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First Baptist in Dallas still adding to its storied history

EDITORS’ NOTE: Baptist Press is releasing a feature story on each church on the itinerary of the national bus tour of Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch. A break is scheduled until Sept. 16, when Welch will visit the SBC’s North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga.

DALLAS (BP)–Within the last year, 100 teens at First Baptist Church in Dallas have stated that God is dealing with them about ministry. More than 500 people have been baptized. Sunday morning worship has averaged 4,500 people.

First Dallas was stop No. 26 on SBC President Bobby Welch’s national bus tour to kick off “The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism” campaign which has the goal of “Witness, Win and Baptize … ONE MILLION!” by Southern Baptist churches in one year.

First Dallas has 24 mostly language mission churches in the area, plus others elsewhere. It also ministers through the Dallas Life Foundation homeless shelter for up to 500 men, women and children, where perhaps 700 people made professions of faith in the last year.

Other ministries: FBC Academy is a 1,000-student K-12 school. The church-owned Criswell College has 500 students.

There’s more: A pregnancy counseling center for women who are thinking about abortion, the commercially successful KCBI Christian radio station; and a counseling ministry that maintains a full caseload.

And that’s in addition to “more usual” support groups for those in grief, those recovering from divorce or homosexuality, and more. There’s even a “Stephen’s Ministry” that connects new converts with more seasoned believers for lifestyle as well as spiritual support.

“A great commitment to the great commandment and the Great Commission builds great Christians and a great church” is the mission statement for First Dallas, which had only two pastors from 1897 (George Truett) to 1995 when W.A. Criswell was named pastor emeritus.

“Being a downtown church is a challenge and a fabulous opportunity,” said Mac Brunson, pastor since 1999 of the church that met in a Masonic Hall when it was started in 1868.

“We have more than 100 languages spoken right around our church,” Brunson said. “We have an opportunity to impact the world every week.”

Because Dallas has an excellent reputation in medical and scientific training, one repressive government sends students for specialized training. First Dallas has a well-established ministry to that people group, and the students are drawn to the welcome they receive, the pastor said.

“The government sent one student to infiltrate the group and send reports back to them. We baptized him too,” Brunson said.

“On the Sunday night after Sept. 11, we had about 400 Kurdish Muslims to worship with us,” the pastor continued. “They had called ahead to ask if they would be welcome. They heard the Gospel that night.”

The Kurdish Muslims, who knew First Dallas men had taken blankets and other help to the Kurdish people in recent years, wanted to attend the service to show their distance from Islamic terrorists, the pastor explained.

“We have become a sending agency,” Brunson said. “Almost every week someone is saying, ‘God is calling me.’ God seems to bring people to us; we equip them and send them out into ministry. That’s one of our great opportunities.”

Babies, on the other hand, are a major challenge, the pastor grinned.

“There are so many! But when I stop to think about this, I don’t know they’re so big a challenge,” Brunson said. “Ministering to a growing church that’s growing younger and older at the same time, that’s a challenge. We have no place to put them! You have to put them on ground-level floors, and that’s a real challenge administratively to a congregation.”

Its dark-red brick assortment 11 key facilities on five city blocks in the heart of downtown Dallas has gotten so inadequate that construction once again is necessary, the pastor said. Two buildings are being torn down to make way for 250,000-square-foot additions encompassing a dinner theater, chapels, global missions conference center, educational and administrative space, retail book store and more.

“We’ve been told this is the largest downtown church project in American history, but we need it,” Brunson said. “People are moving into downtown. Less than five blocks from here the Ritz Carlton is fixing to put up a luxury hotel and condos second to none, and the American Airlines Center also is just a few blocks from the church. The upper west side is fast becoming a shopping magnet for singles and young marrieds.”

Despite its size, First Dallas still is “really a great big country church,” Brunson said. “It is a great family oriented church.”

Sunday School is a key, the pastor said.

“We’re having so many non-Baptists join the church that we found it necessary to put them for a year in our Fundamentals of Faith class where we just teach them the basics,” Brunson said. “By that time they’re well-grounded and built a core of friends.”

A parish nurse might be figured into the church’s future, the pastor said. “I’ve been spinning this concept in my mind,” Brunson said. “With the congregation and society getting older, there is a real need to build some security in our seniors that this church is growing to assist them, and at the same time, as we grow younger, we assure them we meet what needs they have.

“We already have MODs — minister of the day,” the pastor continued. “That’s all they do; they meet with people and minister to them. We’re thinking of a DOD — doctor of the day — for older folks with physical needs and younger people with fewer needs but more emergency needs and not the money to pay for it.”

It’s necessary to always be thinking ahead at First Dallas, the pastor said.

“Looking back through the years, we have seen God’s hand in the life of First Dallas,” Brunson said. “The complexion of ministry in downtown Dallas has changed dramatically, but our vision is still to impact lives today with the love of Christ as we follow God’s lead into the future.”