I want to tell you our story. November 2, 1969 dawned as a beautiful clear, crisp fall Sunday. I was nervous. Today was the start-up of Florence Baptist Temple. My dream of planting a church was about to become a reality.
I was born in Hinton, West Virginia and grew up in the Beckley area. Our family moved to Sumter in 1958 where Dad pastored a church. After graduation from High School in 1961, I returned to Beckley to attend Appalachian Bible College. After one year, I transferred to Columbia Bible College and after another year, decided I did not want to be in the ministry. Enrolling at the University of South Carolina, I began majoring in Business Administration. Meanwhile, I attended an Oak Ridge Boys Concert at Columbia’s Township Auditorium, and was stung with the gospel singing “bug.” I met Smitty Gatlin, the lead singer and founder of the group who, after a series of events, discovered that I played the piano and had sung with some amateur S.C. groups. We became friends and a couple of years later, just before graduation, Smitty called me and said he was planning on leaving the Oak Ridge Boys and moving to Ft. Worth, Texas where he would become the music director of the First Baptist Church. The pastor, Dr. Homer Ritchie, had agreed for him to continue to travel and sing Thursday - Saturday each week. Smitty invited me to join him and a man named Bill Baize and form a trio to be known as the Smitty Gatlin Trio. We would travel three days a week and return to First Baptist to sing most Sundays. With stars in my eyes, I moved to Ft. Worth to join the new trio. Because of Smitty’s reputation, we were immediately rewarded a recording contract with the leading southern gospel recording label and joined the “gospel singing circuit.” We traveled constantly—almost a 100,000 miles per year for the two and one-half years I was there. Often, Gatlin would leave us on one end of the country or the other and fly into Dallas on the “redeye” flight, leaving us to “deadhead” (as we called it) back to Ft. Worth.
Within a few months, I had met Norma in a Sunday morning service at First Baptist. I was “smitten” right out of the gate. She wasn’t so impressed with me at first, but her mom was a singing fan (and a fantastic cook)—so I had support! From then on, I was at her house every night I was not traveling. On our second or third date, I jokingly (she thought) told her I was going to marry her—but she was not sure of that at all. I also told her that I felt that someday I would be a preacher—God had called me and I was running from my call. However, the prospect of being a preacher’s wife didn’t help my chances romantically at all. At that time, both of us could be best described as nominal Christians. However, we were married at First Baptist by Pastor Ritchie on Feb. 25, 1967. Meanwhile, there was a growing realization that God was calling me into something other than what I was doing.
After marriage, the singing business began to lose some of its luster. Bill Baize left us to sing with the Stamps Quartet and J. D. Sumner, and things were never quite the same again. Bill was a great tenor, and though we tried various other tenors, none really “clicked.” We temporarily disbanded, and for a while I played in a four-piece dance band that performed at area Dallas and Ft. Worth country clubs. I knew this was not pleasing to the Lord, but rationalized it by my need for the money. Though terribly backslidden, I received a call from a pastor, an old acquaintance in Charleston, West Virginia. He needed a music director and asked if I would come and fill the position. Being desperate and miserable (spiritually), Norma and I loaded up and moved to Charleston. We were only there for three months and, frankly, were about to starve to death. We didn’t realize it, but God was leading us one step at a time.
One night, an old singing friend, Bobby Clark of the Cathedral Quartet, called and asked if I would like to play and sing with a trio that he was forming to sing out of the Baptist Temple in Indianapolis. The pastor had a large TV ministry and wanted a group to sing at the church and on TV, and to travel a night or two a week in his TV rallies. The remainder of the time we could book our own itinerary and sing on our own. I drove to Indianapolis the next week, auditioned for the position, took the job, and we moved to Indianapolis. After a few months, the pastor asked me to become the Choir Director, and when the Church Administrator left his position, Pastor Dixon asked me to assume those duties as well. It was during those days that God really began to speak to me about preaching. As I would lead the choir during the invitation, I would look over my shoulder and see people coming to the altar to be saved. The thought came to me, “There are more people getting saved here than I ever saw in South Carolina. South Carolina needs a church like this one.” I could not escape the idea of coming back to South Carolina and planting a church—it consumed my thoughts.
