It was a joyous day when Immanuel Lutheran Church held its first official service on Jan. 3, 1988. Balloons and a colorful carnival tent marked the location of the newly purchased building, a former real estate office in Palm City, Fla.
The celebration had been going on for days. They’d started with a New Year’s Eve party complete with clowns. It was followed by a barbecue pig roast at a nearby ranch the next day and then a boat ride on the St. Lucie River.
After all, Immanuel Lutheran wasn’t just another new congregation. It was the first mission start of the newly formed ELCA. And true to form as a congregation in mission, that first service contained an offering to help the ELCA start even more congregations.
Now nearly 25 years later, Immanuel Lutheran is getting ready to celebrate again.
The congregation has long outgrown the small converted office building in which it started out — a building the congregation affectionately remembers as the “Toy Church.”
And it’s getting ready to launch a congregation of its own called Living Waters — a name that comes from the area where the new building will be built.
The plans have been in the works for years. In 2009, at the height of the economic downturn in Florida, the congregation began raising money. Tom Hartley, the senior pastor, admits it was a risky time to undertake such a large fundraising endeavor but, he says, “The Lord came through.”
The congregation raised over $250,000 to build a new church. The land, purchased by the ELCA, is in the town of Tradition, about 12 miles north of Palm City.
“It’s a gorgeous piece of property overlooking a lake,” Tom says.
Aside from the scenic views, Tom is persuaded the location is ideal in other ways. The community is a vibrant, bustling area, but it’s lacking one thing.
“It’s a whole planned community that has no church. It has hospitals, schools, malls, everything you can imagine, but no church,” Tom says.
So now Immanuel is looking forward to a new chapter.
“We feel like God’s been calling us to get things rolling,” Tom says. “People are really excited about the potential that can happen.”