For churches, Villages offers fertile ground

Jackie Lambert, of Fruitland Park, sings along to music during Connection Point Church’s service at Villages Elementary of Lady Lake. The church has held services in the school’s cafeteria since October.

New Life Christian Church in Wildwood will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year, and Senior Minister Matt Malott remembers the early days. “We started with about 20 people in rented facilities,” he noted. “Back then, we didn’t have anything. We were definitely a church starting from scratch.” Malott realized that to build New Life Christian, the church had to come to the people. “If people don’t know you’re there, it doesn’t matter if the sermons or music are great,” he said. “You have to let people know you exist.” Taking advantage of any opportunity to do community outreach and advertise allowed New Life to grow its congregation and build a permanent sanctuary of its own. In 2008, a worship center was built on County Road 462 in Wildwood, with the first service held that July.

The same cycle continues as new local churches have just started taking the first steps of building.

Since October, at least one new church and one mission started holding regular services near The Villages, while another church announced plans to move their southern Villages campus to a new, larger location.

The new round of church planting comes amid strong population growth in and around The Villages.

From April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2018, the population of The Villages metropolitan statistical area grew by nearly 38% to 128,754, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And estimates from Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research show that Sumter County will continue to see its population grow over the next 20 years.

“The spurring of the growth of houses of worship correlates with the population growth and diversity of faiths of the growing population,” Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold said. “The Villages development spurs much of the new and expanding houses of worship at the periphery of the development.”

The morning of Oct. 6, 150 people gathered at Villages Elementary of Lady Lake for the first service of Connection Point Church, a nondenominational house of worship launched by Lead Pastor Jerry Roames, a familiar face in the area as the former executive pastor at Village View Community Church in Summerfield. 

“Last summer, I got a call to build a church to pastor the tri-county area,” said Roames, who previously launched a church in Sarasota. “Over the next couple of months, I started meeting people, praying, holding events at community centers.”

Roames said early reaction to Connection Point has been positive.

“Visitors are surprised at how warm and welcome Connection Point can be,” he said. “We have people greeting them in the parking lot as they arrive. We provide refreshments before and after services. We provide a contemporary service that’s open to all.”

Roames said more than half of Connection Point’s regular congregants are already part of a ministry, and Villagers play a key role in keeping the church active.

“I’m blown away at the contribution that Villagers are pushing forward,” he said. “To say they are stepping up is an understatement.”

Roames said Connection Point is more than just Villagers, citing a children’s ministry that already has 20 kids participating.

“Connection Point is a multi-generational church,” he said. “A lot of Villagers have told me how much they appreciate seeing the faces of smiling children and young families at our services.”

Connection Point meets at 10 a.m. Sundays at the school, 695 Rolling Acres Road, Lady Lake. For more information, contact Connection Point at 352-443-5800 or visit connectingme.church.

For Roames and others, starting a house of worship takes a great deal of time, energy and prayer.

Experts say planting a church requires several prerequisites.

“Someone who wishes to launch a ministry or church should first develop a strong relationship with God,” said Dr. Gary Linton of Ministrymaker Ministries, which provides training, mentorship and support to those looking to start or expand a church. “It’s important to spend time praying and worshipping without it being only motivated by ministry.”

Linton said he also encourages those willing to plant a church to have faith, as there could be times where few, if any, people come to attend a service. He said those who are effective church planters require a great amount of faith.

“Church planters must also be willing to change if needed,” Linton said. “If a certain church model does not work, the planter must learn from their mistakes, admit when they’re wrong and be willing to change. If not, the church could fail.”

Once prerequisites are met, church planters can focus on building the house of worship, from choosing a name and finding a place to meet to setting up an office and raising funds to launch the church.

“Finances are typically limited when planting a new church,” Linton said.

Malott said once a church is started, the next step is to keep people engaged.

“Planting a church seed requires, among other things, giving people a reason to come back every Sunday,” he said.

 Then congregants started telling their friends and neighbors about New Life, Malott said.

“This allowed us to grow even more and consider adding space to the church building,” he said.

Today, New Life Christian welcomes nearly 600 people to its pair of Sunday services, a far cry from the days when the church rented space from a Seventh-day Adventist facility.

The church’s location features a 500-seat auditorium, which may have been hard to believe at its first service in 2005.

For a church that started with nothing, Malott said he is truly blessed and hopes his advice will help churches just starting out.

Several members of a lesser-known Catholic faith are looking to establish a footprint in the community.

A majority of Catholics consider themselves Roman Catholic, but others are members of an Eastern Catholic church that’s in full communion with the Vatican but follows its own traditions.

One Eastern Rite church is known in the U.S. as the Byzantine Catholic Church.

In the chapel of St. Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Summerfield, more than 20 members of the Byzantine Catholic Community in the Area of The Villages and North Central Florida recently gathered to meet Bishop Kurt Burnette of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.

It was the latest liturgical gathering for the Byzantine Catholic Community, which held its first service at St. Mark the Evangelist in April.

“Most members of the Byzantine Catholic Community came from northern states where they regularly attended Byzantine Catholic liturgies,” said Dr. Barbara Lutz, spokesperson for the group. “Many of us are Villagers, and when we arrived here, we realized we were missing our faith and traditions. So we decided do something about it.”

There are eight Byzantine Catholic churches in Florida. The Byzantine Catholic Community is considered a mission of St. Anne Church in New Port Richey, according to the Eparchy of Passaic website.

“We are still learning what we need to do to be considered a ‘regular’ church,” Lutz said.

St. Anne’s pastor, Father Olexiy Nebesnyk, comes to Summerfield to lead liturgies and serve as administrator for now, she said.

Byzantine Catholic Community services take place at 1 p.m. on designated Saturdays at the chapel of St. Mark, located at 7081 SE County Road 42.

To learn more, contact Lutz at 570-640-5120. 

Starting a house of worship from the ground up does not require the church to be new.

Hope Lutheran Church will soon have a new location for services in the southern area of The Villages, moving its campus to Everglades Recreation Center beginning Feb. 2.

The church launched services at Rohan Recreation Center last May, but the Rev. Bruce Dillman, Hope Lutheran director of discipleship, said Rohan was not intended to be a long-term venue.

“We currently use two adjoined rooms at Rohan to hold services,” he said. “We had 160 people at Rohan for a Christmas Eve service last month. At Everglades, we will have a larger room where we can handle the growth.”

An average of 120-140 people attend the two weekly Rohan services, numbers that Hope Lutheran leaders believe can only grow at Everglades.

“With Everglades, we will now be in a recreation center that is golf-cart accessible for those residing in Fenney, McClure and other areas of the south Villages,” Dillman said. “We are hearing from people who are looking forward to having that access.”

For more information, contact Hope Lutheran at 350-750-2321 or visit hope2all.org.

Senior Writer James Dinan can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.