About that time, the pastor, Greg Dixon, became critically ill with an internal bleeding problem. Although he went to every doctor he could find, no one could diagnose his problem. He continued to weaken until he was flown to the Mayo Clinic. For the next few weeks, the church held regular prayer meetings for him. Attending those prayer meetings and really spending time with the Lord gave me the opportunity to think deeply about my future. God continued to burden me about going home to South Carolina to plant a church. When Bro. Dixon returned, I told him of my plans. His reaction: “What do you know about pastoring a church, Bill?” I’m sure everyone thought that. But I had been reared in the home of a pastor and had learned a lot by osmosis. I had also spent hours with Lloyd Taylor, one of the best friends I ever had, who had been Dr. Ritchie’s associate at Ft. Worth, and from whom I had learned so much about life and the ministry. He, along with Homer Ritchie, had truly been a mentor to me. And working as the Administrator for almost two years in Indianapolis, I had learned the internal workings of the church. While I had only two years of formal theological training, my father had taught me well. In fact, I really learned little new about the Scriptures in Bible College because of the thorough instruction I received in my home.
So in early September 1969, I resigned and Norma and I loaded up a yellow Ryder Rental Truck and headed to South Carolina. I drove and she followed in our VW Beetle. Norma was now three months pregnant. One moment I will never forget occurred just south of the South Carolina state line entering from the north on I-26. We stopped at a roadside park for a break. Norma asked, “Bill, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I rehearsed again my dream of starting a new church, of winning souls to Christ, of seeing people transformed and joyously living for him—of Christ being the most important thing in their lives. I could even picture the building in my mind—I had no doubt that God was going to use us. To His glory I can now say that most of what we dreamed about as we sat on that picnic table that day has come to pass—and more too. This was the background of that first service on November 2, 1969.
After arriving in Florence, we rented a house. After settling in and renting the old theater building, I began to visit door-to-door, inviting people to church. We also held a meeting to see how many people might have an interest in starting a new church. Larry Denham, an old friend, had invited everyone he knew. Benny Holbrooks, another friend, had helped us invite people and approximately 30 people showed up. However, when November 2 arrived, only 18 attended.
All week before that service, I visited by myself and passed out brochures inviting people to the first service. Every evening, I studied until the “wee” hours. Before leaving Indianapolis, Bro. Dixon had allowed me to copy many of his sermon outlines. I selected one based on the text of Matthew 27:22, “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called the Christ?” I prayed and prayed that the Lord would help me because I had never preached a sermon before. Can you imagine anyone moving 800 miles to plant a church, who had never preached before? Talk about a lack of experience! I have always tried to be conscientious about preaching, above all. And God has given me so many opportunities to proclaim His Word in 30 states and in 20 foreign countries. I have spoken to stateless Haitians in a tiny refuge church in the Bahamas, to Russians in an auditorium in _______, to Romanians in Bucharest, to Brazilians at a leadership retreat, to Philippinos in Hong Kong, to Dr. Armie Jesalva’s great church in Cebu City, Philippines, and on and on. But no matter where I have been allowed to go, my greatest joy has been to return home with anticipation for the next Sunday, to gather up my beloved books in my study and to prepare a message that I am burning in my soul to deliver. The highlight of my week is Sunday morning when I address this great congregation—which I have had the privilege of doing now over 6000 times.
On that first Sunday, those present were Larry and Libby Denham and their son, Stacy, Harry and Dorothy Cook and their daughter, Mary Kathryn, Oscar and Myrtle Denham, Mary Allen, Mattie Mosley, her 2 children and her friend, Margaret Robinson, and her three children, Norma and myself—a grand total of 18. They must have all really been impressed because the next Sunday, there was a total of eight who returned. I have often joked that “I got it down to where I could handle it.” I know the people who allowed me to learn to preach on them will receive a special crown in Heaven for patience and endurance. The Old Theater Building had actually served as the theater for a military base that was located in Florence during World War II. The base closed after the war and the airport was given to the county. The Theater was later leased to the Florence Community Theater Organization, known simply as “The Little Theater.” When we arrived in 1969, they had just moved into their new facility on Cashua Drive. They leased us the old building for $50.00 per month, plus $8.50 for the water. Compared to the shape of the building, the rent was exorbitant. It was built on a bare, concrete slab that sloped to the front. There was an elevated stage across the front. The exterior walls were brick-looking asbestos siding, and inside they were covered with a sheetrock substance. There were wooden seats with numbers painted on the back. Behind the stage, which was painted black, a storage area had been added by the Theater for props and scenery. Vertical two by fours with corrugated tin and a roof and floor was all that was there—no insulation. With only a piece of corrugated tin between us and the elements, you can imagine how hot it was in summer and how cold it was in winter. We were in that old building over two years. No one ever took off their coat during the winter months and in the summer, we purchased large fans to move the air. However, the fans made so much noise, it was hard to hear and I learned to speak loudly during those summer services. The place was also bug and “varmint” infested. We would have the exterminator come and spray the place—after which I would go and sweep out the bugs and mice that had come out on the floor to die. Why did I choose the Old Theater building when it was such a decrepit place, you may ask? It was absolutely all that was available. Just recently, a lady attended our services and said, “I lived near the airport during those days. My husband and I used to drive by that old theater building and see the cars during services. Many times I said to my husband, ‘I feel so sorry for those folks going to church in that old building!’” Many times since, however, I have thought that the Lord was testing us. Peter says, “Humble yourselves in the sight of God and in due time, He will exalt you.” The old theater building was a humbling place. Noted author, Dr. Elmer Towns, has written extensively about Florence Baptist Temple—we have been featured in six of his books. He has visited hundreds of church plants but said about the Old Theater, “It’s the worst facility in which I’ve ever seen a church meet.”
