In 1990, Pastor Eugene Smith helped plant a church in inner-city Seattle. Eight years later while serving as an executive pastor in the Seattle suburbs, God was strongly prompting Eugene towards something different.
“I felt the Lord really challenge me to plant another church,” says Pastor Eugene. He and his wife Laura searched for potential opportunities across the United States—Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta. “Lord, if you want us to go to Florida,” he prayed one night, “we’ll even go to Florida to plant a church.” The next morning, a woman walked up to him after the sermon. “Pastor, have you ever thought about starting a church?” She said. “Why don’t you move to Florida to start a church, and we’ll go with you?”
“That was May of 1998,” says Pastor Eugene, “and September 1st we moved 3,500 miles to Florida.”
Outreach in Orlando
Pastor Eugene landed on the opposite end of the country armed with confidence and conviction—but little else. “I wish I could say I was smart enough to do all the market research, but I just had a passion,” he says. “I knew God called us to do this.” Pastor Eugene, Laura, and two couples who accompanied them eventually settled into an old movie theater as their first church home and named their ministry City Church. As they prayed over the church’s unique mission, Pastor Eugene remembered some valuable advice he’d received from a friend—Bill Wilson, former Assemblies of God national minister and founder of Metro World Child. “He looked at me and said, ‘Eugene, it’s way easier to raise a kid than it is to repair a broken adult.’ And those words never left me,” he says. “God gave me a clear vision for youth.”
Within those first few weeks, the City Church team purchased two buses to bring kids to church and connected with various youth groups attending General Council, a nationwide event of the Assemblies of God, in Orlando. “We had two or three youth groups come, and we did a bunch of outreach in our community right around the theater,” says Pastor Eugene. In the months that followed, families flocked to the budding church. Forty-five people came in April, 171 in August, 217 in January. After one year, 400 people attended City Church’s Easter Sunday services. “I was scratching my head trying to figure out what happened,” says Pastor Eugene. “That’s when I knew it was going to work.”
By 2004, City Church had called numerous locations “home”—another theater, a grocery store, even a McDonald’s playground for Wednesday night Bible studies. Eventually, they purchased a small, former Methodist church in Sanford, where they stayed for 11 years. All the while, City Church continued to focus on serving the kids and youth in their community. Pastor Eugene had hired Glen Wolf as the youth pastor, and Glen’s dedication to welcoming teens and forging leaders played a significant role in propelling the church’s overall growth. “Glen built this young generation by just having a powerful youth church,” says Pastor Eugene. “I basically kept moving the youth church up until it became the whole church.” On their last Easter Sunday at that location, City Church had six services to accommodate the crowds. “We had 1,650 people at a campus that seated 190,” says Pastor Eugene. “We’d done that for three years straight.”
By 2010, City Church had outgrown the facility. The staff worked together for years to find a property that would accommodate the church’s size and potential growth. Finally, in 2014, City Church’s dream home became available. It offered a gorgeous sanctuary for 700 people as well as 12 acres for additional expansion. Pastor Eugene contacted Church Extension Plan and began working with Rev. Jeremy Stamback to purchase the building. “It was a very complicated deal, and Jeremy’s willingness to serve and really walk alongside us during this whole process was significant,” says Pastor Eugene. “CEP completely exceeded our expectations.” After almost a year of negotiating with the sellers, City Church acquired a permanent home.
“Let Them Run”
As Pastor Eugene recalls the history of his church, the secret to their success is clear to him. “From day one, we built this thing by reaching kids,” he says. “Everything we did—the way we structured our services, the times, the music, the culture—it’s just been geared towards them.” In fact, today City Church’s youth ministry is one of the largest in the Sanford area with approximately 250 students. But Pastor Eugene has done much more than invite young people into his church, he’s empowered them. “You’ve got to let them run,” he says. “In 2011, I remember wanting to be in the Wednesday night service more than the Sunday service because the worship was so good.” The next year, Eugene invited the youth band to become City Church’s main worship team. “That moment changed the whole culture of the church,” he says. Miranda Quigley, City Church’s worship coordinator, became the full-time worship leader at age 17. Christin Hayes, City Church’s children’s pastor, began serving at the church when she was 19. Even Glen Wolf, now the executive pastor at City Church, joined the staff when he was 19. Pastor Eugene says, “I’m always the oldest guy on stage.”
City Church’s growth is due to much more than effective leadership, it’s a result of collaboration among generations. “The only way this happened wasn’t me,” says Pastor Eugene. “It was this team of people committed to our mission statement of bringing God’s love to the city one person at a time.” As Pastor Eugene plans and prays for the future of City Church, his team and God’s consistent provision give him confidence. “It’s a very healthy, strong local church,” he says, “and the best is yet to come.”