Where the faithful find their flocks

Jerry and Diane Lamp, of the Village of Hillsborough, participate in the daily mass on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

In Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, 1,279 parcels of land are registered with the county property appraiser's offices either as a church or under a "religious exemption."

Many are the physical houses of worship themselves. Others could be a faith-based school or business. A few don't look like much at initial glance – a parking lot, a plot of untouched land. But they all have that exemption, making these parcels part of the faith-based community.

Putting it in perspective, based on 2020 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, there is one faith-based parcel for every 793 people in Lake County, 519 in Sumter County and 689 in Marion County.

And, more than a dozen churches or new campuses have popped up within a 25-mile radius of The Villages since 2019.

But does all that make The Villages the "churchiest" place in Florida?

Tracking Churches' Numbers

It is not easy to create a master list of all the active houses of worship in the United States, as there is no hands-on directory to find such information. Certain denominational groups like Catholic dioceses or Lutheran synods maintain active listings of churches, but houses of worship that are nondenominational or independent generally do not have organized directories.

Organizations like the Hartford Institute for Religious Research and the National Congregations Study use surveys and other research to create statistical estimates to determine the number of houses of worship in the United States.

"Congregations are the basic social unit of American religious life," said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University, who serves as director of the National Congregations Study. "Nearly all collective religious activity occurs through them. They are the main context in which religious identities are forged and reinforced through education and practice."

In 2019, the National Congregations Study estimated that 380,000 churches existed in the U.S. But that estimate was released prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when houses of worship nationwide struggled to move forward, following a halt of in-person services and events that, depending on the sanctuary, lasted well over a year.

A 2021 Lifeway Research study of 34 Protestant denominations and groups revealed that while 3,000 Protestant congregations were launched in 2019, another 4,500 Protestant churches shut their doors for good that same year.

"By comparison, back in 2014, an estimated 4,000 Protestant churches were planted while 3,700 closed," said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.

Congregations can meet anywhere, not just in a building that has been given a religious exemption.

Some congregations meet in private homes, schools, community centers, libraries and other businesses to worship. Some are welcomed to host services at other houses of worship. A few may choose, for whatever reason, not to register with the county at all.

And there are some, like Living Room Church, that meet exclusively online. Living Room Church was launched by the Rev. Michael Beck, of Wildwood United Methodist Church. Beck is a champion of the Fresh Expressions movement, which takes the church to people who are unable or unwilling to step foot in an actual church building.

"Facebook has over a billion users worldwide,” he said. "There are people at different levels of their spiritual development who for some reason don't feel comfortable walking into a sanctuary. They feel much more comfortable working and interacting online. There is a virtual audience looking for a church that understands this, and we believe Living Room Church is that solution."

Seeking Out Sanctuaries

So, how does one determine the "churchiest" place in Florida?

One way is to reach out to all 67 Florida county property appraiser offices in the state and request a list of parcels registered as a church or house of worship, or with a religious exemption. Some are easy to find on a website. Others require assistance from the county appraiser's office and others. Miami-Dade County, for instance, involved working with the Florida Department of Revenue to obtain a parcel list.

The next step is to obtain population records from the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, a research arm of the Florida Legislature concerned with forecasting economic and social trends affecting research and policy making. The office's website lists profiles for all 67 Florida counties on its website. The profiles include 2020 population numbers from the U.S. Census.

Population was divided by number of parcels to come up with the number of people per parcel in each county. The fewer people per parcel, the higher the concentration of religious entities serving the county.

The results may surprise some.

Big Cities vs. Rural Counties

Miami-Dade County has the largest population of all Florida counties, with more than 2.7 million people in 2020, but it also has the highest people-per-religious parcel rate in the state, at more than 4,500. That number is more than double second-place Collier County, which stands at just over 2,200 people per parcel.

A number of Florida's most-populous counties average more than 1,000 people per religious parcel, including Broward, Hernando, Lee, Manatee, Orange and Pinellas counties. But Polk County, which has the ninth-largest population in the state, has more than 1,700 parcels listed under a religious exemption, giving it a people-per-parcel rate of about 418.

The county with the lowest people-per-parcel rate may be surprising as well. Calhoun County, in the Florida Panhandle, is the sixth-smallest county in terms of population, with more than 13,000 people calling it home. But the county also serves as home to 137 religious parcels, meaning there is one parcel for every 99.62 people.

Other Florida counties that have a people-per-parcel ratio of between 100 and 200 fit that small-population model – Franklin, Gulf, Jefferson and Lafayette counties are among the 10 smallest Florida counties in terms of population.

Many of these counties are rural in scope, and their small towns have church buildings located in the center of the communities. Generations ago, the small-town church also was considered a community center where people from all over would come together for fellowship and to catch up with friends and colleagues.

