MADEIRA BEACH — For 75 years Church by the Sea has been a beacon in the community – both literally and spiritually. In recognition of the church’s anniversary, the congregation will celebrate with a series of events throughout February.
Church by the Sea was the first Protestant church on the beaches when it was established in 1944. This was during World War II and money was tight back then, but after nine months of holding services in the old Fisherman’s Union Hall at John’s Pass, the modest congregation of 20 adults and 20 children purchased the sand dune on Gulf Boulevard where the church now stands at 495 137th Ave. Circle in Madeira Beach.
The founding pastor was the Rev. Ralph Philip, who oversaw the church’s groundbreaking in November 1944. Philip was a carpenter, coincidentally as was Jesus of Nazareth, and Philip built the original pulpit and altar fixtures, including the baptismal font that remains in use in the church today. Philip officiated at the first service held in the newly constructed building on Easter Sunday 1946.
Intentionally built to be seen from the water for miles around, Church by the Sea originally had a lighted steeple that served as a lighthouse for local fishermen. “Look for the house of God; that is how you get home” was the call of the fishermen back then, according to the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Jeff Iskra.
“The church kept the light on every night and the prayers going until the last fisherman came safely home,” Iskra said.
The steeple was replaced with a lighted cross in the 1970s.
“Seven months out of the year we have to turn it (the light) off for the (sea) turtles – which we do,” said Iskra.
Church offices and a thrift store were added in the 1990s when the church purchased the hotel adjacent to the sanctuary. A fellowship hall and a youth ministry hall were added during that time also.
The church holds two services every Sunday: a traditional service at 9:30 a.m. and a contemporary service at 11 a.m. The church’s ministries include recovery meetings (AA), feeding the homeless or those in need (Monday-Friday from noon to 2 p.m.), thrift store, Sunday school, Bible studies, youth groups, and senior groups.
Iskra became the senior minister of Church by the Sea in October 2017. He is a native Floridian from Fort Myers and began working on a church staff as a youth pastor while he was attending Florida State University.
About his calling Iskra said, “I got my feet wet and I loved it.”
Iskra received his master’s degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Later he received his doctorate from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts.
A resident of Seminole for the past 20 years, Iskra and his wife, Charlene, have been married 29 years. They have two children: a daughter, Spring, 16, and a son, Eli, 11.
Two additional pastors are on staff at Church by the Sea. Jonny Grubbs is the associate pastor handling youth ministry and social media since 2016. Chris Howard is the worship pastor overseeing the music for both the traditional (classical music) and contemporary (modern music) services since 2018.
One current member of the church was a founding member back in 1944. Barbara McIntyre Dahl who is 90 now was 14 years old when the congregation first began meeting in 1943.
A unique factor that has brought tourists to the church is its reputation as the “chicken church.” Although it was not intentional when the church was under construction, the tower has two windows shaped like eyes, dressing that resembles a beak, and a tile roof that gives it the look of a chicken’s head.
“It’s a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not thing,” Iskra said. “Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.”
The attention the church has received from this “chicken” anomaly is welcomed. In fact, the church has a “chicken church” characterization as a quasi-logo that they use on some of their marketing materials.
In addition to picture-taking tourists and fluctuating attendance due to snowbirds, the church has another attraction that brings people flocking to its doors: it is known for its friendly people and making guests feel welcome. The church seats 330 and has an average attendance of 290 each week.
Attendance is up 27 percent overall according to Iskra. The church was packed at both Christmas services this past December. Easter sunrise services are held outdoors at John’s Pass, keeping a link to its roots, and “last year’s Easter service had 600 people (in attendance),” said Iskra.
While some other churches are seeing a decline in membership and attendance, Church by the Sea is growing. The church has done revitalization to the church campus and hired additional staff. They have done tree trimming and landscaping, and are now getting ready to paint.
Church by the Sea has much to celebrate during its 75th anniversary.
“We are here to serve; that’s what we are called to do,” Iskra said.