First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, once one of America’s most influential megachurches, determined Sept. 8 to downsize its downtown property footprint by 90 percent in a cost-cutting move the senior pastor described as necessary for the church’s long-term survival.
Under the leadership of pastors and co-pastors Homer Lindsay Sr., Homer Lindsay Jr. and Jerry Vines, First Baptist Church earned the nickname Miracle of Downtown Jacksonville after buying up real estate left behind when department stores and smaller retailers started relocating into suburban malls in the 1970s.
Today the church covers 10 city blocks with buildings including a sanctuary built to seat nearly 10,000 people that was dedicated in 1993.
Heath Lambert, named last year as sole senior pastor of First Baptist, said once a blessing, the congregation’s central location has become a curse as the city continues to expand farther away from its urban core.
“If you want to get people to come to First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, you have to get them to do two things they never do,” Lambert said during his Sunday morning sermon. “You have to get them to come to church, and you have to get them to come downtown.”
Lambert said that after 20 years of declining membership, the downtown church needs about one-tenth of its current space. Plans approved by the congregation on Sunday call for consolidating all operations into one city block.
“What we can’t do on one block, we won’t do,” the pastor said.
The plan includes borrowing $30 million to renovate Hobson Auditorium, the original 1,500-seat worship space built after a fire destroyed much of downtown Jacksonville in 1901, and to replace other buildings now used for offices with state-of-the-art construction.
Lambert said the church will eventually sell off downtown property and move toward a multi-site church model. The church currently has a south campus in Nocatee, which moved into its own building after meeting at Ponte Vedra High School for a decade in 2019.
“Instead of being the big church downtown that we ask everybody from all over to come to, we want to be a church for the whole city,” Lambert said. “Instead of asking our city to come to our church, we’re going to take our church to the city.”
First Baptist Church in Jacksonville played an important role in the last century with an annual pastors’ conference that once served as a launching pad for the election of a string of conservative presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention during a power shift in the nation’s largest Protestant body in the 1980s.
Jerry Vines, first co-pastor and later lone senior pastor of the church for a total of 23 years, was one of the so-called “conservative resurgence” SBC presidents, holding the office with key appointive powers in 1988 and 1989. In 2002 Vines sparked international controversy with comments attacking Islam and describing the prophet Muhammad as “a demon-possessed pedophile.”
With costs of deferred maintenance estimated at $5 million a year, Lambert said borrowing to move forward now is the least-expensive option for a church “sitting on a ticking time bomb of maintenance” and “losing money on property we cannot afford.”
“First Baptist Church is in cardiac arrest, and if we don’t jolt back to life with a loan, we’re not going to make it,” he predicted. “We can die and be irrelevant and have 500 people sitting in this room thrilled to be a part of the memory of the Miracle of Downtown Jacksonville.”
“We can die without a loan, or we can live with one,” Lambert said.
Lambert said moving into a smaller worship space will build community among church members, allow more than one worship service and create a safer environment.
“I am a father of young children,” Lambert told the congregation. “My daughter came up to me in the dining hall the other night and asked if she could walk to the middle school building by herself, and I nearly blacked out. If you are a parent, you know what I’m talking about. When you don’t know where your kids are on 10 blocks, it’s time to freak out.”
“We have security down here and we do the best that we can, but there’s no earthly reason to have our kids traipsing up and down downtown Jacksonville,” he said.
Lambert said church leaders are confident the downtown property is worth more than the $30 million the congregation is borrowing but won’t know how much more until the land actually goes on the market.
“The big news today is not a property selloff,” he said. “That is a decision that requires sober reflection. It requires time. It requires a lot of conversation.”
“We are not here to propose selling the property today, but you should expect a conversation about that in the future,” Lambert said.