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East County Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010 10 years ago

Despite economy, church growth continues out east

by: Michael Eng and Pam Eubanks

MANATEE COUNTY — Two East County churches are welcoming 2010 with the excitement that comes with new homes.

Living Lord Lutheran Church on Dec. 12 received its certificate of occupancy for its new 3,500-square foot expansion and held its first service there the following day.

“It’s something the congregation has been wanting to get done for a number of years,” said member Jim Lustgarten, who led the project and coordinated activity with Tom Wessel Construction.

A few miles away, the congregation at RiverLife Church hopes to hold its first service in its new 12,000-square-foot facility by June.

At a total cost of about $2.5 million, the new home will be the largest change in history for RiverLife, which has been operating in Bradenton since 1914. The church sold its downtown Bradenton building two years ago and has been meeting at Bashaw Elementary School since February 2008. And now, with a new 15-acre campus, Pastor Jerry Jeter said he’s ready to fully embrace the East County community.

“The old facility was half the size of this one, and we’re excited to provide a place in which families can be ministered to,” he said.

Living Lord Lutheran Church
Construction crews broke ground to expand Living Lord Lutheran’s sanctuary on Aug. 12. Rather than building from scratch, church leaders opted to utilize the existing structure and add to it.

“We didn’t have any changes in the process,” Lustgarten said. “We had a pretty good definition of what we wanted.”

The design converts the old sanctuary into a fellowship area, which also can be used for overflow seating. It also will allow the church to host wedding receptions, funerals or other events and more meetings for local charities and organizations.

The new sanctuary is attached to it, expanding toward State Road 70. The three original stained-glass windows, which were reinserted into the new back sanctuary wall, now have more visibility from the roadway.

Pastor Jeff Gross said he and congregants are thrilled with the facility.

“We took a leap of faith knowing it’s a risky time to do a building project, but also knowing this particular plan would meet the needs the congregation (had),” he said. “The fact that we were not only able to complete this project but pay for it with cash was a testimony of God’s grace more than anything.”

Gross said the church will hold a dedication ceremony at noon, Jan. 31.

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RiverLife Church
Formerly known as Bradenton Church of God, RiverLife Church was founded in 1914 after a tent revival organized by evangelist J.W. Buckalew. The church’s first home was on 17th Street East, and it later relocated to a site on Seventh Avenue East near Downtown Bradenton.

Jeter took over as pastor in 2000 and two years later led the church to purchase 15 acres off Morgan Johnson Road near State Road 64.

“For the future of the church, we knew we needed a new place to expand,” Jeter said of the decision to move.

Construction on its new sanctuary began in October. The 11,250-square-foot building will feature a 350-seat auditorium, classrooms for children and youth and offices — all the necessities the church needs to serve its current congregation as well as attract new members, Jeter said.

He also noted the new building is situated on the land to allow for future expansion.

Because of its history, RiverLife has a core membership comprising senior adults but also hopes to attract families through a plethora of child-oriented programs.

After taking an active role in the expansion, Jeter is ready to refocus his attention on ministry once the building opens.

“I’ve had to play Realtor, architect, construction manager — so it’s all been a learning experience for me,” he said. “But I’m excited about just being a pastor again.”

RiverLife Church hosts services at 10:30 a.m., Sundays, at Bashaw Elementary, 3515 Morgan Johnson Road.

For more information, visit

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