Like a neighborhood of restaurants, the churches of Azalea Park all serve the same area, but offer different styles of worship. Each is trying to keep the regulars coming back while attracting a new crowd.

“I believe churches are like restaurants. You wouldn’t go back if you didn’t like the food, the price or the atmosphere,” said Rev. Tony Chance, who became pastor of Azalea Park United Methodist Church in 2007.

Just as tastes change, so have the demographics of Azalea Park. Since 1980, the East Orange County community has gone from 7 percent Hispanic to 59 percent Hispanic. The area’s white population has dropped to 29 percent. The five churches within a two-block area of Azalea Park’s origins reflect that change.

In 1980, Azalea Park Methodist had about 500 members and averaged 250 worshipers on Sundays. Today, it has half as many members and is lucky to draw 100 on Sunday, Chance said.

“It’s a different world now,” Chance said. “We are holding our own with incremental growth, but it’s a struggle.”

A few blocks away, the congregation filling the pews of New Beginnings church mirrors the surrounding community: mostly Hispanic, partly black and somewhat white. Fifty years ago, the same church, then the First Church of God, was all white — again reflecting the demographic of one of Orlando’s earliest suburban subdivisions.

Adjacent to New Beginnings, Azalea Park Baptist Church has declined from 400 members to about 25, nearly all of them white. Across the street on Dahlia Drive, the Hispanic congregation of Iglesia de Dio Pentecostal has grown to 127 members since 1990. Around the corner, on Willow Drive, the Christ the King Episcopal Church’s predominately white congregation has dipped to 215 while its Hispanic congregation has grown from 80 to 120 members in the past three years.

Built-in churches

Religion always has had a prominent place in Azalea Park where the area’s first developer, Wellborn Phillips, set aside land on Willow Drive in the 1950s for Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. The Baptists chose their own site a block away on Dahlia.

Phillips’ one-story, one-and-two bedroom homes comprised a middle-class neighborhood of Martin Marietta employees, Orlando Naval Training Center workers, young families and small business owners.

In those early days, the first members of Christ the King Episcopal Church held their services in Phillips’ sales office, said Patricia Roberts, a church deacon who bought one of the developer’s first houses on Willow Drive.

At its peak, Christ the King had 500 members. Back in the days when church attendance was mandatory for all good Christians, a police officer stood on the corner of Dahlia and Willow directing traffic on Sunday mornings to the three mainline Protestant churches.

“Christmas and Easter, you had to get there an hour early to get a seat,” Roberts said.

At a recent 9:30 a.m. service, the Episcopal church’s rich, dark wood sanctuary flickered with altar candles while the minister preached to a congregation of 50 mostly elderly white worshipers sprinkled among the pews designed to seat 400.

In the same sanctuary, at 11:30 am., about 70 members of the Hispanic congregation of Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret sang hymns to the beat of bongo drums and acoustic guitars. It’s a younger congregation with babies in strollers parked in the outer aisles.

To attract new members, Christ the King has extended its reach beyond the neighborhood and increased its community involvement within Azalea Park.

“We are retooling to be more out-reach oriented in the immediate community,” said Rev. Steve Clifton, who became the church’s rector in 2007.

Rev. Raúl Rubiano, pastor of Jesús de Nazaret, said most of his members live in the area, but come from Colombia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, the Domincan Republic and the Caribbean. For many in his congregation, Jesus de Nazaret occupies the middle ground between the Catholic church and the Pentecostals.

“We feel like we are a bridge between the two,” said his wife, Maria Consuelo Garcia.

Music as a mirror

At the same time the Hispanic Episcopalians are worshipping to a Latin beat, 16 members of the Azalea Park Baptist Church are singing to recorded music and lyrics projected on a large, pull-down screen.

“Clap along if you like. This is a real lively song,” says the woman trying to lead the congregation away from its dependence on the blue Baptist hymnals slotted in the back of the pews.

Nobody claps along. The next song is a YouTube video.

Pastor Rodney Witt said the church is trying to revive itself by appealing to a younger audience that prefers a more contemporary style of worship. But the change has been hard on a congregation where Witt and his wife, both in their 40s, are the youngest couple in the church.

“The older people would rather do the hymns, but if we want to bring the 20s and 30s in, we need to transition to this style of music,” Witt said. “We had some visit us and they say right out, ‘I like the message, but it’s not the type of music I’m looking for. Your music is old.’ “

New Beginnings Pastor Howard Harrison said his church looked much like the Baptist Church when he arrived in 2007. First Church of God, which once counted 275 members, had about 45 worshipers left, most over the age of 65. He changed the music, the style of worship and the name of the church. He erected a billboard on Semoran Boulevard, bought time on television and held community carnivals to attract area residents.

Today, New Beginnings has 550 members, many of them families and young adults.Their Sunday services are loud and lively, worshipers singing along to a band with a horn section, a praise team, and lyrics displayed on two flat-screen monitors.

“One of the toughest things in ministry is the music needs to reflect who you are trying to reach,” Harrison said. “We have families of all ages. We have black, white, Hispanic, African, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan.”

Harrison said his vision as a black pastor was to build a multi-racial church. Azalea Park, circa 2012, proved to be the right place.