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Church with unusual start becomes a city landmark


BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (BP)–A church envisioned by three California pastors during a shared 1984 vacation is becoming both a physical and spiritual landmark as it prepares to occupy a new worship facility this year.
Valley Baptist Church of Bakersfield, Calif., will be 14 years old the first Sunday in December when the congregation occupies a building that provides a 2,200-seat auditorium, music ministry offices, choir and orchestra rehearsal room and Sunday school classrooms. The church architecture department of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, based in Nashville, Tenn., designed the building of approximately 53,000 square feet.
The worship space design, an updated version of a plan used in much older churches, is rectangular with a U-shaped balcony, providing what Davis Byrd, director of LifeWay’s architectural service, describes as “a great preaching space that is wonderfully intimate.”
Planning a building that offers good eye contact between the preacher and the congregation was among the least of concerns, however, when three California pastors and their families vacationed together at Lake Tahoe 15 years ago.
Phil Neighbors was pastor of First Baptist Church, Tehachapi, Calif.; Roger Spradlin, was pastor at First Baptist Church, Oildale; and Mike Miller was pastor at Hillcrest Baptist Church, Bakersfield, the year of that memorable vacation. The three pastors spent most of their time talking about the need for a strong Hispanic ministry in Bakersfield. Though Hillcrest was in a neighborhood with many Spanish-speaking residents, the church had no organized ministry in that language. Paired with that dream was the vision of an Anglo congregation that would be a regional church.
Within the next year the Hillcrest and Oildale churches disbanded and 365 members from both of the former churches joined forces as Valley Baptist Church, occupying the First Baptist, Oildale, building.
Neighbors resigned his pastorate, joining Miller and Spradlin in an unusual co-pastoral team at Valley. Each assumed responsibility for his area of greatest strength: Spradlin, administration; Neighbors, evangelism and outreach; and Miller, discipleship and spiritual growth.
The Hillcrest building later became home to the newly created First Southern Hispanic Baptist Church, and Valley Baptist became its sponsor. After seven years, the former Hillcrest building was deeded to what was by then a financially independent Hispanic congregation.
Valley soon outgrew its space. When Miller became the church growth division director for the California Southern Baptist Convention, Spradlin and Neighbors redivided the pastoral roles and led the ever-growing congregation to relocate.
Purchasing 15 acres of land in a part of Bakersfield that was not totally developed into residential neighborhoods, the members began to plan a multipurpose building.
Phil Neighbors reflects today that a master property plan, such as one LifeWay has now developed for the church, “would have saved us a lot of money when we were planning in 1989. Every church should try to have a master plan prepared by someone who is familiar with churches and what churches can do.”
In hindsight, he reflected, the church should have bought more acreage at the outset. Several years later, an additional 12-acre plot was acquired across a side street, enabling the church to increase its parking and provide for the future.
Miller, now director of LifeWay’s church leadership group, which includes the church architecture department, had told Spradlin and Neighbors several years ago that when the church was ready to build a new worship space, “We want an opportunity to work on it.”
Growing from 1,000 average Sunday school attendance in 1992 to double that size by 1997 also meant providing four Sunday morning worship services and three Sunday schools. Clearly, Valley Baptist Church was ready to build.
LifeWay architect Carson Wright designed a facility that is now almost complete and which will enable the church to worship in two Sunday morning services. Meanwhile, Neighbors said the church is preparing for what may happen in increased outreach and attendance after the move.
“We’re trying to gauge how this will affect us,” he reflected. “We anticipate when we move, we will have a lot of plans to use the move as a promotional tool in the community.”
LifeWay’s Davis Byrd believes the building itself will have a long-term effect in reaching out to Bakersfield. A tower, featuring stained glass side windows depicting a fisherman casting his net (evangelism) and a shepherd and his sheep (caring ministry), along with a central window flame motif representing the presence and power of the Holy Sprit, likely will come to be a familiar landmark.
“The tower,” Byrd said, “provides a symbol of the church’s intention to be both visually and spiritually a landmark in the community.”
Neighbors said the congregation is “really pleased with the building’s design. There’s no doubt the result was greatly enhanced by having a church architect design it.”
The church architecture department of LifeWay Christian Resources may be reached at (615) 251-2466.