For the next two and a half years, the old theater building was our home—and God blessed. In December of 1970, Dorothy Cook walked the aisle as the first convert. Behind her a few steps was Harry, her husband. The Cooks have been faithful members of FBT—not only attending, but giving and serving. When I look out from the pulpit today and see them, I am filled with joy because of them and people like them who not only were saved, but have remained faithful all the way.
In the spring of 1970, the attendance was about 50. In May, 1970, the church held its formal organizational service. Greg Dixon drove down from Indianapolis, Cecil Hodges came from Savannah, Ga., E.G. Robinson from Easley, Raymond Crocker from Taylors, and of course, Frank Monroe from Sumter. Twenty-seven members signed the charter that night, and in weeks to come, a few more added their names. Shortly afterward, we held our first baptism—in Black Creek. We also organized our Sunday School in that terrible old “prop” room around picnic tables. And, we bought three old Public School buses for $1250.00 with a loan from South Carolina National Bank.
Slim Turbeville led a team of people who worked on the buses, painted them and got them in shape to run. The first Sunday they ran, we picked up over 50 children and our total attendance broke 100. We were on the way! Having a bus ministry had several secondary benefits that I did not anticipate. First, it got us out into the community in a systematic way. On Saturday, our volunteers would work the bus routes, going door-to-door inviting the people to ride. On the whole, we received a warm reception. Second, many parents began to drive in on their own. They were interested in this strange church in the old dilapidated theater building. One by one, many of them came to know Christ, and many still serve in the church. By fall, the attendance was averaging around 160-170 per week and we were becoming crowded.
It was obvious that it was time to purchase land and build. In those days, we had no money—all of us were poor then. But Dr. Cecil Hodges had a man in his church in Savannah, Georgia, who sold church bonds. Church bonds were a common means of financing churches in those days. Simply put, members would purchase the first mortgage divided into one-thousand dollar increments and sold as a bond by the church. The land and buildings collaterized the mortgage. The bonds had coupons on them that could be cashed at the church’s bank quarterly for the duration of the bond. John Thurman, the bond salesman, agreed to help us, but we first needed to purchase land. We looked at several locations, but none were available, or if they were, the price was not affordable. One rainy afternoon, I was driving around and noticed our present property. It was a beautiful pecan grove at the time. I learned that it was owned by a Mr. Greg McLaughlin. I contacted Mr. McLaughlin and after a few days, he came back with an offer. He would sell us seven acres for $35,000 and give us an option on three more acres for $5,000 per acre. I told the church and we voted to buy the land, build a building and sell bonds to pay for it through a “Bond Campaign.” We then began to search for a builder. A young contractor named Ken Saleeby contacted me and asked to bid the job. We later contracted with him to build the first building—15,000 square feet that is now the Chapel and all of the Sunday School rooms south and east of it, including the upstairs of “A” building on our seven acres plot of land.
There is one event I will never forget. During the building program, the bond sales dried up and we ran out of money. The contractor gave me a bill for a considerable amount of money—I honestly don’t remember how much. I told him we were out of money. He needed money to pay the subcontractors and we needed money to pay him. So both he and I really began to sweat. He was in a position where it was virtually impossible for him to stop the building. John Thurman, the bond salesman, came back to Florence to help me. We had visited almost everyone in the church—and many of their friends. I did not know what to do and remember to this day how fearful I was. Ken called me almost daily, desperate for money. I told the church of our plight and we all began to pray for a miracle. One night, John and I made a call on a lady who had shown some interest and at the time, was not even a member. As we talked to her, she teared up. She wanted to help, but explained that her husband had been killed in an accident and she still had children to raise. I will never forget when Dorothy Jeffords purchased a large number of church bonds. With tears running down her cheeks, she handed me a check and said, “Preacher, you better take care of my money; it’s all I have.” With that bond sale and a few more, we caught up our bills and both Ken Saleeby (who meanwhile had gotten saved and joined the church) and I both were able to sleep again. I told the church about it and we all realized that we had experienced a powerful answer to prayer. In fact, that was the most dramatic answer to prayer I had experienced in my life up to that point in time. I believed, and do to this day, that God spoke to the hearts of people to loan their money to the church; and I am glad to say that every penny was returned on time and with interest. And just as importantly, a young preacher learned that God does answer prayer and that He can be trusted for the impossible. Groundbreaking day, October 10, 1971, was a bitter sweet day. We were excited about groundbreaking, but Larry Denham, my friend, our Music Director and pianist, and a man who had been the most helpful to me of anyone at that point in helping me start the church, had contracted a brain tumor and died. So on that day, we held Larry’s funeral service in the afternoon after the groundbreaking at the end of the morning service. Larry and I had planned for him to come on staff as our Minister of Music as soon as the church was able to afford him. God had worked wonderfully in his life and when he died, it was a serious disappointment to all of us.
