The First Baptist Church of Jacksonville was established in July 1838, the third church in the new town. In 1892, First Baptist settled at its present location in the heart of Downtown. The Great Fire of 1901 destroyed the original structure, but in February 1903, the cornerstone was laid for a new building, which still stands at Church and Hogan streets.
First Baptist’s campus has grown to encompass nine square blocks Downtown with a congregation of more than 30,000 members who meet in the church’s 10,000-seat auditorium. It’s one of the largest churches in America.
On Feb. 19, 2006, Dr. Mac Brunson was unanimously elected as First Baptist’s 23rd pastor. He moved his family here from Dallas and has since led the growth and development of the church and its place in the community.
Daily Record Staff Writer Max Marbut sat down with Brunson recently to discuss where the church is today and where it’s going.
by Max Marbut
When and how did you receive your calling to the ministry?
It was my freshman year in college, on a Thanksgiving weekend, that I surrendered to the ministry. I was home that weekend and I was dating the girl that I am now married to. I remember very clearly, for two years, without saying anything to anybody, I’d really wrestled with God’s call in my life to ministry. I remember sitting down that Sunday night before church and just sharing with her that I felt like this was what God was calling me to do. I felt like we were getting very serious, and I said, I want to tell you this, in case you, you know, you say, the very last thing I want to do is to be married to a pastor. But I think I’m going to go down tonight, and just surrender to the call of ministry on my life. So it was then, I remember it very distinctly. It was not a quick decision, it was something I had wrestled with for two years.
What did your parents do?
My dad owned a furniture company, and I’m the only boy.
Where was this?
In Greenwood, S.C. I’d grown up in the furniture business. It was a family business and I’d worked there since I was 12 years of age. It was kind of understood that the family business was going to be mine, that it would be turned over to me. But my dad is a very committed Christian, and was far more elated that God had called me into ministry than that I would take on the family business. So eventually he just sold it and retired.
When you first arrived in Jacksonville, you were very excited about being here. Has that changed since then?
Well, if I was excited then, I’m even more so now. This April will be five years since I was called, or since I came here to pastor. I just love the church. This has become home, and this church has become my family.
Is Jacksonville more home to you than Dallas was?
Yes. I think so. Now, I loved the folks there. I loved Dallas, loved the city, all of that, but this is more home to us, and the church here is more family to us. God’s done a great work in our lives and I’d hope that the church would say that the Lord’s done a great work in the church. We just love Jacksonville. It’s one of the most wonderful places on the earth, to me.
I think the city really doesn’t have a clue of the potential here. All of us want to live in Mayberry. You want your hometown to be Mayberry. So we want that, and we’re afraid that progress is going to make it into something other than Mayberry. But there’s such potential here. It’s a great Southern city. It has resources that are phenomenal. And I just don’t think it’s scratched the surface of what the city could do.
The U.S. Census figures are starting to come out, so talk about the church community and its growth and diversity.
It’s been phenomenal. Let me give you just one area, and that’s the area of the Vietnamese congregation. We have just sent off a young man and his family to seminary. Vietnamese, immigrated here to Jacksonville in his early teens, came to know the Lord through the Vietnamese ministry of this church. We educated him at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville. He got his bachelor’s degree, finished at the top of his class and now we’ve sent him off to seminary. That ministry has grown. During Pastors’ Conference here, they also host the Vietnamese Pastors’ Conference, and Vietnamese pastors from across America come here and meet and attend our Pastors’ Conference, and have breakout sessions that specifically deal with Vietnamese congregations. God’s just really put his hand on that ministry here.
What about other nationalities in the church?
We have a Burmese church here. We have a very good Hispanic church that’s growing. We have a Chinese church, I think Korea. We have one that represents the African tribes. Some of them come from Sierra Leone, some from Nigeria, some have come from various African nations. We also have a Russian-speaking congregation. We have a wide variety. Plus in our congregation, of course we have African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians that are all part of our congregation.
How’s the First Baptist Academy doing?
It is phenomenal. This is its second year. It opened its first year with 270 students, and last year, it went from pre-K through 12th grade. We cut that back because we understood in one year, we need a separate high school. We came to see that you need to put high schoolers in one place and all the others in another. The numbers did not go down that much, we’re still over 200 in school, and the amazing thing is we opened that thing up and it’s been in the black, and it’s been there from Day One. It normally will take you 3-5 years to get a new school up and into the black. We’ve been in the black since Day One.
The church communities have obviously supported it.
We’ve got young people coming here from everywhere. From every direction. So it’s going really well. I’m really thankful for that.
