WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP) — Mowing the grass surrounding the community center where the fledgling congregation was meeting, a Jacksonville youngster was unaware years ago that it would be the first of many churches he would have a role in planting.
The elementary school student was determined to do his part to grow a church that had started in his family’s living room.
As a seminary student in Louisville, his green thumb in planting churches again blossomed while launching churches around the country and later planting churches for Highview Baptist Church there.
Perhaps church planting was in Jimmy Scroggins’ spiritual DNA, with the 40-year-old pastor now setting his sights on starting new churches among South Florida’s an estimated 6.6 million unreached people. As pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, he has set a goal of leading in the launch of 100 new churches in the three-county region.
In the past year First Baptist has launched two new congregations — Family Church in Abacoa and La Iglesia Familiar in First Baptist’s facilities. And two potential church plants are on the drawing board, one this year on the western end of the county where the population has grown exponentially and another targeting the city’s Haitians in 2013.
It’s an ambitious task, but one Scroggins describes as grounded in the Great Commission and fed by the Holy Spirit in calling the New Testament church to “preach the Gospel to all kinds of people in ways they understand.”
“South Florida is a unique place, located below the Bible Belt,” Scroggins said. “It is different — it’s more cosmopolitan, it’s more diverse, it’s more unchurched and it’s more under-evangelized.”
Scroggins set the church-planting challenge to see “if a historic church can reach people where they are while simultaneously launching as many churches as we can.”
With an estimated 1 million people in Palm Beach County who do not profess a faith in Jesus Christ, Scroggins concluded that it would require a thousand new churches with 1,000 members each to reach the spiritually lost in the county.
“We can plant as many churches as we can for the rest of our lives,” he said, “and still not reach the lost here.”
Family Church at Abacoa” was birthed on Florida Atlantic University’s Jupiter campus a year ago and now has 200-250 in attendance each Sunday. The congregation was created after Central Baptist Church in Jupiter disbanded and merged with First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach in an effort “to leverage resources, talents, creativity, people and stewardship,” Scroggins said.
The Jupiter congregation, located away from the community’s explosive growth, had dwindled to only a handful, former Central leader Bill Vorlicky said. “The church was declining; we had lost our youth and our young families,” he said. “We were so intentionally focused on just trying to keep the doors open, our energy was devoted internally instead of externally to spread the Gospel.”
By disbanding and then merging with First Baptist West Palm Beach to start the new church, Central’s members have “reached more people for Jesus Christ,” Vorlicky said.
First Baptist sent a campus pastor, worship leader and trained workers to cultivate the community, located about 15 minutes north of West Palm Beach, and put in place activities to attract young families. Scroggins preaches each Sunday morning, leaving downtown after his second service and allowing a teaching pastor to lead the third service.
“God has blessed us beyond our anticipation. It is exciting to see the work grow here,” added Vorlicky as the new church reaches families, youth and students.
Ann Marie Simon and her family were drawn to the Abacoa church by signs posted in the neighborhood. “We hadn’t been at Family Church for more than five minutes when we knew we were in the right place and this would be our family,” she said.
After attending the church for a little more than a month, Simon was injured in a life-altering accident that left her partially paralyzed. “Not that we had any doubt from the first day,” Simon said, “but the outpouring of love from this church and its parishioners confirmed that we were truly among family and in a Bible-based church, which is clearly led by the Holy Spirit.”
The Hispanic congregation, La Iglesia Familiar, has drawn between 100 and 130 in preview services in preparation for an October launch. The new congregation is led by Bernie Cueto, who serves as campus pastor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and a teaching pastor at First Baptist.
Al Fernandez, team strategist for Florida Baptist Urban Impact Ministries, has been working with Scroggins in developing the church starting strategy for South Florida needs. “The amazing thing is that God uses these conversations and relationships for us to partner with churches to start new churches that can reach different people groups within the same community.”
He added, “Even the English-speaking Jupiter church is reaching people that could not be reached at the downtown building. Church planting is simply the task of expanding the Kingdom of God.”
Longtime First Baptist members have embraced Scroggins’ focus on church planting, said Bev Bonner, director of assimilation and church life. The congregation continues to flourish and reach people, with 773 new members since Scroggins’ arrival in August 2008. Weekly worship averages 1,600.
The church’s strategy is focused on biblical teaching, building families and birthing congregations, providing inward ministry through small study groups, training parents and children, and congregational events such as fellowships and tailgate parties.
The community impact has been accomplished in neighborhoods through such events as Easter egg hunts and “Trunk or Treat” activities. The congregation also adopted a local elementary school, providing backpacks, school supplies, school uniforms, student mentoring and tutoring, teacher and staff appreciation, encouragement and workdays around the grounds and facilities.
“Getting our church families involved with the communities around us is helping us to birth new congregations,” Bonner said.
Each week, baptismal waters are stirred with new converts, including 39 new believers who were baptized during a September ocean baptism.
Prior to his September baptism, Jacob Janicek, 21, was in and out of rehabilitation centers before he was led to the church by his mother who was also baptized there. Turning away from longtime substance abuse was only possible through divine intervention, he said.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the Lord. This church is the place where the grace of God can be found,” Janicek said.
After receiving a terminally ill diagnosis, Bill Wiley and his wife Shirley, who had been brought to the church by friends, were recently baptized. “My husband is afraid of dying,” Shirley said. “Praying to receive Christ took a lot of fear off of us. God is giving us a peace he is going to a better place.”
Whether Scroggins is cutting grass for a new church or leading a historic congregation on new paths, the lawn-mowing youngster from Jacksonville has consistently emulated the apostle Paul’s admonition — planting, watering and cultivating while relying on God to give the increase.
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.