A 181-year-old church in downtown Jacksonville, Florida, has decided to dramatically downsize due to its maintenance costs and steadily declining attendance. But despite having to face a sobering reality, the move could be what First Baptist Church needs to start growing again and continue its ministry in the community.
“This great and wonderful church is in a desperate season,” said Pastor Heath Lambert, as reported by The Florida Times-Union. “Right now, today, we are losing money on property that we can’t afford.”
First Baptist Brings Change to Downtown Jacksonville
This past Sunday morning, Lambert announced that First Baptist is going to sell nine of the 10 blocks it owns and modify its strategy for reaching the city.
Lambert compared the present situation to two others in the church’s history, saying that right now, “is a time when our future is at stake, when our ability to do the work that God has given us to do is in jeopardy. It’s a desperate time in the life of our congregation.”
News4Jax reports that when First Baptist was at its prime in the 1980s and 90s, its membership peaked at 12,000 people. But to maintain its present costs would require an average attendance of 23,000. That is something, said Lambert, the church has never had. Currently, about 3,000 people attend every Sunday. The Times-Union reports that for the past 20 years, attendance has steadily dropped off, and according to Lambert, “For the last 10 years, we have been in an acute pattern of decline.” First Baptist currently spends $5 million per year maintaining its facilities, which is 37 percent of its budget and is not even enough to cover all of the church’s costs.
So First Baptist is downsizing from 1.5 million square feet of space downtown to 182,000 square feet, says First Coast News. The church plans to keep the Hobson building, which is its oldest building and which will serve as First Baptist’s main center of worship after extensive renovations are completed over the next two years or so. The $30 million the church is borrowing for those renovations will be paid off by the money earned from selling the property, valued at $44 million.
The Times-Union says that church trustees and deacons approved the decision before Lambert announced it, and the church’s members overwhelmingly voted in favor the plan, with only a few detractors. Church attendee Melanie Dietermann said the decision was the right one, noting that First Baptist recently had to cancel some mission trips because of its financial struggles. She said, “We can’t keep spending so much money on upkeep that we can’t afford mission trips to bring Jesus to people.”
While this decision has been a difficult one because of the church’s history, Lambert told News4Jax that the members of the church have recognized, “our dreams for the future are more important than their memories.” One of his hopes is that the decision will bring new vitality to the city. Lambert told First Coast News, “Part of the goal of this is to be a better neighbor in downtown Jacksonville.” Daniel Davis of the Chamber of Commerce sees potential for the property the church is selling. He told News4Jax, “We’ve seen a lot of interest all across downtown and I think this is something — that there is a lot of opportunity.”
The decision to sell could be an opportunity for First Baptist as well. The church recently launched a satellite campus in Nocatee, reports Baptists Press, and Lambert said the new campus has seen “exciting growth in the few months since opening.” He believes that the Nocatee Campus shows what the future of the church could look like: “Instead of asking Jacksonville to come to one, large campus of First Baptist in downtown Jacksonville, we will take our church to them in smaller facilities throughout the region.”
In a post on the church’s Facebook page, Lambert emphasized, “One thing I want you to hear me say loud and clear is that First Baptist has always been committed to downtown Jacksonville and we will remain committed to downtown Jacksonville. We just won’t be committed to only downtown Jacksonville. We want to be a church for the whole city.”