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Congregation grows as it seeks to know its new African American neighborhoo

MANDARIN, Fla. (BP)–This church’s growth in the past 10 years — from 70 members to more than 1,600 — illustrates what can happen when evangelism becomes a congregation’s way of life.
The unprecedented growth of First Baptist Church, Mandarin, Fla., a predominantly African-American congregation in south Jacksonville, is the result of intentional evangelism and community outreach.
Among factors contributing to the church’s growth has been a willingness by the church members to change with the community, said pastor Gary L. Williams. Currently serving in his first pastorate, the Jacksonville native comes from a family of pastors, including his uncle, Landon Williams Sr., pastor of Greater Macedonia Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
When Williams began serving the Mandarin church in 1990, the congregation met in the small building where it had been for many of its 115 years. With the rapid growth of new neighborhoods and businesses in Jacksonville’s Mandarin suburb, the church became landlocked. In 1994, the congregation relocated to 13 acres in a residential area of Mandarin, one of Jacksonville’s more affluent suburbs.
The new sanctuary drew a lot of neighborhood attention, Williams recalled. Building on that interest, First Baptist became proactive in getting to know its new community.
Finding a number of families in the area with nursery-age children, First Baptist formed Promise Land Preschool, now in its second year of operation.
Wanting to learn more about community needs, church members knocked on 6,000 doors in April and August of 1998, handing out evangelistic tracts and conducting surveys.
The church’s evangelistic campaign inspired many members to start inviting neighbors and co-workers to church on a regular basis. That is how the church has gained many of its new members, Williams said.
“We want to allow evangelism to take place every day in the lives of our members,” he said, “not just during special emphasis months when we do it corporately.”
Some of the ministries the church has formed as a result of community outreach include a youth worship service one Friday a month, women’s and men’s health education and career planning seminars, a prison ministry, and a radio and television broadcast of the church’s Sunday worship services.
Though the church built a considerably larger sanctuary than it previously had, it already has outgrown the space. First Baptist’s two Sunday morning services are packed and several of its Sunday school classes meet in different areas of the sanctuary, as well as at nearby Loretto Elementary School.
The church currently is raising funds for a Family Life Center, with completion anticipated next year. The center will provide facilities needed to expand the church’s Christian school to include elementary grades and to start a recreational program with an activities director, Williams said.
These ministries stem from a belief that “the church must be on the cutting edge,” Williams said. “We do not just want to be a church in a community. We want to be a church working with and within the community.
“The church must show it is relevant to today. That doesn’t mean you lose doctrinal integrity,” he said. “I don’t believe in using the devil’s stuff to turn people to the Lord. But we do have to be accessible, be real and evaluate which methods are working and which aren’t and not just do something because of habit.”
Williams is committed to reaching out to all races and ethnic groups, “celebrating the black culture but not a culture without Christ.”
“We are proud of who we are and the heritage we have, and our worship reflects that. But we can’t be more concerned with our culture than we are with Christ,” the pastor said. “Christ has the greater impact on our lives. Through Christ, every person has the opportunity to be treated the same way and to find fellowship together.”

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  • Kristi Hodge