By Ronald E. Keener
There is a buzz of activity in the air of downtown Dallas, and Robert Jeffress and First Baptist Church of Dallas will add to that buzz when the church begins to recreate its campus this fall. “We’re experiencing reinvigoration of the downtown area,” says Jeffress. “Ten years ago 300 people lived downtown, today 6,000 people live in the downtown freeway loop and it is growing every day.
“You can look out my window. Every building crane you see out there is building a residential place, so we are surrounded by people moving into the downtown area. Within a mile of here 30,000 people live, and within about a 12-mile radius we have a million and a half people.” He says the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is the fastest growing city in America and that there are upwards of six million people within the metroplex.
“So our church is very centrally located and we believe has a great ministry downtown.” The church’s Sunday school attendance — which he says Southern Baptists tend to call membership — is on average 3,200 each Sunday.
Jeffress says the congregation is eclectic where one can go to Sunday services and “there will be billionaires in the service seated next to people who have come in off the street. It is a very diverse congregation — economically, sociologically, and educationally.
“It is a very ethnicly diverse congregation, and I think the church ought to be diverse. The local church ought to be a slice of what heaven is going to be like, and that’s been one of the great strengths of First Baptist Dallas through the years.”
First Dallas is the congregation of famed W.A. Criswell and three-year-old Criswell Center stands in his honor for his leadership in serving the church. Church Executive spoke with Dr. Jeffress, 53, who came to the congregation about two years ago:
I was saved when I was seven years old and I was part of First Baptist Church Dallas. My father brought me to see Dr. Criswell and I remember going into his office like it were yesterday. He went through the plan of salvation with me and then knelt down with me. I prayed to receive Christ in Dr. Criswell’s office. That was about 45 years ago.
So this was your family home church?
Yes, I grew up here, I was saved here, baptized here, ordained here, married here, preached my first sermon here, and then I served as the youth pastor here for seven years before I went and started pastoring in my own church when I was 30.
Would Dr. Criswell have been the one to ordain you?
Oh yes. He was, in every sense of the word, my father in the ministry here. In fact, when I was called to the ministry I was 16 years old and I remember going in to see Dr. Criswell to tell him of my call to be a pastor. He said, “Now, son, I want you to spend this summer learning every square inch of this facility, I want you to work in the missions area and in the music area, I want you to learn everything there is to learn about this church, because one day it’s all going to be yours.”
I believe he had a prophetic sense that at some point I would be pastor here, so it was a great privilege to learn under him, train under him and to have him as a father in the ministry here.
Dr. Criswell apparently had a reputation as being a taskmaster. Can you share a little about him since you knew him in those early years?
Of course, I grew up having him as my pastor and he was like God to all of us here. He was just a super human figure to so many of us. But when I came back from college and I started seminary he called me into his office and asked me to become the youth pastor. I was 21 years old at the time, not much older than the kids I was overseeing. But he said to me, “Now remember this Robert, you don’t have to answer to anybody in the church except me and all I’ll do is pray for you.”
He was a very interesting man to work with. He said one time, “Robert, if you want to know how to run a staff when you’re pastor one day, just look at what I do, study it carefully, make notes and then do the opposite and you’ll be a great success.”
I learned a lot about what to do and what not to do during my years on the staff here, but he really was a great model for ministry. He was tough, he wanted results but he also gave his staff the freedom to succeed and fail, which was a great strength of his. Any strong pastor has to have a sense of what to do next and Dr. Criswell is probably best described as the benevolent dictator.
He wouldn’t mind that term?
I knew him well enough to know he would smile at that characterization.
Had you been approached earlier to be pastor when he retired?
[laughter] I’ve always learned never to talk about dealings with pulpit committees.
Well, it is a tremendous honor for me personally to be in the church and pastor the people who I grew up with. Just a couple of weeks ago I conducted the funeral service for a man who was my Sunday school teacher when I was four years old, and to be surrounded by people like that who have meant so much to you and now to have the chance to serve them, it is a unique opportunity. I’m very aware of the great responsibility that comes from being pastor of any church, but certainly this church.
