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The whole church is going to the mall

LAKELAND, Fla. (BP)–Imagine telling your congregation a month before the scheduled groundbreaking for its new worship center that the building plans need to be canceled because “God’s working in another direction but I can’t tell you what.”
Jay Dennis, pastor of First Baptist Church, Lakeland, Fla., faced that situation. “I spent every credibility buck I had with this congregation when I told them, ‘Just trust me,'” he recalled.
The 4,000-member church had long since outgrown its 650-seat worship center and had tried various logistical approaches to remain in its downtown location — including using its facilities there for Sunday school and nursery classes and holding worship services at The Lakeland Center’s Youkey Theatre a few blocks away. Dennis wasn’t sure the congregation would be willing to reconsider its unanimous vote to stay at the downtown site.
But the church was faced with a dilemma. Proceeding with the building program would require the church to be responsible for the cost of closing down an adjacent city street to accommodate construction crews and machinery. It would cost $500,000 to $750,000 before actual construction began, and after a three-year building program, the church still would be in need of new educational space. At the same time, an opportunity arose to buy a vacant facility that would give the church all the additional space it needed without having to build from scratch. But disclosing its location could have jeopardized the church’s ability to negotiate amid other offers for the property.
With the support of key leaders in the church, Dennis asked the congregation to cancel the groundbreaking on faith that God was pointing them in a new direction.
“There was such a tremendous unity and willingness to be open to a change of plans that it had to be from God,” Dennis said.
After Dennis’ painstaking decision not to divulge the location of the property to his congregation, the local newspaper broke the story the next day: First Baptist Church was in talks to purchase The Lakeland Mall, a 400,000-square-foot facility vacant since 1989.
The church also had been granted first right to negotiate settling the lease on a vacant 103,000-square-foot warehouse owned by Sam’s Club, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, if it could close the deal within 45 days. That meant obtaining a bridge loan, doing structure checks on the buildings and getting a go-ahead from the congregation.
In a special called meeting, Dennis presented the proposal and, with one dissenting vote, approximately 1,600 church members agreed to relocate to new facilities. The church closed the deal one day ahead of the 45-day deadline.
“The atmosphere was just electric with excitement, joy and with unity, due in part to a praying people,” Dennis said.
When the church began emphasizing the prayer of Jabez (1 Chronicles 4:9-10) two years earlier, asking God to “enlarge their territory,” they had no idea God would answer their prayers in such a big way.
But, Dennis recalled, that’s just what the church had asked. “We prayed, ‘God, do something so big in our midst that it is obviously from you,’ and boy, did he ever deliver.”
The “mall-turned-ministry,” as the church calls it, includes 32 acres of property bordering one of the largest lakes in Polk County. It has 1,800 parking spaces and built-in facilities for food service, fitness and movie-showing.
Former stores now will be classrooms, a warehouse will be converted into a worship center, movie theaters will become meeting places and fitness centers will become recreational facilities.
Beginning on Feb. 21, First Baptist, Lakeland, will hold worship services in the mall’s former Montgomery Ward building until the worship center is complete.
Situated on a main thoroughfare used by 32,000 vehicles a day, the facility offers incredible potential to reach the community for Christ, Dennis said.
“I feel God, in his sovereignty, determined to give us this mall so we could reach the community in ways we would have never dreamed of before,” he said.
“We named the process ‘Operation: Dream Big’ because that’s what God has taught us to be faithful to do.”

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  • Kristi Hodge