made it in the air, and are well on our way to an amazing future!