Churches expand to reach residents

Judy Anderson, center, of the Village of La Belle, and Arlene Lehew, right, of the Village of Pine Ridge, serve hot dogs to Bob Durnell, of the Village of Collier, during an open house for the new First Baptist Church of Leesburg’s Village Park campus. The church is located near the Village of Pine Ridge.

As The Villages continues to grow, area houses of worship are working to keep up. The goal is to expand existing congregations throughout the community and bring the churches closer to the people. Three local churches are currently expanding in and around The Villages. First Baptist Church of Leesburg’s new Village Park Campus opened to the public Sept. 29. Located at 1000 Village Park Drive off of County Road 466A in Fruitland Park, visitors can see the tops of homes across the adjacent Village of Pine Ridge. The location holds Sunday services at 8:30 and 11 a.m. “It’s hard to imagine that we’ve been planning this ministry at Village Park for more than five years,” said First Baptist Leesburg’s Senior Pastor Cliff Lea. “We are blessed to have this permanent sanctuary for our Village Park congregants.”

And church officials hope people who step into the sanctuary will feel like they are part of the Village Park Campus neighborhood.

“The main worship area will have seating for up to 680 people,” Lea said. “The sanctuary also has a state-of-the-art sound system, and, just outside the main worship area, we will have classrooms for adult Bible fellowship groups.”

And although the new complex is adjacent to The Villages, church officials said the campus is open to all ages.

The multigenerational spirit includes the recent hiring of Kevin Buynak, who will serve as Village Park’s family pastor. Buynak, who has 10 years experience in student ministry and church planting, will be tasked with bringing families and younger people to the church.

“We see First Baptist Leesburg as a church for all,” said Village Park Campus Pastor Shannon Back. “There are families in the area who are looking for a church. We also want to reach out to Fruitland Park to find out what we can do to help families and children.”

The Village Park complex includes an area for child care and other children’s activities.

“We’ve always had that intent of being multigenerational, but our ability was limited by the lack of a permanent Village Park campus,” Back said. “Now that we are in Fruitland Park, we are ready to open our doors to all.”

Changes also are happening at Live Oaks Community Church, which is doubling its number of campuses in the area.

The church announced this summer that it will start a “Southern Oaks”  campus, with Saturday services at Grace Tabernacle, located at 7279 Warm Springs Ave. in Wildwood, making it an easier-to-reach location for Live Oaks members in the southern part of the community.

“As The Villages continues to grow and expand, we want to expand as well,” said Live Oaks’ Senior Pastor Chris Holck. “It’s about a 15-mile drive for parishioners who live in parts of the southern Villages to travel to our main campus in Oxford for our services. We wanted to make it easier for them to attend Live Oaks.”

Southern Oaks will hold 5:30 p.m. Saturday services, which are tentatively set to begin Oct. 19. The main Live Oaks campus in Oxford will continue to host regular Sunday services, although Saturday services there will be on hold from November to January.

“The Grace Tabernacle sanctuary can hold about 500 people, giving us an opportunity to grow Southern Oaks,” Holck said. “The services at Southern Oaks will be exactly the same as what we have in Oxford. Same church, two campuses.”

And the second campus will be welcome news for a church that sees sizable growth during the winter months.

“I would say about one-third of our congregation goes north during the summer months,” Holck said. “They begin to start trickling in around October, and by the end of the year we are full. Our ministries and groups definitely benefit, particularly between January-April.”

Holck said Live Oaks has a three-year rental agreement with Grace Tabernacle to hold services there, and the church is hopeful it can have a permanent Southern Oaks sanctuary of its own down the line.

“We want to continue to grow,” he said. “We’ve been exploring this expansion for the last couple of years, and we’re not looking back.”

Hope Lutheran Church may not be ready to open its third permanent campus this fall, but plans are underway to make that new sanctuary a reality.

The church recently reached a deal with The Villages to acquire land near Florida’s Turnpike in the southern area of The Villages. Hope Lutheran church officials said they’re looking to turn that 8 acres of land into a permanent campus for those living in and around the southern part of the community.

Hope Lutheran, which currently operates its Central Campus in The Villages and a Lake Weir Campus in Summerfield, launched Sunday services at Rohan Recreation Center in May. Hope Lutheran Pastor Bruce Dillman said the two weekly Sunday services at Rohan average about 70 people and growing.

“People are hearing about Rohan through neighbors who may already go there,” said the Rev. Jon-Marc MacLean, lead pastor for Hope Lutheran. “We are glad that parishioners are bringing their friends and neighbors to Rohan to check out our services.”

But no matter where Hope Lutheran holds services, MacLean said members know it’s not all about how many buildings the church has.

“We like to say we are one Hope Lutheran at three different locations,” he said. “That will never change.”

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or