During the WWII era, the northern end of Miami Beach was the location of an Army base, used in training new recruits. Toward the end of the war, that base was dismantled, the land sold, and homes began to be built.
In early 1944, Dr. Wylie Scott, pastor of the prominent Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road, noticed the number of homes being built and the new families moving in. He organized a church school that met in the town hall of the growing community of Surfside. Each week, more neighborhood families attended church school classes, and it soon became obvious that a whole new church was needed. A nucleus of those who attended met with leaders of the Congregational Christian Church (a forerunner denomination to the United Church of Christ) and decided to organize, call a pastor and establish a new church in the Bal Harbour-Surfside area.
After a search committee was formed, met, and considered candidates, the Reverend John Lawrence Yenches of Hamilton, Massachusetts, was called as the organizing pastor.
Under the leadership of Rev. Yenches, the first worship service was held on February 19, 1945, in the Surfside Town Hall, which at that time, was directly above the jail. The story is told that often the prisoners below could be heard singing the hymns along with the congregation above.
By the end of the first year of the Church’s life, there were 78 members, and many children. Activities and groups began, such as Scouts, and a couples’ club. In 1947, land was purchased in the brand new village of Bal Harbour, and a first unit was constructed.The congregation held its first worship service in this building on February 29, 1948. That structure still exists today and is a part of the church containing the Sitting Room and Staley Hall.
With more and more families moving into the community, the Church continued to grow, and soon, there was a need for a larger building. In 1951, a new main sanctuary was begun, looking much as it does today, and able to accommodate up to 400 worshipers. The new building also included Ford Chapel, which seats about 60 and contains beautiful stained glass windows.
Unlike today, in the early fifties one could stand literally on the beach, and look across vacant land to see the Church. This was truly a Church by the Sea.
With more growth in community and in the Church, the need for more space continued, and so in 1960, a third unit was begun to house the Church offices, classrooms, a fellowship hall and music room. The rear section of the original building was made into a kitchen to service the fellowship hall area.
As the Church neared its fortieth anniversary in 1985, the sanctuary appeared largely as it had since its construction in 1951. To celebrate the anniversary, the sanctuary was renovated, a stained-glass window installed, and a 40-rank pipe organ built to enhance the worship services and music ministry. A few years later, Ford Chapel was refurbished, and remains an intimate worship space for baptisms, weddings and memorial services. It is also open daily for prayer and meditation.
In recent years, the Church has added a Memorial Garden, immediately to the east of the sanctuary. Surrounded by attractive garden plants, it has become a final resting-place for the ashes of many loved ones.
Since its beginning in 1945, the Church has known only three senior pastors and one interim. The first pastor, Dr. John Yenches served for thirty-five years, until he retired and was named Pastor Emeritus in 1980. After his tenure, Dr. Harleigh Rosenberger served as interim for three years during the search for the second pastor. In 1983, Dr. David Rees was called as senior pastor after having served churches in Berkeley, California; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Dr. Rees retired on April 13, 2008.
Over the years, the Church has also been served by Rev. A. Bertram Miller, Rev. William N. Koch and Rev. Priscilla Felisky Whitehead.
Rev. Robert W. Asinger joined as senior minister in January 2010, followed in March 2011 by Rev. Barbara A. Asinger, as associate minister (see their biographies on our home and church staff pages).
The Church by the Sea welcomes visitors and guests, and on a regular basis invites persons to join the congregation. We do not claim to be perfect, or even better, only to be striving to live more as God would have us live, and to celebrate and share the gifts and diversity that God has placed among us. We follow the Bible as our guide, and cherish our history and tradition, but constantly keep our eyes open for new ways to serve and be the people God calls us to be. We welcome the idea that one day you could be part of our history as well.