If you placed a pin dead-center in a map of Florida, you would be approximating the location of the city of Winter Haven. There is much to do in the area. Conveniently located between Tampa and Orlando and only twenty-nine miles from Disney World, Winter Haven’s central location has allowed it to become the home of Legoland Florida in 2011, which annually brings fifteen million visitors to the town of forty-five thousand residents. Other prominent features of Winter Haven are the lakes which dominate the landscape. Twenty percent of the city is covered by its fifty lakes. Because of this unique geography, Winter Haven has historically been a center for the sport of water-skiing.
Immanuel Lutheran Church is technically not located within the city limits of Winter Haven, despite its mailing address, but is situated in an unincorporated community at the edge of town known as Inwood. The area is packed with Christian churches—fourteen different active congregations are located within a mile of Immanuel. Lutheranism is foreign to most of the people of the community; only one percent of the population of Winter Haven identifies as Lutheran.
The history of Immanuel begins with Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, the local congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. This group formed as a preaching station in 1948 and called its first full-time pastor in 1950. In 1952, three families within the congregation grew concerned over the unionistic practices of their pastor, withdrew their membership, and began meeting as a new congregation in affiliation with the Orthodox Lutheran Conference. Eventually, Pastor G.W. Fischer of Immanuel Lutheran in Mankato, Minnesota, took medical leave from the active ministry and moved down to Florida, where he began conducting services for this small group. The congregation found its footing with the gracious financial assistance and spiritual encouragement of the Mankato congregation and officially organized as Immanuel Lutheran Church in 1957. The first full-time pastor of the congregation was Pastor Richard Kuehne, who had been serving in Mankato as the 7th and 8th grade teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School. The Winter Haven group joined the CLC at the synod’s inception.
Christian education has played a vital role in the history of our congregation and remains our most important outreach. The school was begun in 1958 as a half-day kindergarten with nineteen students attending, and God has blessed our congregation with the ability to continue housing a Christian day school for each of the past sixty-two years. We currently have twenty-three students in first through eighth grade, who are taught by Megan Goodwin and Neil Bernthal. Most of these children are non-member students from the community, and this highlights why our school has been such an important part of our congregation’s mission work.
Several families have joined the congregation over the years after first enrolling their children in our school. One former student had been attending a local Episcopalian church with his parents, but after earning his driver’s license he started driving himself to services here, eventually becoming a member. Even when the church membership doesn’t increase as a direct result of the school, the Holy Spirit is still working through the Word of God which is daily fed to the students, some of whom might not receive it otherwise. Several years ago, the mother of a second grader told me that her son had demanded they start praying before meals. When his dad told him that he did not believe there was a God, his son replied, “God died on the cross for you, and you don’t believe in Him?” We thank the Lord for allowing us to continue this important work.
As part of the outreach for the school, we’ve taken on a few different ventures in the community. For a few years we’ve hosted a bi-annual wiffleball tournament on select Saturdays. As young teams of friends from the community descend upon our property, we hand out school information to all the parents in attendance. In the past three Decembers we have also taken part in the local Christmas parade. Our float—complete with traditional Christmas hymns, a stable and manger, and even a live goat—appears among the various festive floats and bands and dancers in the parade. Various students and church members walk alongside our float and hand out thousands of church/school fliers to the parade viewers.
One challenge that faces Immanuel is its widely spread-out membership. Fifty of the 104 congregants drive for over an hour one way to attend worship services; some regularly drive more than two hours. Twice per month an early Sunday morning worship service is conducted on the north side of Orlando to help reach various distant members. This has also been a convenient service to attend for any CLC members vacationing at Disney World or visiting Florida’s beaches. But even this service is still very distant for many. Our membership populates nearly every region of the state, with members living in coastal towns like St. Augustine to the north, Ft. Lauderdale to the south, Cape Coral to the southwest, and Titusville to the east. Though this presents some challenges, our spread-out membership is a testament to the conviction that faithfulness to God’s Word is not to be sacrificed.
You might know Florida as “The Sunshine State,” but it’s also one of the rainiest states in the nation. During a recent two-week period, Winter Haven received over four inches of rain. While this causes the grass to grow at an alarming rate, it also serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11) We thank the Lord for causing His Word to nourish and sustain our congregation and our school. We continue to look for every opportunity to preach Christ crucified, trusting that the Lord will give the growth.
Samuel Rodebaugh is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Winter Haven, Florida.