An Orlando Primer

Note: This is an archived article from the old As In Heaven website before it was acquired by The Gospel Coalition.

Orlando is a city recently grown up and trying to figure out its place in the world. My maternal grandparents moved here in 1952 when it wasn’t anything more than an orange and cow town with a population of 50,000 filled with crystal clear lakes. My paternal grandparents moved here in the 1930’s when the population was only 27,000. Back then only way to get to Key West (the second largest city in Florida) was to drive your car on the train tracks (yes, that was a thing). 

Four Elements of Orlando’s Explosive Growth

Four things came together to create the explosive growth we have seen over the past 70 years. Three of these all happened within a 10 year span. 

  1. First, bug spray made this place look less like Naked And Afraid and more like modern civilization. They may have changed the name of Mosquito County to Orange County in the 1800’s, but it remained mosquito infested until the 1950’s.
  2. Second, air conditioning came into homes. Well, at least the master bedroom. Children would have to sneak their pillows to the foot of their parents’ door to feel that strange cool breeze come out. 
  3. Third, WWII happened and it turns out Florida was an ideal place to train soldiers. More army and navy pilots were trained here than any other state and their eyes were opened to the now survivable sunshine state with endless year long recreational activities. 
  4. Fourth, twenty years later, the mouse happened. These four things came together to turn this orange and cow town into the fifth fastest growing city in the US and most visited city in the world welcoming 75 million people in 2018. 

How This Growth is Changing Orlando

As you would expect, this has and is continuing to change the cultural makeup and beliefs of this city significantly. Only 6% of this city would identify as evangelical which puts us roughly on par with New York City and Seattle. So, it should come as no surprise then that Orlando is the most post-Christian city in the Southeast and by far the most de-churched city in the Southeast. That is, people who used to go to church, but don’t anymore. With 43% of our city having left the church, Orlando is the 6th most de-churched city in the US according to Barna research. 

There is, of course, a natural lag between the shifting beliefs of a society and the corresponding values of a society which makes Orlando feel different. New York and Seattle are post-Christian liberal cities whereas Orlando, still in the earlier stages of this transition, is a post-Christian traditional city. This means that our values are still on the traditional side which makes it more dangerous in some ways. 

The Idols of Our City

We have a city of largely comfortable and entertained people who can’t seem to find contentment. There is a deep sense of family in this city, evidenced by our theme parks, state parks, and beaches. Not only family, but family friendly entertainment that is unrivaled in the world. Our climate, lakes, golf courses, and beaches, gives us unusually high access to outdoor recreation. This has got to be one of the only places where bad weather can sometimes increase church attendance. We also have the market cornered on the perfect retirement life which is why a presidential candidate will visit The Villages over Tampa.

God isn’t inherently displeased with any of these cultural values in and of themselves, but when we exchange the glory of God for these things, they become the idols of our city. One of Orlando’s great challenges is that it is tailor made to promise contentment through family friendly activities, entertainment, and comfort, but it will never deliver. Instead of fulfilling us, it is perfectly situated to drain us of our time, money, and satisfaction. 

This is our context. A rapidly changing, increasingly post-Christian city of almost 3,000,000 people. This isn’t a call to take back our city, but a call to know our city…because we minister better to a context we know.

What is ‘As In Heaven?’

Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our desire as Christians should be to see this world increasingly look more like heaven. Our prayer is that Orlando would be a city where love would reign, humanity would flourish, and God would be glorified. Of course, this will never happen fully until Jesus returns, but our call is to strive for that Day. 

‘As In Heaven’ has two arms. The first is a series of articles that are aimed at helping us better understand our context. How did our small technical school become the largest university in the US? Why is our skyline on the eastside of I-4? Why does I-4 come through our city the way it does and what’s with that horrible curve at Fairbanks? Could Shaq and Penny have been Shaq and Kobe? Why is Disney a far cry from what Walt envisioned? How did our city become the parachurch mecca home to Campus Crusade, RTS, Pioneers, Ligonier, Wycliffe, Converge, and as of August 2020, Family Life. But more importantly, do you know how these things have shaped the history, hurts, and hopes of our city? 

The second arm to ‘As In Heaven’ will be an Orlando-centric podcast highlighting ways the kingdom is moving hosted by Jim Davis (Lead Pastor of Orlando Grace Church) and Dr. Justin Holcomb (Episcopal priest serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida and adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary). Jim and Justin both realize they have fascinating conversations with Christian leaders on a weekly basis and this is a way of letting the city listen in hoping that we would all be more equipped to bless our city. 

Stay Tuned…

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