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Former SBC president to launch Atlanta-area church May 4

SNELLVILLE, Ga. (BP)–The Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Snellville will multiply its ministry to the heart of fast-growing Gwinnett County with the launch of a new church.

The new direction has been shaped through a series of church votes and meetings with the local zoning board since early January. Now that the dust has settled, this much is clear — 25 percent of the members of the mother church will eventually move their membership to the new congregation, 65 percent will remain at the Snellville campus and 10 percent are undecided.

Former SBC President James Merritt, who has led the Snellville congregation the past 17 years, will become pastor of the new congregation, to be called Cross Pointe, the Church at Gwinnett Center.

The new campus is located 12 miles from the mother church at the intersection of Interstate 85 and Sugar Loaf Parkway. The area, near Duluth, Ga., and known as Gwinnett Center, has been under rapid development for the past several years. The massive interchange at the site was completed just last year.

The new church will be located across the street from the new location of the Georgia Baptist Convention. The state office building is expected to relocate within the next few years.

Merritt said the new church start was made possible by the gift of 70 acres of land. He said the former industrial property, which had been on the market for the past two years for $23 million, was purchased for $9 million by a group of men at the mother church and donated to the cause.

The property boasts 350,000 square feet of space in three buildings: a four-story office structure, a manufacturing plant; and a warehouse. Cruise missiles that were used in the first Persian Gulf War were produced at the site by Rockwell International/Boeing. The first two missiles produced at the facility were named “Hellfire” and “Damnation.”

Renovation of the property will begin immediately to provide educational space and an initial worship center that will seat 1,600, Merritt said.

In the meantime, Cross Pointe will hold its first services May 4 at Collins Hill High School. The congregation will meet in the commons area at the school, which is located at 50 Taylor Rd. in Suwanee. Cross Pointe plans to be in its new facilities by next April or May.

The new church will begin with a core group of 225 key lay leaders and their families as they try to reach the unchurched in the area. In order not to overwhelm the temporary facility, other members of First Baptist, Snellville, will transition their membership to Cross Pointe as the move to the new site is complete.

Merritt said the new church could grow to a possible attendance of 12,000-15,000 with a main sanctuary seating 6,000. The sanctuary of First Baptist, Snellville, currently seats 1,300 in three morning services.

The parking lot could eventually accommodate 3,900 cars. The church’s website is now available at www.crosspointechurchonline.com.

Though the church will not have “Baptist” in its name, it follows the trend of many churches in the past decade, which are seeking a more contemporary approach to reaching the unchurched.

“This will be a Southern Baptist church, make no mistake about that,” Merritt said. “We will make that plain to everyone through our literature and other avenues, and we are already applying for membership in Gwinnett Metro Baptist Association.”

The new site will be the epicenter for growth for at least the next 20 years, county officials agree. And that’s why Merritt says the potential is unlimited for the new congregation.

“There are 1.1 million residents within a 15-minute drive of Cross Pointe, and 600,000 of them are totally unchurched. We will be able to reach those individuals and others in adjoining towns because of the ease of access to the property,” he said.

“I’m 50 years old and this is a real step of faith for me and my family. Though I’m not as old as Caleb I do believe that the Lord has given me a new mountain to climb.

“The people of First Baptist have been the greatest people in the world to us and it has been a joy to serve them and the Lord.”

Merritt then thanked his wife, Teresa, for her support. “The real hero through all of this has been Teresa, my wife of 27 years. She has been the one who has been encouraging me all the way with an unbelievable faith.”

The decision for First Baptist, Snellville, to spin off the new church was a win-win solution for everyone involved, he continued. While an overwhelming majority voted to remain behind, the new church received an exceptionally strong financial commitment from members. The building program at the mother church totals $4.1 million over three years while the new work received pledges of $5.1 million.

The results of a churchwide vote in late March showed 2,081 people, or 65 percent, would rather continue worshiping at the current location, while 804, roughly 25 percent, voted to relocate. About 10 percent were undecided.

First Baptist, Snellville, which has already begun the search for a new pastor, has grown from about 1,500 members to 10,000 members during Merritt’s pastorate. At one time its membership was larger than the population of the town in which it is located.

First Baptist is the state’s third-largest congregation. Only First Baptist of Atlanta, with 14,808 members, and First Baptist of Woodstock, with 11,065, are larger.

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  • Joe Westbury