Live Oak grows
WATSON — At a time when many mainstream Protestant churches are declining, Live Oak United Methodist Church is steadily growing.
When the Rev. Dr. Mark Crosby came to Live Oak in 1996 , the congregation of about 200 met in a small “country church” building, and the budget was $375,000, according to church records.
Average Sunday attendance now tops 1,200, and the church holds three morning services in a spacious, modern sanctuary. A booming children’s ministry meets in the now kid-friendly original building and hundreds of teens fill a multipurpose gym. This year’s budget topped $1 million.
Live Oak is the largest United Methodist Church in the greater Baton Rouge area and the second largest of 500 Methodist churches in the state, according to Louisiana Annual Conference records. The largest, with an average attendance of around 2,000, is St. Timothy on the Northshore in Mandeville.
“It’s not about me,” Crosby said during a recent meeting with him, wife Terrie, the church’s education director, and a dozen other staff members. “It is about these people (seated around the conference table). They love the Lord, they love this church and they love this community.”
Associate Pastor Dickie Davis added, “One of the reasons why this church is doing so well is because we work so well together — almost like a family.”
Growth has averaged about 100 new members per year, Crosby said.
“Many of those are new people — a lot are seekers, young adults who like contemporary services,” he said.
“I meet so many people who say that their experience in church growing up was, ‘I didn’t understand what the pastor was talking about. It was boring. It was dull. And all I could do was endure that hour,’” Crosby said. “We want you to enjoy the hour — not endure the hour.”
“We want the message to be biblically based but, that being said, we want it to be insightful, informative, and, in some cases, we want it to be entertaining,” Crosby said. “People want to come to where the message and the music is something they can enjoy and appreciate and apply to their lives.”
The first service features traditional organ- and piano-accompanied hymns with soloists, said Melanie Rushing, music ministries director. The second service features a choir and blended traditional and praise and worship music, and the third service has a praise band.
“I tell people if you don’t like one style of music one Sunday come back the next because it will be different and you’ll like it,” Rushing said.
But the church is more than just an hour of worship on Sunday morning. Its website declares: “Ministry at Live Oak never sleeps.” And at least one event, and usually three or four events, occur every day or evening of the week.
On Wednesday nights the place is packed with hundreds attending adult Bible studies, a teen service and AWANA (Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed) youth program for elementary children.
Youth Pastor David Orges said about 200 teens attend Wednesday night services.
“About a third are members; a third attend other churches and a third don’t attend church at all,” Orges said. “Our goal is to lead people to Christ.”
Education and Children’s Ministry Director Terrie Crosby said they share the gospel at the level where children can understand the message.
“Personally, as a child, I hated church because I was forced to go to a service where I didn’t understand what was going on, and if I wiggled too much, I got pinched,” she said. “Children here look forward to church because it’s on their level.”
Live Oak is well-known for its free counseling services, headed by Mark Crosby, and a food pantry and thrift shop are also essential ministries.
“For years this church has been the place when people needed something — this is where they came,” said Willie Graves, board vice chair and organizer of the popular Valentine banquet.
The Rev. Ralph Ford, the conference’s executive director for Administrative Services, related how at last year’s banquet, “we sat with an older couple who had recently moved to the community. Someone invited them to church, and they soon became members. This couple talked about Mark being such a good pastor and how their extended family had joined the church.”
The Rev. Sam LoBello, Live Oak’s pastor of counseling and special ministries for 14 years, said he believes God is blessing the church because it is meeting people’s needs — like Jesus did — and because Crosby is modeling Jesus in his own ministry.
“When John presented Jesus in the Gospel of John, he says, ‘He (Jesus) came to us in fullness and truth,’” LoBello said. “Dr. Crosby preaches grace and truth, teaches grace and truth and models grace and truth. I think God blesses that — when you do what His Son exemplifies I think it brings God’s favor.”
The Louisiana Conference’s Resident Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey said Live Oak is successful because it does what all Methodist Churches are supposed to do.
“I believe our churches experience growth when they are relevant to the communities around them,” she said, “and Live Oak has responded to the needs of the community in terms of worship, theology and breadth of ministry.”
Ray Terral began attending Live Oak soon after Crosby arrived 17 years ago.
“When we came most of the congregation was gray-haired, elderly folks. And now it’s full of young people,” Terral said. “The pastor preaches from the word and correctly interprets it — that’s what people want to hear.”
Jim Setoudeh has attended Live Oak for 12 years.
“A lot of churches are dry because they do not get watered with the Word of God,” Setoudeh said. “Mark waters us with the Word of God. We are a moist church.”
Live Oak United Methodist Church
WHERE: 34890 La. 16, Watson.
SUNDAY SERVICES: 8 a.m., traditional worship service; 9 a.m., Sunday School for all ages; 10 a.m., blended worship service; 10 a.m., Sunday School for all ages; 11:30 a.m., contemporary worship service.
INFO: (225) 664-4801 or loumc.org.