Oldest Churches' Town Roots

Several of the oldest churches in The Villages area were formed with a "town center" feel in mind, such as Adamsville Baptist Church in Wildwood, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fruitland Park and Lady Lake United Methodist Church.

"Our church is older than Sumter County, older than Wildwood, and far older than The Villages," Pastor Ken Scrubbs, of Adamsville Baptist, said with a laugh. "The founder of what was then Adamsville, John Adams, donated an acre of land to build a church and cemetery, as he saw a need for a church in the center of the community."

"When people visit our church, it reminds them of the small-town houses of worship they experienced growing up," said Deb Yee, of the Village of Dunedin, a member of Holy Trinity Episcopal. "It's a church where everyone knows one another, like the small towns of their childhood."

Those rural churches still exist, though technology is such that even these houses of worship have websites and offer the opportunity to watch services online. In an age where megachurches seem to get all the attention, small churches remain an important cog of rural life.

"In small towns, these churches form the fabric of the community, offering places of connection and hope in environments that are stressed by economic decline and narratives of despair," said Alex Joyner, former superintendent of the Eastern Shore District of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. "In the end, vibrant ministry in small towns comes down to trusting that God will provide and living out of that trust."

Growth Magnifies Churches' Impact

At just over 519 people per religious parcel, Sumter County is in the middle of the Florida county list. But with the amount of growth seen in The Villages and surrounding communities, an argument could be made that Florida's Friendliest Hometown is the "churchiest" place in the state.

New churches and campuses in and around The Villages since 2019 include Seven Rivers Villages, which meets at Wildwood Community Center and is a campus of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto.

"Our church is one of retirees, young professionals, families, everyone,” said Pastor Stephen Speaks, of Seven Rivers Villages. "We are a multigenerational church and proud of it. And as this region grows with more retirees, more families, more professionals, we want to be there for them.”

Connection Point Church is another one of the area's newest churches, having formed in 2019. After some time meeting at Villages Elementary of Lady Lake, the congregation now uses a building on the campus of New Life Presbyterian in Fruitland Park. And in its short existence, the church has grown quickly.

"We got off to a great start, launching with around 100 people,” said Pastor Jerry Roames, of Connection Point Church. "Since we resumed indoor worship, we've seen about 75% of our pre-pandemic congregation return. But we're also seeing up to 300 people watching Sunday worship online from the comfort of their homes.”

Encounter Church began with a series of revivals that its lead pastor, Derrick West, led at Grace Tabernacle in Wildwood in 2019. Today, the church holds weekly Sunday services in Coleman and frequently hosts outreach events in Wildwood and Oxford.

"We're already bursting at the seams in Coleman, so we are looking at a permanent home in Sumter County down the line," West said. "We went from just hoping people would show up for our first revival meeting at Grace Tabernacle to hundreds attending worship in Coleman and over 600 people gathering for our first Christmas Encounter event in Wildwood last year. It's nothing short of incredible."

Villages Churches Grow New Ones

In another display of the strength of faith here, churches in and around The Villages also are known to spin off new houses of worship.

New Covenant United Methodist Church, one of the largest churches in the area, was established by several Villages residents attending Community United Methodist Church in Fruitland Park at the request of state-level UMC leaders. A satellite campus of New Covenant became Lake Deaton United Methodist Church in 2020.

Parishioners from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fruitland Park also have planted a couple of new churches. A mission church in The Villages, started in 1994, became St. George Episcopal Church. And Corpus Christi Episcopal in Okahumpka also has roots with Holy Trinity Episcopal.

Other local churches that were planted by nearby churches include St. Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Summerfield, Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Oxford, Sunset Harbor Baptist in Summerfield, First Baptist Church at The Villages, Village of Faith Baptist in Wildwood and AIM to Change, a "micro-church" initiative based in the south Villages.

Faith Shines in Villages

Regardless of how the numbers are measured, The Villages is a community where residents easily can find and re-discover their faith. With so many options to worship and participate in outreach and ministry, there is something for just about everyone.

"I would attribute much of our growth to a vision that is spot-on for people of this age and stage in life,” said Chris Holck, senior pastor at Live Oaks Community Church. "We started our church from scratch so we could decide what our core values and ministry priorities would be. We created a new church that was defined by statements like, 'If you're not dead, you're not done' and 'Play hard! Pray hard! Finish well!' Those statements resonate with people who want more out of life, who want to make a difference and leave a legacy.”

"With The Villages continuing to grow, it wouldn't surprise me to see more houses of worship looking to plant or expand in this area," added Pastor Mark Ingmire, of Village Christian Church, which starting holding worship in 2020. "This community is rich in people who are interested in their faith and serving the community."

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