Mike Adler is the lead pastor at Palm Coast Community Church, succeeding founder Billy Wight after 25 years.
Twenty-five years ago, Billy Wight helped start a church in Palm Coast that would appeal to people who don’t like church. The dress was casual, there was a worship band playing music, and no one called him "Pastor," just "Billy."
It was called Palm Coast Community Church (pc3), and membership averaged 99 per week in the early days. It grew to as high as 1,000 before the conscious choice to start a new church, Epic, with some of the membership. Today, Epic is one of the biggest churches in town, led by Trent Schake, and pc3 drew about 175 per week before the pandemic.
In early 2020, Wight retired to work for Hidden Gnome Publishing (his son, author Will Wight, is his boss). Mike Adler, a former atheist and Buddhist before becoming a Christian, became the full-time lead pastor at the church.
Billy Wight and Adler met with the Palm Coast Observer on Jan. 29 to talk about pandemic fears and opportunities, and society’s attitude toward faith.
Is it harder for people to have faith today than it was 50 years ago, or 500 years ago?
Adler: If you read books or articles from 50 years ago, you see pastors and theologians talking about the same things they are now: “Why aren’t people more focused on the things that are eternal?”
One difficulty today is this hyperindividualism. If you’re isolated, it’s easy to respond with anger and fear and anxiety. When you’re surrounded by people who are cemented in what’s true, it allows you look at thing in a better way.
You will never get as close to Jesus alone as you will with other people who know you and who will lift you up and help carry some of those burdens.
It’s more unique to the U.S. than in other places. And in Palm Coast, most didn’t grow up here; they leave their safety nets, their relational bonds they have. People are constantly uprooted, so it’s hard to have those relationships so that when the storms come, you know who you can talk to.
Wight: People today sense inside of them that there is something missing. But the emphasis in our culture today that’s different from what it used to be, is that you’re supposed to be pursuing [fulfillment] intellectually or experientially today. Fifty years ago, there would be this bent to go, “Maybe there’s something spiritual lacking in my life.” That is not what people go to today. I believe the message of Jesus is relevant and life-changing today.
I know there’s distrust of pastors. But I’ve known a lot of pastors in my life — and priests and other religious leaders. Most of them have tremendous integrity.
How has the pandemic impacted your congregation?
Adler: In March 2020, when a lot of churches had to shut down, we had no understanding of what COVID was. I think there was a lot of fear, confusion. When you go to the store and you don’t see toilet paper, and you’ve got stay-at-home orders, it throws people for a loop. There have been a lot of bouts of depression and panic attacks.
Now I in 2021, there’s a level of: You get used to it. But I think there’s still fear. The language you hear is, “I can’t wait till this gets back to normal.” But we’re not sure if it ever will.
From a faith perspective, some said, “God, why are you letting this happen to me?”
Wight: People are afraid, but that creates a lot of opportunity for people to grow in their faith and ask, “Am I going to trust God?”
How important is your crew of volunteers?
Adler: The church doesn’t need me (Laughs). They need the volunteers. These people show up every Sunday, our Connections Team. All the good things that really happen, it happens because of their willingness to live out their faith. Our volunteers are rock stars.
How is pc3 different now from what it was 25 years ago? How is it the same?
Wight: The average age of our congregation is older, and that is the value of starting new churches: It’s easier to attract younger families.
How will pc3 be different 25 years from now?
Adler: All I know is, the church will look different. One benefit we have today, is we have Palm Coast Community School that we started seven or eight years ago, so that brings families into the community.
I know when I want in 25 years: If our people are living out our core values — loving God — and if that leads to loving other people, and they’re teaching others about Jesus, and they’re authentic and organic, and they have people helping them walk that path, as a pastor, I will be very content.
For Mike Adler: You have a degree in behavioral science. How has that helped you in your ministry?
Adler: When you’re trying to help people, what you learn very quickly is that your ability to listen is linked to your ability to have success. We often get into conversations where we’re talking past each other. The intent is to reply, not to listen. We love to talk about ourselves. But when you have someone in your life to really listen and understand, it changes everything. It gives them hope.
For Mike Adler: One of your favorite quotes is by Benedict of Norcia, who said, “Be careful to be gentle, lest in removing the rust, you break the whole instrument.” What does that mean to you?
Adler: We can get caught up in trying to create quick fixes. But if you’re going to be gentle, you have to invest time. It may take years and decades.
For Mike Adler: You used to work with violent teenagers in a residential facility. What did you learn?
Adler: That I knew absolutely nothing. (Laughs) You learn that everybody has trauma, and that trauma looks different depending on their background and personalities. There’s no one thing that will fit all situations and all people; people need individual care.
When someone comes to ask for help, how do you handle them?
Wight: Our mantra is “Love god, love people, live it out.” The reason people are so closed off is they have been hurt and they don’t feel safe.
We’re all messed up, and we all have the same fundamental problem, and that is that we are self-centered people who need a heart transformation. Faith in Jesus transforms our heart, but that doesn’t immediately fix us.
The starting point is for them to be able to sense from me what I know they need to sense from God, and that is, “I want you to come into my presence just like you are, and then we will slowly start to unravel these problems you’ve got.”
For Billy Wight: The ad for pc3 25 years ago pointed out that you are a former saddle maker. Why do you feel it’s helpful for churchgoers to know that?
Wight: There is this belief in churches that pastors and priests and rabbis have some sort of level so spirituality that other people can’t attain to. And that is just not true, and it’s not the message that’s in the Bible. The message in the Bible is that we have equal value: We are a body. The finger is just as important as the leg. The heart is as important as a shoulder muscle. That’s what we deeply believed, so our way of trying to get that embraced by people was, “Let’s talk about our normal life.” [Co-founder John Shepherd] was an engineer, I was a saddle maker.