The new building was dedicated on April 9, 1972. The mayor, Cooper Tedder was present along with a host of visitors. We held our first baptismal service in the new building and not having baptized in a baptistry before, I baptized a large number of people. I told Norma as we rode home in the car, “Something felt strange as I baptized.” She said, “I guess so, you nut; you had your back to the people!” Homer Ritchie came from Ft. Worth to preach for us—holding a revival the following week. Many people who are still members were saved or joined during that time. The church was now exploding. From then on, we were packed. We had purchased additional buses. We had gone on the radio with a radio program, Baptist Temple Time at 11:45 a.m. Monday through Friday. And in the fall of 1972, we started Florence Christian School with 64 students. We began with 4k, 5k and grades one through three. My sister, Ann Maddy (Konnerup) came from Winston-Salem where she was a veteran teacher. She served as Principal and taught first grade. Jane Walters left her position at Florence-Darlington Technical College to teach 3rd grade. Wanda Smith taught second grade and Rachael Johnson (now deceased) and Jackie Smith taught Kindergarten.
Almost immediately, we begin to plan a second building. Exactly two years to the day after moving to the first building, we dedicated the second auditorium—a beautiful new facility of 25,000 sq. ft. with a 600-seat auditorium and many new classrooms. Again, Ken Saleeby was the builder, but had joined with Larry Prosser as his partner. Ken & Larry also built “B” and “C” Buildings.
During those early days, our focus was Bus Ministry and soul-winning. We trained people to be soul-winners, and I spent many hours each week doing personal evangelism. Many of our people were excellent witnesses and soul-winners and were regularly winning people to the Lord. Building the church was truly a team effort—the soul-winners, bus captains, Christian school, and radio program—all produced a “synergy” that drew people to FBT.
One event from those years captures the spirit of the church during those days. I read in a book that we ought to bury “I Can’t.” So I went to a monument company and ordered a grave marker and had it engraved with the name “I Can’t.” The dates were: Born 6000 B.C., Died November 7, 1976. I made arrangements with a local funeral home and asked to borrow a casket and a funeral tent—to be set up on the front yard for a Sunday morning “burial.” Come Sunday morning, they pulled the hearse up in front of the church. When people arrived, it looked like a full-fledged funeral service was about to begin. I had sworn a few men to secrecy who were my pallbearers. On a given signal, the organist played a sad and melancholy tune, the doors opened, I asked everyone to stand and the men carried the empty casket to the front. I then preached “The Funeral of I Can’t.” It was intended to be a motivational message, emphasizing that Christians can overcome the problems of life and be victorious in any situation. We then proceeded to the front yard where I held a committal service for “I Can’t.” At the burial, I challenged the people to let “I Can’t” rest in peace and never ever say his name again. Really, I think I oversold the idea and instead of it having its intended effect of motivating the people, they became somber and morbid. It felt like a real funeral. The marker went down that afternoon and by the time of the evening service, the grief had lifted and we were back to normal. However, the church really did have a “Can Do” attitude, and it was so great to see people believe we could do anything the Lord wanted us to do.
It is impossible for me to tell of all the wonderful things that happened during the 70’s and 80’s—to do so would require hundreds of pages. The first revival was held in the Theater Building by Homer Ritchie, and another was held by him immediately after our first building was dedicated. Dr. B. R. Lakin spoke here 13 times, most of them were weekly revival meetings. Well-known preacher, Jack Hudson of Charlotte, David Cavin of Springfield, Missouri, and Bailey Smith, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention all held revival meetings at FBT. Soul-winning conferences were held with Jerry Falwell, Jack Hyles, Curtis Hutson, Dr. John R. Rice and others. Well-known political figures were guests: Senator Strom Thurmond, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes and Gov. Carroll Campbell. Anita Bryant, the actress and singer, was our guest on October 29, 1978.
