'Christmas Eve Eve' is church's 'what could be'
Each time he has prayerfully asked that question, Bettis said he has been amazed by the answers he has received over the last three years.
From launching a new church in his living room to preaching before more than 1,000 people at last year's inaugural "Christmas Eve Eve" service in the historic Florida Theatre, the 30-year-old husband and father of three said he can't wait to see what God is going to accomplish next.
District Church has grown to be "what could be possible," Bettis said referring to the church plant that now numbers more than 200 in attendance each Sunday at the Lee High School auditorium.
Bettis said three years ago the church began having their Christmas worship service on Dec. 23 to help lessen stressful scheduling that often competes with family activities on Christmas Eve. "It's [also] a super easy invite to friends and family," he said.
Christmas Eve Eve attendees can expect to be greeted with live contemporary music outside the theater as well as a DJ in the lobby. A 12-member worship band will lead an upbeat Christmas worship medley featuring vocalists, keyboards, piano, drums, guitars, bass, trumpet and cello.
Referencing the Virgin Mary through whom God chose to deliver His Son to the world, Bettis said he plans to ask those attending this year's Christmas Eve Eve service, "What could God do if you responded in faith like Mary did?"
Unlike the fantastical Christmas wish lists typical of the holiday season, Bettis said his faith-laden inquiry will be more of an invitation for God to do what only He can when people trust and obey Him.
In response to their step of obedience to hold last year's Christmas Eve Eve service in the Florida Theatre, Bettis and his staff were just hoping that a respectable-sized crowd would show up to worship the King of Kings in the 2,000-seat venue, which has hosted a number of entertainment legends since opening its doors in 1927, including the late Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, B.B. King and Johnny Cash.
About 1,100 people attended last year's service and $10,000 was given to assist three area-elementary schools and the predominantly African American high school where District Church meets about four miles from the theater.
Bettis said District Church invests about $16,000 into producing, advertising and hosting the Christmas Eve Eve service, including renting the venue and a nearby parking garage.
Financing the event is no small feat for a church whose members range in age from the mid-20s to mid-30s. Their budget also encompasses support of Southern Baptists' global ministry through the Cooperative Program, along with church planting efforts in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The offering goal this time is $20,000 and again everything received will be donated to aid the church's four partner schools. Attendees will have an option to give their donations in a collection bucket or text message their financial contribution.
"Some of the greatest issues of poverty are in our schools," Bettis said. "What could happen in our city when four schools are gifted [a total] of $20,000?"
Over the last 15 years, numerous church plants have failed to thrive in what Bettis calls the urban core of Jacksonville. "People have seen churches come and go," he said.
He doesn't plan on District Church joining the region's list of former congregations.
Throughout the past year, Bettis said, District Church has focused on serving their partner schools by providing school supplies, coordinating campus beautification projects, breakfast gatherings for teachers and a $3,000 donation for the high school football program.
And while giving themselves away to their community, Bettis said, the predominantly white church has gone through a sanctification process this year which included repenting of allowing racial stereotypes and stigmas to overshadow God's love for their community.
"We're a partner without an agenda," Bettis said. "These are people that are in our community and bear the image of Christ. These are people that we don't just minister to but who we minister with."
To that end, District Church has adopted as its 2016 ministry theme: "Here As In Heaven" with a goal that the congregation will reflect more of the ethnic diversity of its community.
"God put us in a school that isn't 90 percent white [for a reason]," Bettis said. "We have the greatest opportunity with no excuse."
For more information about the Christmas Eve Eve service at the Florida Theater in downtown Jacksonville, visit [http://www.thedistrictchurch.com/christmas].