The Rev. Robert Jeffress knows how to make headlines, as witnessed by a recent kerfuffle over whether or not NFL quarterback Tim Tebow would speak to the congregation at the reverend’s First Baptist Church in Dallas. (Mr. Tebow didn’t). Last year, the question was whether, Mr. Jeffress, having classified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as not being Christian, would endorse Mormon candidate Mitt Romney for president. Mr. Jeffress did.
Dust-ups aside, Mr. Jeffress knows how to do one thing well, and that is preach the Christian Gospel in a town known for wealth, extravagance (Dallas is home to Neiman Marcus, after all) and, to be honest, more than a little ostentation. First Baptist, a 145-year-old congregation once thought to be in decline, is about as solid as one could imagine. It also has a link to the Washington area: Mr. Jeffress‘ radio program, “Pathway to Victory,” airs weeknights on WAVA-FM.
One measure of that rebound is the church’s rebuilt sanctuary opening on Easter Sunday, just behind a glass wall and an outdoor water fountain whose patterns rival anything on the Las Vegas Strip. Five years ago, just as the last recession was getting under way, Mr. Jeffress launched a $130 million capital campaign to cover the cost of renovating much of the downtown church campus. This was, by the way, a time when many downtown churches were bolting for the suburbs and church giving was hardly certain.
Even so, working without a professional fundraiser, Mr. Jeffress and his church have raised $117 million of the total, meaning the new facility is 90 percent paid for as it opens. Nearly one mile of pews and a merged series of high-definition video projectors forming a 150-foot-wide viewing screen will accommodate 3,000 worshippers in the main sanctuary.
Mr. Jeffress also quickly dispels the notion that the renovated site serves a largely homogenous flock: “Heaven is going to be a very diverse place,” he said during a recent Washington visit, and First Baptist Dallas “is increasingly ethnically and financially diverse. We have folks from all economic strata, and that diversity makes for a healthier church.”
The church membership is also theologically diverse: “We have Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and people of no religion coming,” he said. Worshippers are just “hungry for the word of God to be taught. Hard stands attract people.”
Those “hard stands” include a strict view of Christian orthodoxy and support for a traditional definition of the family. The latter reportedly was one reason the popular Mr. Tebow, now considering his options on where to play football next year, decided not to speak at the church. “It’s all behind us; we went in two different directions,” Mr. Jeffress said when asked about the episode.
Being true to a faith Mr. Jeffress learned at First Baptist under legendary preacher W.A. Criswell, who led the congregation for 50 years, doesn’t mean always being dour. Mr. Jeffress said there is room for sermons offering positive messages in troubled times.
“I think every pastor has a duty to preach the whole counsel of God,” Mr. Jeffress said, “warning and encouragement. Judgment without love is distorted.”
However, he added, “all teaching that encourages people has to be grounded in truth.”
Mr. Jeffress concedes that some of his public positions may alienate some.
“It’s much easier to dismiss someone like me as a caricature,” he said. “Then, you don’t have to consider what I am saying.”
Lots of people in and around Dallas have considered what Mr. Jeffress says, and they seem to like it. Church membership is at 11,000, and 3,400 turn out for worship services each Sunday. That is a nice increase from the post-Criswell years, when membership and attendance fell.
Mr. Jeffress suggested that other struggling congregations could learn from the experience of First Baptist Dallas. “Any church could be turned around,” he said. “Every church needs to discover its unique mission and be the church God called you to be.”