FCS continued to expand—one grade or two per year, until we completed all 12 grades. Our first graduation was held in May of 1979. We also purchased 23 more acres of land behind the original ten acres, as our property lines continued to expand.
In the late 1970’s, I received a phone call from an associate of Dr. Jerry Falwell asking me to come to a meeting in Indianapolis. Preachers from across the country were gathering to attempt to do something to call the nation back to God. I flew to Indianapolis, eager to be a part of anything that would help. Dr. D. James Kennedy, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell all spoke on the condition of the country and how men of God needed to act. At that meeting, the Moral Majority was born. I was invited to a second meeting in Washington where Dr. Falwell asked me to serve as the Chairman of Moral Majority, South Carolina. I came home to organize the state and my plan was to hold a rally on the steps of the Courthouse in as many counties as possible. Shelvia Thornal was a member who sang often in our services and had a beautiful voice. She volunteered to help me. Wayne Lewis, then our Buildings and Grounds Superintendent, helped me place ads in local county-wide papers on the appointed day, and obtain the permits. Wayne would drive a truck with sound equipment and brochures to a county seat town and set up for the rally. Shelvia sang and I preached on the need for Christians to become active in the political process which had been taken over by “secular humanists” as we called them at that time. After the rally (where attendance ranged from a couple of dozen to as many as several hundred), we would seek to get people registered to vote. We also educated people regarding the Biblical position on abortion, homosexuality and the breakdown of the family, as well as the dangers of big government. It was an exciting time. In 1981, the media credited the efforts of Moral Majority and its voter registration efforts as a principle reason for the election of President Reagan. Although the media caricatured Moral Majority people as a group of illiterate hayseeds, I will go to my grave with a deep sense of satisfaction that we were able to make a small contribution to a great effort by God’s people across the nation.
In 1986, we signed a contract with the ABC affiliate, WPDE, and on February 9, 1986, “The Baptist Temple Hour” was on the air. Our goal was to present our morning service, as much like the original as possible so that people could “feel” they had been in a worship service. That ministry has now expanded and is telecast on WFXB, as well as the NBC affiliate, WMBF. These two hours each Sunday and one hour Saturday night enable us to cover the Pee Dee region, the Grand Strand and large parts of southeastern North Carolina (including the Fayetteville area) as well as much of eastern South Carolina, south of the Grand Strand. Thousands of people watch regularly and communicate with us as to the blessing they receive from our program. Many have written indicating they have received Christ, and many who are now members were first introduced to FBT through the TV Ministry. We never raise money, and the church pays for the programs from its regular budget.
Looking back, one of the landmark days in our church’s history was in April, 1988. While the church had continued to grow, the bus ministry was starting to decline. Several factors were responsible. The increasing price of fuel and insurance made the bus ministry increasingly expensive. The requirement by the state for drivers to have a Certified Drivers License (CDL), made it difficult to get enough drivers. The high divorce rates hurt the bus ministry—the fact that now almost half of the homes were blended families with children visiting the non-custodial parent every other weekend prohibited the children from coming regularly. Seventy percent of women now worked full-time jobs outside the home and used Saturday to catch up with housework. And, the media was now full of stories of child abuse and molestation—and people were becoming reluctant to allow their children to ride the bus with people they did not know. With the bus ministry in decline, I was concerned for the church and for the first time, my vision was clouded. I knew what Scripture said about people who had no vision, and I wracked my brain thinking, “Where do we go from here?”