What’s your management style, how does it differ from his?
Well, for me the key is to first of all surround yourself with people who are more gifted than you are. Then to see one’s role as empowering and equipping that staff to fulfill their ministry. That’s the real key I believe to effective ministry in the church.
We are a very highly structured church but we have a collegial atmosphere certainly among the executive staff here and so many of our decisions are collaborative issues. But certainly everybody recognizes the chain of command here and respects it.
The church is undertaking a branding campaign. Even today billboards are going up in the city for the church. How did you approach marketing with your elders and how did you decide to go this direction?
Actually, before I agreed to allow my name to be placed before the church I called for a meeting at a local hotel here of the 19 former chairmen of the deacons and I got them all together in the room. I shared with them my vision for the church. I told them what the essentials to me were if I were going to come and be pastor of the church. I went through each of the essentials and explained why. I said if you don’t agree to this, I understand, that’s fine. We will part as friends and I would stay where I am in Wichita Falls.
But if you agree with me that these are nonnegotiable essentials, I want you to signal so by standing where you are right now. And all 19 of the former chairmen stood up and agreed to the three essentials.
And because of that I agreed to allow my name to be placed before the church as pastor of the church.
Have you ever made public those essentials?
Yes, I have. One of them included a commitment to media that we had to not only let the city of Dallas know, but the world know what God was doing at First Baptist Church of Dallas and that media was going to be an essential part of our ministry here.
Another thing was we were going to reexamine our relationship to all of our entities. Through the years First Dallas has started a college, radio station, academy, pregnancy center, and a homeless shelter. I said it is important that we reevaluate all of those relationships; those that work for the purpose of the church we continue, those that don’t we jettison.
Third, I said it is essential that we enter into a massive recreation of our entire downtown campus. When Dr. Criswell came to this church in 1944 it consisted of one block and an aging congregation. He knew to build the church it was going to mean he would need to attract young families downtown and that meant new facilities and new programs.
Now 65 years later, we’re in the very same spot. We have aging facilities and an aging congregation and within a month of coming here as pastor I laid out for the church a vision for not just a new sanctuary but for completely recreating our entire campus.
We are the largest property owner in downtown Dallas; we are talking about recreating this entire campus into what I’m calling a spiritual oasis that will have grass, fountains, open space and new educational facilities. We’re going to demolish just about every building that we have here on the campus and start over again in this plan. So we are excited and in God’s timing it will come to pass.
Does it involve buying more land?
No, we actually have all of the land that we need. Right now we have a million and a half square feet of floor space, so it’s adequate for what we need to do; it’s just means recreating the space, reutilizing it.
What were the processes of working through that with the deacons and the lay committee?
Well I had a unique advantage here, having grown up in the church. I knew the church like the back of my hand and had relationships here. Of course the church has changed in the 23 years I’d been away from it and there are new people and new leaders in the church. But understanding some of the challenges and obstacles in the church gave me a great head start in coming in and leading the effort here.
But there has been such a unity of spirit among our deacons fellowship and among our leaders about what needed to be done here that really, they’ve made my job very easy.
You have a double major in communications and business, and today you have a TV and radio ministry.
We have a program Pathway to Victory; we actually began the program when I was in Wichita Falls and it’s a national television ministry on DayStar and other networks. We are broadcast on about 1,200 television and cable systems around the country, really around the world. And then we have a daily radio program Pathway to Victory.
In your book which of those “hearts” have you found as a pastor to be the more difficult for people to handle?
I think it is the forgiving heart. Forgiveness is the bottom line issue in all of Christianity, receiving God’s forgiveness and then granting that same forgiveness to others.
The lack of forgiveness can certainly become a barrier in our relationship with God and rob us of eternal life. Jesus was pretty blunt when he said, “If you do not forgive others, neither will my Father in heaven forgive you.”
You received something called the Daniel Award. What was that?
Vision America presented that award in relation to a stand our church in Wichita Falls had taken against two pro-homosexual children’s books in the public libraries. Our church stood against the ACLU and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and it was over that stand that they granted this award. I would say I would credit our deacons at First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls and our church members for standing with their pastor in this issue.