Talk about technology and social media and how that has changed the church and how churches interact with the community.
We were HDTV (high-definition television) before the television stations were. We have to hire 12-year-olds now to run everything. None of the rest of us know how to run it. We have to get 12 and 13 and 14-year-olds. They seem to know more technology than the rest of us. We have a media staff here that is second to none. In fact, this past summer our media group won an Emmy for a commercial that it did for the local market.
What about social media? Do you tweet?
I do. I swore up and down that I never would, but then I did. Now, I have not gone on Facebook, and don’t think I will. But I do tweet out little things God’s put in my heart, principles that the Lord shows me in Scripture. I don’t talk about ‘I’m here eating tonight,’ or ‘I’m there doing this.’ I don’t want it to be about me, I want it more to be about something the Lord has put on my heart to say.
We have a whole new area of our ministry here that’s called FBC-TV, where you can get on and you can get any archived sermon, you can get streaming audio and video. Eventually we’re going to put on manuscripts, so you’ll be able to download manuscripts of the message. You can get video, you can get audio, you’ll be able to get manuscripts, you can get the whole series of things that I’ve done. Of course you get the live service.
We’re getting thousands of hits a day on these things, from around the world. It’s not just local folks, it’s people literally around the world that get on and follow us.
What does that bring to the church?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. We look at it as a ministry. We can get the Word out there, in somebody’s hand, in somebody’s ear, in somebody’s heart, that’s what we’re responsible for. And we feel like we’re doing that. We’re committed to teaching the verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book.
We have a huge audience out there. There was a guy who wrote out of some place in Italy, and said, ‘You are my church.’ Somebody in Cambodia wrote and said, ‘We listen to you regularly.’ There is a military post, I won’t say where it is, where they’re downloading my messages on iPods and they’re giving them to the soldiers as they’re out running every day. While they’re out running, they have the option of listening to a sermon. It’s humbling.
What thrills me is that they’re out there and they’re hungry for it. That that’s what they want. That’s what I want to do.
How has the economy affected the congregation?
Well, we’ve got a lot of folks that have lost jobs. We have a good number of folks that have had to move away to find employment. But I want to tell you an incredible story. Giving, of course, is down. It’s down for everybody, everywhere. But you know, this church has taken in over $1 million in the last two weeks. We’re renovating the auditorium, and people have given almost half a million dollars to the renovation, and half a million dollars to the budget. We’re doing more by way of missions, and giving to missions, and doing hands-on missions around the world, than we have ever done before. Even in the middle of financial downturn.
We’ve heard some incredible stories of folks that have committed to tithe and how God has provided and taken care of their needs. I’m not saying that people have gotten Cadillacs and Mercedes, but how God helps them meet the power bill and helps them meet the rent and God provides all the way for all our needs.
What’s in the future?
We’ve opened a south campus. It meets out at the high school at Ponte Vedra and we’re averaging about 300 attendance out there. It’s First Baptist South. We have a small staff out there and 40 to 50 percent of the people who come on Sunday are visitors. We’re seeing real growth in the teenagers out there. We started out with six, and we’re averaging over 30 now. It’s pretty neat what God’s doing out that way. So we’ll look to open another campus, probably in another year or so.
Is there a minister out there?
No, I go out there and preach, and then I get in the car and drive back downtown and get here about the time for me to preach here.
It’s almost like you’re riding a circuit.
About like a circuit rider. When we open the next campus, and we don’t know which direction, whether it will be west or north, when we open that, what we’re going to do then is probably ‘video in.’ I’ll be one place and we’ll video in to the other place. We’re still working on how that will work.
You can’t be two places at once.
I’ve worked hard on it, but I still can’t do it.
What have you been doing for fun? Have you been on any vacations?
Well, we’ll be taking a group to Israel at the end of February or in March. This year I took a group to Europe. But only a small part of my group was able to get in at that time, because of the volcano.
Have you developed any new hobbies since you came to Jacksonville?
No. I’ve always loved to fish, but I never get to fish. And I have played nine holes of golf twice in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been here. So no, not with a congregation this size and a staff this size. When I have any time off, I feel like I need to be with my family. Studying is my hobby, I guess.
Are you thinking about retirement at all?
It’ll be a little while. Like everybody else, I lost most of my retirement when the market fell. My wife says I’ll be able to retire when I’m 103.
Do you think you’d want to live and work anywhere but in the South?
No. I don’t. I am Southern-born, and Southern-bred, and when I die, I’ll be Southern-dead. Cornbread and collards. This is home.