Community of faith shines during holidays

Co-pastor Nicole West worships with the congregation Nov. 20, 2022, at Encounter Church in Wildwood. Religion plays an important role in the lives of those who call Florida’s Friendliest Hometown home.

Turning onto East County Road 462 from the U.S. Highway 301 intersection, it quickly becomes apparent why this stretch of road is known locally as “Church Row.”

Over the next mile, four houses of worship can be found on the right side of the road. Village of Faith Baptist Church opened in its current location in 2010; New Life Christian Church moved to Church Row in 2008; Rock of Ages Lutheran Church opened its permanent worship home in 2019, after more than 13 years as an active congregation; and Grace Anglican Church, the “small church with the big heart,” meets in a converted 19th-century house.

Across the street, work is ongoing on the permanent home of Encounter Church, which meets under a tent on the property.

As you keep driving, another large white tent appears on the left side of the road. It is the meeting place of Freedom Fellowship of The Villages, a rapidly growing house of worship planning to build a permanent church building on the property where the tent is located.

Finally, a bit farther down the road is St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church. With an average winter attendance of 6,000 parishioners prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is one of the largest houses of worship in The Villages area in terms of congregants.

It takes 2 to 3 minutes to drive the length of Church Row, home to several churches within 1.6 miles. It also is a perfect example of the important role religion has in and around Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

There are more than 180 houses of worship within 25 miles of The Villages.

But there’s more than meets the eye.

The listing goes from “Anglican” to “Unity,” but the denominations can be broken down even more. Two Villages-area churches have “Anglican” in their name, but Grace Anglican in Wildwood is part of the United Episcopal Church of North America, while St. Alban’s Anglican in Lady Lake is a member of the Anglican Province of Christ the King.

Dozens of Lutheran denominations exist in North America, and at least four are represented in and around The Villages. Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic and Polish National Catholic congregations can be found. And it is easy for someone of the Jewish faith to find a Sabbath service that caters to Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

What makes several local houses of worship unique is how you get there. All area houses of worship are accessible by car, and others may be walking distance depending on where you live. But a select few are golf cart accessible, such as the temporary home of Church at the Springs’ Middleton campus at Ezell Recreation.

“As we plan to build a permanent campus in Middleton, we wanted to introduce our church to residents of The Villages, Middleton and surrounding areas,” said Pastor Jacob Sylvia of Church at the Springs. “We are blessed to find a home for the time being at Ezell Recreation.”

Monthly worship at Ezell Recreation began on Oct. 29, with plans to convert to weekly gatherings in 2024. Eventually, Church at the Springs will move to a permanent campus in Middleton, near The Villages High School. It will be the fourth permanent campus for the church, joining locations in Lady Lake and Ocala.

According to a 2021 Lifeway Research study of 34 Protestant denominations and groups, more than 4,500 churches in the U.S. shut down in 2019, while 3,000 opened their doors in the same period. Another study, from the Centers for Analytics, Research and Data, revealed that up to 7,700 U.S. congregations closed per year in the 2010s — an average of 150 congregations a week.

But the opposite is true in and around The Villages. Since 2019, more than a dozen churches or church satellite campuses have opened their doors within a 25-mile range of The Villages. They include Living Grace Church, which now meets off U.S. Highway 27/441 in Leesburg and is led by husband-and-wife pastors Pat and Steven Lawrence.

“The Lord spoke to my husband and I about starting a church in the area, and Living Grace opened its doors for services in August 2019,” Pat said. “Over the last three years, we have been steadily growing to include regular Sunday worship, children’s church for our youngest congregants, Bible study and other ministries.”

Living Grace also is a good example of how you don’t have to meet in a structure originally intended to house a church to be a congregation, having first gathered in a Summerfield business park before making a former bank and health care building home earlier this year. Several area houses of worship meet in unique places, from the large tents at Freedom Fellowship and Encounter Church to the Grand Oaks Resort in Weirsdale for Morning Star Cowboy Church. United Church in Wildwood and Church of the Lakes in Leesburg both worship inside schools. And some of the “anchor churches” in The Villages — Hope Lutheran Church, New Covenant United Methodist Church and Fairway Christian Church, to name a few — met inside recreation centers and community rooms before building their permanent sanctuaries.

Several houses of worship opened their doors in The Villages area in 2023. They include Connect Church, which meets in a business park in Summerfield; Beyond Christian Church, which gathers at a Lady Lake hotel; and Life Church Assembly of God’s Villages campus, which holds court at Sumter Senior Living.

But the oldest house of worship in area is in what is now the south Villages, and was founded before Sumter County even formed.

Adamsville Baptist Church was established in 1850. Pastor Ken Scrubbs joined the church family in 2019 after 20 years at First Baptist Church of Leesburg.

“In those early years, the only structures that were standing in what was called Adamsville was this church, a courthouse, a general store and the home of the town’s founder, John Adams.” Scrubbs said. “Today, the south Villages, Wildwood and Coleman are growing around us, but the church continues to stand and grow.”

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Fruitland Park held its first service in 1888, and its sanctuary was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Several other local houses of worship are at least 100 years old, including First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Lady Lake United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church of Wildwood. New Song Community Church has been around as a congregation for several years, but meets in the oldest church building in Lady Lake.

“The building first opened as Equity Baptist Church in 1893,” said Pastor Derick Dimry, of New Song Community. “Not only is it the oldest church building in Lady Lake, it also has its original operating bell.” The trend of new churches forming is likely to continue to keep up with the area’s projected population increases.

“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,” said Pastor Mark Ingmire, of Crossings Christian Church, which started 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