Open Bible The Villages, Florida

Not your typical WELS church

Open Bible, The Villages, Fla., isn’t your typical WELS church.

Sure, it has Sunday worship and Bible classes. Sure, members get together for fellowship. Sure, the congregation is working to reach out into its community. However, it’s missing some other “essential” pieces—Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other children’s programs.

This may alarm you until you realize the reason: Open Bible is serving a 55-plus retirement community.

“Up north, how do you oftentimes get people to come to church? Through their kids,” says Don Meier, pastor at Open Bible. “We can’t do that here.”

So congregation members, whose average age is 70 years old (or young, depending on how you look at it), are finding different ways to reach out to and serve this aging, yet active, community.

The community and its people

The Villages is one of the fastest growing communities in Florida. Started in the early 1980s, The Villages had just over 8,000 residents in 1996. Today it has 43,000. By 2010, it is expected to have more than 100,000 people.

Who wouldn’t want to live there? Described as “Florida’s friendliest hometown,” The Villages isn’t just a place to live—it’s a way of life. Located about one hour north of Orlando, this senior community offers residents more activities than you can count. “It’s like being on vacation 24/7,” says one resident.

It’s also filled with unchurched people who need to hear about their Savior. “We always say they’re a lot closer to their Maker than children are,” says member Ruth Niermeyer.

The community is also full of people who may be “vacationing” from church. “So many retired people leave their home and their church up north. They come down here and forget about God,” says Meier.

Yet many seem receptive to the Word. Churches of all denominations have sprung up over the past 10 years and have flourished.

“This is the time in people’s lives that church starts to become more important to them,” says Herb Schaefer, congregation president.

Getting started

Church was important to the founding members of Open Bible. It all started when Russ and Ruth Niermeyer, Evangelical Lutheran Synod members, put an ad in the paper looking for WELS and ELS members living in or near The Villages. Five families gathered, and they asked Meier, who lives 25 miles away, to serve them. They called themselves “The Village Bible Lutherans” to emphasize their confessional teachings.