One day, Larry Upchurch, a pastor friend from Raleigh, North Carolina, gave me a tape by a man named Leon Kilbreth. Leon was a Southern Baptist “Sunday School Evangelist.” I literally drank in the contents of that tape. Listening to Bro. Leon, I realized I had suffered a “blind-spot” regarding the role of Sunday School. Although I thought I understood the importance of Sunday School, I really did not. I had taught our church to view Sunday School as a program; Leon taught me that Sunday School was a strategy—a process—the best way ever conceived to reach, teach, train and mobilize people. I located Bro. Leon in Illinois and booked him to come to FBT. It was a cold January evening when he arrived for a “Sunday School Revival” (as he liked to call them) a few months later. Snow was falling and the forecast was for ice and bone-chilling cold weather. The crowd was small that evening and I was disappointed that so few had come to hear the old gentleman. And it snowed more through the night until by morning the streets were iced over and everything was shut down. However, I told the pastoral staff we were going to work and I got someone with 4-wheel drive to go and pick up Leon at his hotel. All day long we sat, listened, learned and asked questions of probably the most knowledgeable man in America on Sunday School. The next day we did the same thing and the next. And while the crowds at night were very small, our staff and I had the opportunity to learn Sunday School from the best. With Bro. Leon’s guidance, we dissolved every existing Sunday School class in the church, and on “Genesis Day,” April, 1988, we started Sunday School all over at the Baptist Temple. We adopted a “flip-flop” format (half the church in Sunday school while the other half was in worship), which effectively doubled our space. Scores of new people were trained and enlisted to work in Sunday School and we became a “Sunday School Church”—one that uses Sunday School as its primary strategy of evangelism and discipleship. We have never left this strategy in over 20 years. The heart of our church today is Sunday School. We evangelize through the Sunday School. We depend upon it for discipleship, fellowship and ministry. This philosophy has so many benefits. It puts the lay people into the heart of the ministry. It improves the quality of people’s spiritual lives as they serve in meaningful ways. It provides accountability and training, and deepens the relationship of people to God and one another. Today our church averages more than 1400 per week in Sunday School. This is a 52-week, annual average—not a “big day” figure. Many Sundays top 1700, and a couple of times a year, we exceed 2,000. While our worship services are significantly larger, Sunday School is the core that we work at daily. About 88-89% of our people who attend worship, attend Sunday School. I will always feel a deep debt of gratitude to Leon Kilbreth for teaching me the intricacies of Sunday School work, and helping me see that with a Sunday School vision, there are no limits to what a church can do.
With the auditorium filled to capacity twice each Sunday morning and the Sunday School classes full, it was time to build again. We began to pray and plan for a new auditorium. Brock Olivo, a Texas architect, had been recommended to us because of his experience in church and Sunday School work. We contacted Brock and the first thing he did was a complete evaluation, resulting in a ten-year Master Plan. The plan produced no surprises—we needed a larger auditorium. A fundraising committee was formed and we built up to a great climactic service where our people made three-year building commitments. During the following three years, our people gave over two million dollars to the building fund above their regular tithes and offerings. Wise Construction Company was awarded the contract for the new building. When it was dedicated, none of us will ever forget the day in October 1992, when we gathered for the last time in the old auditorium (now the Dining Hall), and walked down the hall into the new worship center in absolute silence. I led the procession with the same Bible in my hand that I had preached my first sermon from in the old theater building! I stood in the pulpit for several minutes in silence and watched as hundreds of people filled every single seat in the building. The with a pre-arranged signal, almost 2000 people shouted the words, “Jesus is Lord!” We wanted “Jesus” to be the first word spoken in the service and we wanted the entire congregation to participate. During the 72 hours preceding the dedication service, our people had stood in the pulpit, one at a time for an hour each, and literally read the entire Bible from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, soaking the walls with God’s Word as our first act. The building was dedicated with our Governor at the time, Carroll Campbell, the featured morning speaker; and in the evening, Dr. Jerry Falwell spoke along with Dr. Elmer Towns. A few months later, we held our first revival in the new auditorium. Junior Hill came to preach and the Youth Choir of First Baptist in Jacksonville, Florida, provided the music. It was a glorious meeting with over 100 saved and baptized. But now that we had room to grow in worship, we had a significant need in Sunday School. The next step in our Master Plan was to renovate the old auditorium into our present Dining Hall area. This project was completed in ____1995? A new Preschool Building (“D” Building) was dedicated in 2001, freeing up the old Preschool space for adult and youth Sunday School classes. The building was decorated by Scott Hemann who worked for months to make it a true children’s building. Every room has a theme and gives the children a thrilling experience as they learn of Jesus. I have never seen a better children’s facility than the one God has given us.
Our expansion continued with the completion of the Ministry Center in May, 2002. This again freed up space in “A” Building for Sunday School. In total, we now have over 180,000 square feet of building space.
In 2007, our facilities expanded again as we started building a complete Recreational Complex consisting of Football, Baseball, Softball and Tennis courts with room for two additional softball fields and several practice spaces. This along with the Picnic Pavillion gives our church as nice an all-around facility for church and school functions as I have seen. To the Glory of God and because of the serious commitment of our people, we are debt free and all of the building programs since the auditorium have been paid for in cash and were debt free when we moved in!
