MANATEE COUNTY — One glance inside Bayside Community Church’s new home on State Road 64 reveals one of the East County’s most spectacular buildings.
At 54,000 square feet on 40 acres, Bayside is easily one of the East County’s largest churches. Its 1,000-square-foot auditorium is large enough to host a private school graduation. Moreover, Bayside has the unique distinction of being the area’s only church with a dedicated children’s auditorium that comes complete with two huge slides as exit points.
But, as any Bayside member will tell you, the real church has nothing to do with the building itself. Rather, it’s its sense of community and family that has allowed the 7-year-old church to prosper.
“We know life changes happen in relationships,” said Creative Coordinator Kristin Becnel. “We’re trying to enhance that. When people come, we want them to feel at home. We want them to feel welcome.”
Bayside’s congregation — which had grown to more than 3,000 regular attendees without the building — held its first services in the new home last weekend. And this weekend, it will host four services to celebrate Easter.
Bayside’s new home — a $13.5 million structure of which about half is dedicated solely to children — is a perfect reflection of its original mission.
It was 2002 when Lead Pastor Randy Bezet was surveying several possible locations at which to plant a new church. He dove out to the East County and arrived at State Road 70 and River Club Boulevard just as Braden River Elementary and Braden River Middle students were leaving school.
“I saw parents in cars, parents in golf carts — families everywhere,” Bezet said. “In that moment, I heard God speak to me in the way He does. It was an impression from God: These families in this community don’t know me. I want you to come here and build strong families.”
That September, Bezet founded Bayside and began meeting at Bashaw Elementary School. His first full-time hire was for a youth pastor.
A year later, the church moved to Freedom Elementary, where it stayed for the next six-and-one-half years.
“The first time my dad came to visit, he pulled into the school and sat down,” Bezet said. “A man got up and started preaching, and he said, ‘That’s not my son.’”
Bezet’s father had gone to Haile Middle, where another church had been meeting. Freedom can’t be seen from State Road 64, and he had mistaken the other church for Bayside.
However, even though the location wasn’t ideal, Bayside enjoyed steady growth. Its congregation is one of the largest in the East County, and Bayside held five services each weekend to accommodate it.
“How did this happen?” Bezet said of the growth, laughing. “It seemed people really wanted to come to Bayside.
“We overwhelmingly hear people say about Bayside, ‘I felt this is my family. It felt like coming home,’” he said.
The church launched its building campaign, called Living the Dream, in October 2006.
In addition to its main auditorium, children’s auditorium and a third for teenagers, Bayside also features a variety of themed classrooms, a play area complete with rock-climbing walls, a spaceship and two treehouses. And although the amenities sound more like a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant than a church, Becnel said it all is inspired by Bayside’s commitment to children and family.
“We were dedicated to creating an environment that teaches children how fun it is to serve Jesus,” she said.
The building also includes a café with a Smoothie King shop, a classroom dedicated to children with special needs and a room for nursing mothers.
In addition to church functions, the building is available for community use, Bezet said. Already, a high school graduation is planned for the spring.
With many of the church’s amenities created by Bayside members, the church’s design was the easy part. More difficult, Bezet said, was securing funding.
“This was a super-spiritual journey,” he said. “When it looked like the project might not get funding, we took it to God and said, ‘This is your church. If you want this thing to happen, you have to make it happen.’”
A month later, Bayside secured bank funding.
“We were the last project our lending institution approved,” Bezet said. “It was quite the experience.”
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].
Bayside Community Church
Address: 15800 S.R. 64 E., Bradenton
Regular services: 5 p.m., Saturdays; 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., Sundays
Bayside Community Church will celebrate Easter with services at 5 p.m., April 3, and 9 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. April 4.