BY HOLLY MCCRAY
Sails swelling with the wind of the Spirit and 188 people aboard, The Vessel launched Jan. 15, navigating the waters of life in Claremore.
This new faith community, a satellite campus of First UMC in Claremore, uses the vernacular about ships several ways.
The leadership team is called the crew. The logo displays two blue sails. Wooden serving vessels sit on the altar table, made of glass.
Describing strategy for The Vessel FUMC South Campus, Jaimie Willis identified a fleet of "ships": discipleship, worship, stewardship, and friendship.
On Launch Sunday, as the song "Broken Vessels" filled the worship space, the campus pastor "knew we were right where we needed to be."
He admitted that he "drank way too much coffee before 8 a.m." that day. He and the 30-member crew prepared for 150 worshippers, then hurried to set out more chairs as the crowd grew. Childcare staff embraced 13 children, infants through third-graders.
"We were praying for that," said Rev. Willis about it all.
The Vessel reported 120 and 152 people worshipping on Jan. 22 and 29, respectively, according to Senior Pastor Ray Crawford of First Church. The goal for attendance after three months is to average 140.
Launching worship at The Vessel raises to six the number of weekly services under the umbrella of Claremore-First.
The main campus offers three services. Two restaurants also host services, Rev. Dr. Crawford explained. About 20 people worship at 6:30 a.m. Wednesdays in a McDonald’s, and 30-35 worshippers meet at Carl’s Coney Island on Tuesday evenings.
Crawford, Willis, and Stephen Cagle share pastoral duties.
In 2016, First Church averaged 857 people in all worship services, and 44 people made Professions of Faith, according to the 2016 Oklahoma Conference Journal.
On Jan. 29, total worship attendance reached 1,000, Crawford said.
To establish The Vessel, First Church members renovated 4,500 square feet of retail space in a strip mall beside Claremore’s movie theater.
The crew, pastors, and others prayed often at the site throughout the refurbishment. They wrote prayers and Bible verses on the drywall and studs.
"It was bathed in prayer," Crawford said.
People familiar with the site’s former businesses — a tanning salon and gym — reacted enthusiastically after the space was repurposed for The Vessel, Willis said.
Among those touring during the renovation was Chris Tiger, the Conference’s director of New Faith Communities. Some First Church members remember when he pastored at nearby Owasso United Methodist Church and those two churches served together on mission projects.
"I’ve been excited the whole time," said Rev. Dr. Tiger.
He helps all the church planters across the Conference network with one another, Crawford said.
"The Conference believes in us and wants to help us," Crawford said.
A $375,000 grant from New Faith Communities, distributed over 3 ½ years, provides major financing for The Vessel, which also has received funds from the Green Country District. Apportionments assigned to every local church support New Faith Communities.
A successful church planter and author from the East Coast, Paul Nixon, is assigned as Willis’ coach, according to Tiger.
The Vessel also is ministering to its community through a partnership with She Brews Coffee House, set to open this month in part of the converted retail space that includes a drive-through. The company employs women who formerly were incarcerated. The coffee shop is planning to operate six days a week, closing on Sundays.