From the beginning, Missions has been a priority at FBT. When we were in the theater building and so poor (we had nothing), we established a time-honored practice of Baptists—that just as the people tithed the income to God through the church, the church would tithe its income to God through Missions giving. Back in 1970, when our offerings were a mere $300-$400 per week, we took on our first missionary, a man named David Harrell, who served in Brazil. I can say that this policy has been practiced since, without exception. We have always tithed church income to Missions; and we have kept our commitments. Not once have we not tithed our offering to Missions, sent out our monthly support checks, nor have we ever been late. And God has provided for us as we have provided for others. In addition to the weekly tithe to Missions, we receive a Christmas Offering from which a large portion is sent to missionary enterprises. Through the years, there has been a parade of missionaries coming through our church. Today, we support over 60 missionary families on a monthly basis. About one third of our Missions dollars goes to monthly support. Another third goes to projects—building programs, houses, cars, literature, feeding projects and other large ministry needs of our missionaries. I don’t know how many cars we have bought, how many homes we have helped purchase, or how many other projects in which we have participated, but there have been many. The other third is given in substantial amounts of money to Christian colleges and Home Missions. Our primary recipients through the years have been Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Missouri, Liberty University, Piedmont Baptist College and Baptist University of America (now closed) in Atlanta. In recent years, we have increasingly sent Mission Teams to the various fields. While this is expensive, it accomplishes many things. First, our own people experience mission work firsthand. To go to another culture and see our missionaries “in action” gives a vision of missions that just can’t be gained in any other way. Second, Mission Teams help and encourage the missionaries. Often we can take a team to the field and help with construction, painting, literature distribution or other tasks that the missionary cannot do because he has no labor force available. Third, Mission trips show our people the need of the world, and serve to be the catalyst for a call to missionary service for some of our own people.
If everyone in Florence attended FBT (which they never will), we would still have work to do through Missions. Over six billion people now inhabit the world. The Great Commission is still in effect, and we must never forget that every local church has a mandate to “take the Gospel to every creature.” Our total giving to missions through the years has surpassed $6,000,000, and we now average around $400,000 per year in missions giving.
We all know that too much looking back is unhealthy. A runner cannot run a race looking backward—nor can we. On the other hand, the Scripture tells us to “Look to the rock from which you were hewn and the pit from whence you were digged” (Isaiah 51:1). In other words, look back to your heritage; your beginnings can help you understand who you are and see God’s dealings in your past life life’s experiences. So where do we go from here? First, the Great Commission has not changed, been rescinded or modified. Florence and the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina have grown rapidly in the last decade and are projected to continue growing. Unless the Lord comes, there will be more opportunity for FBT than it has ever had. Thousands of souls right here in the Pee Dee need Christ. The fields are whiter than ever. We must never depart from the basics—we must keep evangelism and soul winning on the front burner.
I believe evangelism, soul winning, the preaching of the Gospel and salvation are the nearest things on earth to the heart of God because our salvation required the suffering of His only begotten Son. If FBT will keep this “on the front burner,” we will have God’s blessing. The church who priority is reaching and winning the lost will always be “special” to the Lord. However, just as we believe that parents who have babies should love, nurture and train their children to be responsible people, so the church should love, nurture and train its newborn babes in Christ to be mature Christians. This is called discipleship. For a number of years, we have used as a mission statement the phrase, “Making Disciples Through Reaching, Growing and Serving.”
While writing our story, I attempted to think of an appropriate ending and made many attempts to write over. Then it occurred to me, “You can’t write an ending because there isn’t one.” I trust the story of FBT will not end until the Lord comes. Years are just a mile marker on the road.
What will FBT be like in the future? It is very possible that our greatest days are in the future. Certainly the need will be greater than it ever has been. Our nation, founded upon Christian principles, is hardly recognizable as the America of 1969. The moral meltdown and growing Biblical illiteracy of our times presents a tremendous opportunity for churches that will “stand in the gap,” that are willing to be “lighthouses,” holding up the Gospel torch to a new generation. It may become difficult. There is even a growing possibility of persecution those who remain true. Remember, “The darker the night, the brighter the light!” As long as FBT stays committed to the truth of God’s Word, she will continue to be greatly used of the Lord. And the things that have brought us this far—a deep commitment to God’s Word, an evangelistic and missionary priority, an emphasis upon righteous living, faithfulness to the Lord and a commitment to please the Lord Jesus—will keep the light shining at FBT.
We are commanded to witness—to personally share the gospel and bring people to Christ. We will continue to send and support missionaries. The greatest work of FBT may be through the missionary families that call FBT my “sending church.” We will continue to focus on not just evangelizing the lost but making disciples. Reaching, Growing and Serving is more than a slogan—it is a plan—a strategy for being what Christ wants us to be. We will continue to be a Lighthouse…to preach and stand for Bible doctrine. We must raise our voice against evil in whatever form it comes. We must proclaim liberty—America is in great peril and it is not a time for us to silence our voices regarding the threats to our freedom. The best days of the Baptist Temple can be in the future. It will be difficult—the Lord never said it would be easy. But if we will be what we ought to be—a people of integrity, service, integrity and loyalty to Christ and the scriptures—there will always be people with whom God is dealing and the Baptist Temple will continue not only to survive—but to thrive. Remember, we buried “I Can’t” and with God’s blessing, whatever happens—we can!
