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Doing well, doing good

One of America's most innovative churches looks conventional at first glance.


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LEESBURG, Fla. -- Alfred Hitchcock directed films in which terror emerged from thoroughly conventional surroundings: a motel shower, a crop-dusted field, a row of birds on a telephone wire. But Christians from the Gospel writers through Walker Percy have shown how goodness also can leap out of stables, suburbia, and other unexceptional surroundings.

Located about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando on a main street that also boasts a McDonald's, Subway sandwich shop, and Ace hardware, the First Baptist Church of Leesburg (pop. 15,596) sports a standard denominational look: columned portico, rising steeple, and lots of people, with an average attendance of 2,200 during the winter and 1,400 during the summer. During services the words of praise songs and hymns flash onto huge screens at the front of the sanctuary while a song leader directs a robed choir.

Yet one recent sermon suggested a key distinctive-and it wasn't only that senior pastor Charles Roesel, a 68-year-old who runs three miles a day, bounded up the steps to the pulpit. First, while exegeting Exodus 20:13, "You shall not murder," he spoke sternly about abortion, a topic many preachers like to skip. Mr. Roesel called it "the greatest crime in America today. It's cold-blooded murder. . . . If we do not provide an alternative, we share in the corporate responsibility for this crime."

What came next, though, was even more striking: "Doing nothing when you can save or transform a life is also condemned by the Sixth Commandment. . . . Ministry is not an elective. It is a divine mandate. Any church not involved in ministry is guilty of high treason and spiritual disobedience. . . . For too long we've evaluated a church by how many people stream in the front door on a Sunday." He proposed an alternative: "Evaluate a church by how many people serve the Lord Jesus by serving the hurting all week long."

Mr. Roesel referred to the main sin of Sodom and said it was not homosexuality: That was a sin, but it was part of the Sodomites' overall tendency to be "arrogant, over-fed, unconcerned." He said many of today's churches are like Sodom: "staff members strutting on platforms," with the church becoming "the knife and fork club . . . ignoring the needy, callous and unconcerned, committing silent murder. . . . We don't spend time with those who are lost, we spend time with each other."

Mr. Roesel began emphasizing what he calls "ministry evangelism" shortly after he became the church's pastor in 1976. The church's typical attendance of 200 leaped to 600 six months later, but not everyone was on board with the plan to make First Baptist known for its compassion. When the pastor pushed for the church to create a children's home, only 51 percent of congregation members voted for it.

"I backed off and started expository preaching through the New Testament," Mr. Roesel recalls. "The centrality of ministry to the needy comes up over and over. I hit it hard." One couple decided to give $25,000 for the children's home, and additional money came in once the home opened and stories about the needy children circulated within the congregation. One 9-year-old who came to the home trembled when anyone tried to hug him, didn't know what a bathroom was, and at first slept in the closet rather than on a bed, because that was all he knew.

In the 1980s the church also established a crisis pregnancy center and shelters for homeless or troubled men and women in existing buildings, one so ramshackle that (as a church joke went) "if the termites hadn't held hands, it wouldn't have stood up." But compassion was still an add-on at a church headed in the right direction, one not yet making major sacrifices for the poor and needy.

By the early 1990s Mr. Roesel's preparation of his congregation was complete. Some members spoke of building a larger sanctuary so the church would not need two (now three) worship services on Sunday morning, but when their pastor said he wanted the church instead to build a Ministry Village with first-class buildings for those in need, members voted unanimously to embrace that vision, and without any formal campaign donated $2 million.

"This has been one of the most thrilling adventures of my lifetime," Mr. Roesel said. "God did this." What God did at First Baptist is striking not only in the broad range of ministries the church runs, but in their location smack by the steepled church, and in the quality of their buildings. Some churches want their ministries of compassion to be geographically separate from and financially unequal to their worship functions, but First Baptist supports Christ's teaching (Luke 10:27) that loving our neighbor belongs in the same sentence as loving God.

Just a few hops, skips, and jumps from the front door of the sanctuary are the seven buildings the church constructed. The facilities, totaling 33,600 square feet under roof on four acres of land, with a current valuation of more than $4 million, include:

A Women's Care Center decorated in feminine shades of beige and green. It has 18 beds for women "who are tired of being who they are," according to director Charlotte Rubush: Residents must attend daily Bible study and church on Wednesday and Sunday. Some sing in the choir or participate in the church's nursing-home ministry; that furthers the goal to bring these women into the church community. A Men's Residence decorated in utilitarian cinderblock and linoleum. It has 30 beds for those determined to overcome past addictions: Residents spend four months studying the Bible and taking classes in subjects like how to be a man, how to be financially responsible, and how to manage anger. They typically spend four months more in getting and holding onto a job, saving money, getting a car, and preparing to move out on their own. A Pregnancy Care Center with 35 active and regular volunteers who provide free pregnancy testing, medical referrals, nutrition classes, and adoption assistance. Clients who receive ongoing counseling and support pick out their own maternity clothes and receive other help. A Community Medical Care Center that has provided free care to 6,000 of the 8,000 low-income, uninsured residents in the church's region. As director Howard Vesser says, "It's on our property, we present Christ to everyone who comes, and Leesburg Regional Hospital gives us a quarter of a million dollars each year because it saves them a fortune: Everyone we see is someone they don't have to." A Residential Group Home that provides long-term shelter for nine children who have emotional problems that make them unready for foster care and are old enough to make adoption unlikely. Houseparents Mike and Kim McElroy report small but significant victories: After a year, a little boy who wouldn't talk, hug, or hold hands grabbed Mrs. McElroy's hand. An older boy started destroying everything he could, until police came and took him away in handcuffs; Mr. McElroy recalls, "We could have said, 'don't come back,' but we took him back, and since then he's been a changed person." A Children's Shelter that provides emergency housing for 16 kids ages 6 through 17. Director Myra Wood, formerly an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families, notes that some of the children had "slept in a corner with animal feces," but the shelter offers them quilts on their beds and orderly lives. A Benevolence Center where 70 volunteers help 1,000 people a month who come with proof of imminent housing eviction or utility cutoffs, or who fill out information sheets and then receive food and clothing. First Baptist has established limits: financial help once in a six-month period, with payment by voucher rather than cash; a two-day supply of food; eight items of clothing per person.

Those ministries have buildings of their own, but 70 others take place in general-purpose church buildings or out in the community. Among them are Adoption Counseling for Birthparents, Backyard Bible Clubs, Caring Hands Deaf Ministry, Divorce Recovery Support Group, Furniture Barn, Grief Share, Haitian Ministry, Jail Ministry, Literacy Classes, Mother's Day Out Program, Nursing Home Ministry, Post Abortion Support Group, and so on. First Baptist also houses its own Christian school, First Academy, which has 400 students and a tuition of $4,600 per year.

The church particularly emphasizes its mentoring program (which includes before- and after-school tutoring), summer reading program, abstinence education, and a "Saturday Sunday school" that unites Saturday-morning activities and Christ-centered mentoring for poor children. First Baptist is largely white but its mentoring program is directed by Minister of Community Relations Ken Scrubbs, an African-American who received one of five Mentor of Excellence awards given out last year by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Not everyone likes the Leesburg approach. Some pastors argue that churches should emphasize worship only, with other Christian groups handling social ministries. Given the theological splits that emerged a century ago, many conservative evangelicals fear creeping social gospelism and worry that emphasizing social ministries will inhibit evangelism and church growth. First Baptist opposes to that its own strong, biblical preaching and its experience. Before the new emphasis, the church added about 30 members a year through baptism, with new members typically the children or relatives of those already in the church. Now (to use one measurement of growth) the church regularly baptizes 200-300 persons each year.

Some other critics want sanctuaries to be cathedrals and fear approaches that can get in the way of building plans. Still others prefer broad give-away programs to the more intensive work the church now emphasizes. To that complaint Don Michael, a retired military pilot who chairs the board of directors that oversees the church's major mercy activities, gives a been-there-done-that response: 15 years ago, "we felt like we were enabling people who didn't want to change."

Overall, the church and ministries budget has increased from $180,000 annually in 1979 to $5.5 million now. Forty percent of the expenditures are for the church and the 70 ministries housed within it, 28 percent for the seven ministries that are housed in their separate buildings on the church grounds, and 32 percent for the school, which began in 1989.

Those numbers don't include payments and donations by Florida governmental and corporate entities. The Residential Group Home receives from the state $66 per child per night. The Medical Care Center receives substantial funding from Leesburg Regional Hospital, which appoints three members of the Center's board; First Baptist appoints four. Disney World donates food and local supermarkets give day-old bread. Pharmaceutical companies monthly contribute supplies worth $60,000-$90,000.

First Baptist members state that such ties do not duct tape the church's voice, and visible evidence bears that out. Signs asking, "Where will you spend eternity?" and stating, "Jesus Christ is Lord" are prominent in the clinic's waiting room. Dr. Vesser states, "We ask patients if they'd like to have someone from the church visit them." He notes that the asking is polite: "We make sure they understand it's not a swap."

So far the ACLU and similar groups have not brought suit, and maybe they won't because ministries such as the Community Medical Care Center provide so much bang for so few bucks. For example, that center's records show that 38 licensed medical professionals each month donate more than 350 hours with a total monthly value of $50,000; donations of pharmaceuticals, X-rays, lab work, eyeglasses, and so forth, plus the time of 42 non-licensed volunteers, totals another $50,000 per month. Overall, with $30,000 for operating expenses cast on the water each month, over four times as much comes back.

But those are statistics, and stats have little emotional grip. The human interest story of a changed church and changed lives is getting out. Art Ayris, First Baptist's executive pastor and now an award-winning screenwriter, is transmitting the church's message with The Touch, a film he produced for under $200,000 with production values (except for a couple of scenes) that suggest a far larger budget.

The film is an exceptional production not only due to its acting and overall professionalism but because it doesn't shy away from the early struggle inside the church concerning ministry evangelism. And now, not only deacons' committees in various churches but non-Christian moviemakers are deciding that something good can come out of Leesburg: Major film festivals in California and Florida plan to show The Touch in October, cable or satellite network showings are likely, and other distribution opportunities beckon.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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