Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church began in 1885 as a body of Lutheran Christians meeting in homes in Gotha, FL. Then, in 1891, Zion was formally organized by Rev. Carl Brommer. By 1894, the congregation (served by Ed Fischer) had grown to 80 members and started a small school. Unfortunately, the Great Freeze of 1896 destroyed many of the groves throughout Central Florida and thousands had to leave to find work and survival. As the citrus industry recovered, so did the growth of Zion. With the onset of World War I, "Lutheran" became a synonym for "German." German-language services were discontinued and the school was closed. Rev. George Trapp and the congregation were targeted for hate crimes and vandalism, but the mission still remained.
The Early Days
In the 1920s, the railroad brought developers and investors and business expansion. However, the post-war boom bypassed the Gotha community. The congregation decided to relocate to Pine Hills and by 1958, a new sanctuary and education buildings were completed. In 1961 Zion started a kindergarten which soon had an enrollment of sixty. In 1971 the kindergarten was discontinued, but over the next 14 years, the congregation grew to an all-time high of 450 members. A bigger church had to be built and the school was reopened, but the added financial obligations overtaxed the congregation's resources and membership started to decline.
New programs were developed for the rapidly changing, culturally diverse community, but despite efforts, it was decided in the early 1990s to close the school. In 1995, the congregation joined a Churches in Transition program. In 2000, the congregation, lead by Reverend Paul M. Foust, sold its property in Pine Hills and bought 18 acres in the rapidly growing West Orange area. The congregation moved back to the old church in Gotha. Then for the next 8 years, the congregation worked to start again in Winter Garden. In November 2008 with just 42 members, the church opened the doors of their new child development center on 16161 Marsh Road Winter Garden. With the new mission, the church adopted the name Zion New Life to signify the new life in Christ that is gained when we Share His Incredible News Everywhere (S.H.I.N.E.). In the Fall of 2013, Reverend Paul M. Foust retired and Reverend Robert Weikart served as the interim pastor. Zion decided to Call a first-year pastor from the Seminary.
On April 30th, 2014, they Called Pastoral Candidate, Roberto Rojas, Jr. from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. On July 27th, 2014, he was Ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry and is currently the pastor of Zion New Life Lutheran Church. In the summer of 2014, Zion received a donation of 100 Lutheran Service Book Hymnals. Rev. Roberto E. Rojas, Jr., brought Zion back to their historical roots of the Christian Church, the Lutheran Reformation, and Zion's beginnings. With God's help, he reintroduced the Historic One-Year Lectionary, the Christian Lutheran Liturgy, and the Historic and Biblical Practice of Closed Communion. During Thanksgiving of 2014, Zion received a donation to complete the building of two new classrooms for the preschool. In August of 2015, the classrooms were blessed and the doors were open just in time for the 2015-2016 school year.
In the Winter of 2015, a member of Zion donated a brand new Communion Set to Zion in memory of a loved one. In the spring of 2016, a member of the congregation decided to donate his time, talents, and energy into designing, constructing, and giving an Altar Rail to Zion. He created it in his own home and gave it as a gift to the church. Other members of Zion came together and donated their time and talents into creating a cushion and upholstering it to the Altar Rail. Pastor Rojas helped in the process and created the crucifixes at the end of the Altar Rails and a Crucifix for the Pulpit.
In the spring of 2016, Zion received Liturgical Furnishings from Esperanza Viva Lutheran Church in Orlando, FL. Pastor Rojas and some members of Zion transported the furnishings from the storage unit to Zion's Chancel area. Zion was blessed to receive a newer, larger Altar, a larger Pulpit, Lectern, Flower Stands, and an 8 foot Cross. In the fall of 2016, Zion received a donation from some members of Zion and the Zion Quilters. They donated a new Altar Linen and a new set of Paraments (Liturgical Cloths) for the Chancel Area.
In January of 2017, Zion raised funds to purchase a new set of speakers, microphones, a CD-Duplicator, and Hauptwerk, a Virtual Organ System. In April of 2017, Zion voted to change their old logo and adopt a new one, one that reflects the nature and values of Zion in one succinct image. Also, Zion voted to adopt a new slogan for the Church: "God's Truth For You."
In January of 2018, Zion received a generous donation of a used Organ to be used at Zion. In February, Zion also began recording the sermons and uploading them online for all to hear. In May 2018, Zion Lutheran Church & School hired a new Director for the preschool, Mrs. Liza Richard. During the summer months, Zion worked tirelessly on growing staff, hiring teachers, and improving the quality of its preschool. Over the next two years, Zion's school saw improvements in organization. The church resolved to turn Zion into a genuinely Lutheran school; however, the school was unable to fill the classrooms with Lutheran teachers to teach Lutheran doctrine. The church concentrated on making this reality.
However, in March of 2020, the breakout of Covid-19 lead governments to impose a two-week mandate to prohibit all gatherings of more than 10 people. While the church continued to meet during these two weeks in small church services, the school had to completely close its doors. With the fear of infection and disease, the school chose to remain closed for the remainder of the 2020 school year. The congregation kept meeting through the next few months, and then opened up and held services as normal beginning May 2020. With the school closed, this caused financial hardship on Zion. In the summer of 2020, Rev. Roberto E. Rojas, Jr. completed his Masters of Sacred Theology (STM) from the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN, and was awarded an STM on August 5, 2020. While the church continued to meet through the summer, Zion's leadership chose to reopen the school again in August 2020. However, many families chose to keep their children at home, and enrollment numbers were down. Zion continued to pay staff, even while there was little to no income. The congregation chose to meet together to come up with solutions to the inevitable financial crisis. The church came up with four viable options. All options were presented and discussed by the congregation from September to November 2020. After all viewpoints were made and spoken to, the congregation met together on Sunday, November 8, 2020. They took a silent vote on paper ballots, and 90% of the congregation chose to support option A, to divide Zion's property, sell the facility, and build a sanctuary on the remaining acreage. In that same meeting, the congregation created a committee to sell the facility. Later the congregation also created a building committee to oversee the construction of the new sanctuary.
In the early months of 2021, the committee found a buyer for the existing facility. In September 2021, Zion closed on the sale, paid off their inherited debt, and was debt-free for the first time since 2008. The building committee collected ideas and input from the congregation. The building committee worked with McCree General Contractors and Architects, and designed a traditional sanctuary at the request of the congregation. On Sunday, January 9, 2022, Zion held a groundbreaking service on the site of the future sanctuary.
On Friday, February 17, 2023, Zion held a Sanctuary Dedication Service. Rev. Rod Zwonitzer was the preacher; Rev. Roberto Rojas, the Liturgist; Rev. Larry Beane, the Crucifer, and Lector; Rev. Dr. Paul Grime, the Organist.