But it’s not popular to take those stands. There’s always someone with a cause, often against the church.
We just finished here in the church a series “Politically Incorrect,” dealing with seven of the most politically incorrect beliefs that Christians can articulate in today’s world. One of those messages was “Why Gay is Not OK.” It caused a firestorm of controversy here in Dallas.
We had 100 protesters several Sundays in a row out there picketing the church and the media was irate over the church preaching that homosexuality is wrong. So any preacher in any church anywhere who stands on the inerrant word of God is going to have repercussions.
Sometimes it feels harder to take a stand for faith in this political and cultural environment.
Well, it was interesting. When we were planning this series some were really questioning, this early in my tenure, whether I wanted to take such a seeker, unfriendly approach to preaching. But I believe success for a pastor is not measured in terms of numbers but in terms of his faithfulness to the word of God. I believe we had many people come and join our church as a result of our church willing to take a stand on God’s word.
I believe there’s a huge segment of Christians who are tired of the feel-good preaching that so typifies our Christian culture today. They are looking for a church they can believe in, which is our theme we are using throughout the city of Dallas right now: First Baptist Church — A Church You can Believe In. People are looking for a church that is not going to be swayed by trends or by the church growth specialists but a church that is going to be built on the word of God. The paradox is, I believe, those are the churches that are going to grow.
When I preached this message “Why Gay is Not OK,” one of the letters to the Dallas Morning News said, “I’m a Christian, I attend” — and he named a prominent church here in town — but said “I believe we cannot allow Dr. Jeffress to continue saying what he says, he must be silenced at all costs.”
That is the culture we’re living with, not only non-Christians, but even misguided Christians who believe that Islam is not a way to God or that homosexuality is wrong. They believe that is hate speech and cannot be tolerated. The greatest sin in the culture that celebrates tolerance is intolerance.
NEW SANCTUARY TO BE ‘AN ICONIC PRESENCE’
It is too early for the church to disclose its plans for a new sanctuary and other facilities, but Church Executive pulled a glimpse from Pastor Jeffress of that new facility to come and to be unveiled this fall:
“We are in the process now of developing the schematics so that we can cost them out and have something to present to church this fall on the exact cost. But more than that we want them to see the vision of what this entire campus can be.
“When we presented it to the committee several weeks ago — and these are not only some of the greatest leaders in our church but in the city of Dallas, who are serving on this committee; we have the CFO of Neiman Marcus, the CEO of Parkland Hospital, so many gifted men and women serving on this committee.
“But once the architect had presented the vision, the concept of what this would look like, there was stunned silence in the room and then people spontaneously broke into applause, it was so overwhelming.
“People had tears streaming down their faces as they saw what this church could be, and so we’re very excited about it, we believe the congregation is going to be excited when they see it.
“We gave our architect the charge of creating a sanctuary that is not just a functional box but is an iconic presence in the center of downtown Dallas, the kind sanctuary that people would travel from all over Dallas and all over the world to see. We believe that it ought to be a sanctuary that reflects the majesty of the great God that we serve, and they have succeeded in developing that kind of iconic sanctuary. I have seen the concept and am overwhelmed by what I saw.”
“I believe Christianity has become overly complicated. Christianity has become a lot of to-dos, it’s been filled with secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues. I wrote Clutter-free Christianity (Water Brook Press, 2009) to cut through some of the clutter of Christianity and answer the basic question, ‘What does God really desire from me?’
“When I turned 50 I had that realization that I had more years behind me than I had in front of me and that sooner or later I was going to stand in front of God and give an account of my life and I began to ask the question, ‘What is it God really wants from me?’ And of course the answer is a transformed heart, more than anything. He’s not going to judge me by the doctrinal positions I held or the social causes I embraced, he’s going to measure me according to the standard of Jesus Christ.
“So I wrote this book to talk about what the heart of Christianity is all about and how we can cooperate with God in this process of spiritual transformation.” — Robert Jeffress