If you sense God is calling you to start a new congregation, where do you start? Just find some space and start holding worship services?

That’s exactly the wrong way to start, pastor Joe Esposito told participants in the New Church Development Conference here. “The biggest mistake a church planter can make is to have a worship gathering right off the bat,” said Esposito, who is co-pastor of a new church development in St. Petersburg called the Missio Dei.

“You need to get to know the community, develop relationships and find out what God is already doing,” he said. Otherwise, “you’re introducing alien DNA” into the neighborhood, and residents may feel like you are just there to force your own agenda.

The New Church Development Conference is one of five events included in the 2012 Evangelism and Church Growth Conference (ECG 2012) here July 30-Aug. 2. Esposito spoke with a group of conference participants who had ventured away from the conference hotels one morning for what was billed as a “Missional Discernment Site Visit.”

The experience turned out to be an exercise in getting to know a neighborhood. Three vanloads of us traveled 15 miles or so into downtown St. Petersburg and were dropped off at three different locations. There were no maps and few instructions — just a time limit (90 minutes) and a final destination (the art studio where the Misseo Dei rents space at 620 1st Ave. South).

Conference leader B.J. Woodworth, pastor of the Open Door in Pittsburgh, noted that when Jesus sent his disciples out on a mission, he told them not to take anything with them. “Part of what we need to learn,” he said, “is to depend on the people that God has called us to serve.”

The six people in my van split into two groups. My group had an advantage in that one of us three had grown up in St. Petersburg and knew his way around the city.

We began our leisurely stroll — minimizing the effects of the Florida heat —at the edge of the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. We were supposed to pay attention to sights, sounds and smells — tuning into “the neighborhood vibe,” as one person described it. Most important, we needed to learn about the people.

We learned that asking “Where’s the best place to get a burger around here?” was an easy and nonthreatening way to begin a conversation. One of the other groups, we found out later, asked people they met, “What does this community need most?” One woman answered, “Trees.”

At the edge of Williams Park — a magnet for homeless people, we learned — a young man with lots of tattoos was making roses out of palm fronds. He was happy to demonstrate his technique and even happier when we bought two roses for $1 each.

All the groups managed to find their way to the art studio — called the Studio @ 620 — in time for lunch with leaders of the Mission Dei. Commenting on the name of the four-year-old congregation, Esposito said, “We’re trying to live into God’s mission in the world.”

G.W. Rolle, the Missio Dei’s part-time pastor of justice ministries, said the name is what drew him to the congregation following a decade-long struggle with homelessness and drug addiction.

Worship attendance at the Missio Dei ranges from 35 to 90 on Sunday mornings, said co-pastor Douglas McMahon Jr., who is also chaplain and director of campus ministries at Eckerd College.

Worshiping in an art studio and performance space, he added, requires flexibility. Some weeks there are paintings on the walls or multimedia exhibits in the middle of the floor. Or there might be a stage set up for a play or concert. “We work with whatever we find each week,” he said.

Because the church only rents the space for three hours a week, most of its activities take place out in the community, McMahon said. For example, a ministry called “Laundry Love” allows members to interact with people at a local laundromat.

“We just show up with 10 pizzas and a bag of quarters,” he said.

The Missio Dei, a Presbyterian/ecumenical community, is supported by the Presbytery of Tampa Bay and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. More information about missional discernment site visits is available in “Starting New Initiatives: A Discernment Process,” published by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Church Growth.

Eva Stimson is editor of “Presbyterians Today” magazine.