We have certainly not been perfect—but other than Jesus, none of the other examples were either. But we have remained together and God has blessed. I am praying, and believe it is very possible, that the greatest days of FBT are still in the future. We live in crisis times—our entire culture groans under the stress of our times. And we who believe the Bible and know the Lord Jesus have the answers. Serious times demand a serious, and a serious faith requires a serious church. We are still serious about the Lord’s work!
As a church, we strive to base our faith, conduct and ministry values on the Bible which is God’s revelation to mankind. We desire to have a church that is not trendy like a shopping mall but timeless. We want to be a church that is a warm, friendly soul-saving station. As a hospital is a place for sick people to find healing and recuperation, a church should be a place where sinners find forgiveness, restoration and the joyful Christ-centered life that brings meaning and lasting satisfaction. In the New Testament, the local church became the hub of a believer’s life. It was a place for prayer, instruction, inspiration and fellowship. Know that at FBT, you are more than welcome, you are wanted!
Below are our beliefs with supporting Scripture. You’re encouraged to read through them and contact us with any questions you may have.
believe in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as verbally
inspired of God, and inerrant in the original writing, and that because
of their origin and purpose they are of supreme and final authority in
faith and life and all areas to which they speak. (2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16, James 1:22-25, 2 Peter 1:3-8).
In one living and true God, who is an infinite and omniscient Spirit, the maker and supreme ruler of heaven and earth (Exodus 20:2,3, Psalm 147:5) and is worthy of all possible honor, trust and love. God eternally exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is God (Romans 1:7), the Son is God (Hebrews 1:8) and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3).
That the Genesis account of creation is to be accepted literally, not allegorically or figuratively; that man was created directly in God's own image and was not a matter of evolution or evolutionary change of species; that all animal and vegetable life was an intentional and voluntary act on the part of God (Genesis 1-2).
That Jesus Christ was begotten by the Holy Spirit, and born of Mary, a virgin, and is true God and true man. Jesus Christ is not a created being but has existed from eternity and was active in the Creation of the world (John 1:1, 8:56-58). Jesus Christ was supernaturally born into this world by a virgin (Matthew 1:23), became flesh and dwelt among men (John 1:14)was tempted yet remained without sin and is completely deity yet also fully human (John 12:45, Philippians 2:5-8) and is the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
That man was created in the image of God, that he sinned and thereby incurred not only physical death, but also that spiritual death which is separation from God: and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and, in the case of those who reach the age of moral responsibility, are sinners in thought, word and deed (Genesis 3, Romans 3:10, 23, 5:12-17).
That the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice, and that all who believe in Him are justified on the ground of His shed blood (Isaiah 53, Ephesians 2:8,9, Hebrews 2:14-18). His death on the cross satisfies the righteousness and justice of God, making it possible for man and God to be reconciled and man's sins to be forgiven him (Romans 3:22-26, 2 Corinthians 5:17-19).
In the 'Eternal Security' of the believer: that it is impossible for one born into the family of God ever to be lost (John 1:12). Believers are kept by the power of God (John 6:39-40, 10:28-29) and the sufficiency of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore can have assurance of their salvation and future home in heaven (1 John 5:13, John 6:37, Romans 8:31-39).
In the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord, in His ascension into heaven, and in His present life there as High Priest and Advocate (Matthew 28:6, 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4).
That the Church of our Lord is a visible, local, self-governing body of believers who have been baptized (Acts 2:41-47) of whom Jesus Christ is the head (Ephesians 5:23) and that there are only two ordinances: baptism and the Lord's Supper, both of which are administered only to believers. The true mission of the church is to preach the Gospel, baptize believers and assist them in spiritual growth that results in a life of Christian maturity (Matthew 28:19-20).
In the literal fulfillment of the prophecies and promises of the Scriptures which foretell and assure the future regeneration and restoration of Israel as a nation (Genesis 12:1-3, Ezekiel 37).
That all who receive by faith the Lord Jesus Christ are born again of the Holy Spirit and thereby become children of God (John 1:12, John 3). In the bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust, the everlasting blessedness of the saved, and the everlasting punishment of the lost (Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 16:19-31, John 3:18, 36).
That Jesus Christ is coming again to take His church out of the world (John 14:1-3, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), at which time the tribulation begins and will end at His coming to earth to rule and reign for 1,000 years as King of Kings and Lord of Lords
(Matthew 24:29-31, Revelation 19:11-21).