Texas megachurch Pastor Jack Graham celebrated his 30th anniversary at the 45,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church this month, and described the journey as one that shows how God can transform a hurting congregation into one of the most robust in the nation.
The Christian Post spoke with Graham, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, to talk about his time at the Plano, Texas-based church, the future of the SBC, and hot-button issues the denomination is wrestling with at its annual meeting this week.
Below is an edited transcript of CP’s interview with Graham:
The Christian Post: How have you seen Prestonwood change since first started there in June 1989?
Graham: Prestonwood was a really good church when I arrived 30 years ago. It went through a crisis. The founding pastor was forced out in resignation and the church was struggling. Yet they were prayerful and committed to finding the next pastor.
They ended up with me down in West Palm Beach, Florida. I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach. They ended (the search committee) up meeting me and hearing me preach and so on. …
We had a very happy and thriving ministry in West Palm Beach, a very healthy church. In many ways, I was certainly not looking to move and Prestonwood was not on my radar. I think many of us felt like it would be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from the predicament without a pastor.
There was a lot of chaos and confusion, hurt and disappointment. It wasn’t ideal in that sense. But on the other hand, I knew that as I began to pray about it that God was not through with His church. It was off to a great start. It had grown in 10 years to 7,000 members and was known already for reaching people for Christ and evangelism.
When we said yes and the church called us to be their pastor, we went to work and started to build on those things already present and add on ministries and missions, starting mission partnerships. We started a crisis pregnancy center.
We started reaching out into the inner city of Dallas, beyond our North Dallas community. It wasn’t long until the church was healing and healthy again and vibrant. It was living a new day to the degree to that about five years into our ministry here, we saw the need to relocate the church.
We were in a community in North Dallas packed in there. We couldn’t park everyone. We prayed and studied and we relocated in 1999 on a new piece of land with 150 acres in Plano. We built a 7,000-seat worship center and space for all of our teaching ministry and children’s ministry and our sports ministry.
Immediately, the church exploded in those years. We now have 45,000 members. The sun never sets on the ministry of this church through its broadcast ministry, through PowerPoint and our mission partnerships around the world.
We started a network of church plants and church starts. It has been a celebration to look back and to see what God has done and how God has used the people who have been willing to say yes to Him.
CP: What advice can you offer to churches today that are going through the resignation of a pastor similar to what Prestonwood faced 30 years ago?
Graham: Prestonwood stands as an example that it is never too late for a new beginning. So often in the Christian life and in the life of churches, its adversity and trial and trauma and even tragedy that propels you to your greatest days.
The people of Prestonwood prayed and believed that God still had His hand on the congregation and the ministry. God put us together as pastor and people. It was a great match, a great marriage.
After all these years looking back, we know that God is able to do that with any church regardless of any church in any situation. Our theme verses have been Ephesians 3:20-21, that God is able to do above all that we can ask according to the power of the works within us.
With those verses in mind, when we put our focus unto Him who is able, that God is able to lift up any church in any situation, especially when people are broken and hurting and crying out to Him.
Sometimes, we have to get desperate for us to ultimately be used again for God’s glory. I do believe Prestonwood was desperate for God’s will to be done and desperate for God to restore and renew the congregation. He has done that in so many ways and poured out in blessing after blessing for all these years.
CP: Do you have a favorite memory as a pastor at Prestonwood?
We've seen many miracles. Truly, ones that I would call miracles. And the greatest miracle is salvation. And we've seen literally thousands of people come to Christ.
We have this pregnancy center. I just got the numbers on this. We can account for 73,000 babies born directly as a result of clients that have come into our pregnancy center. Not all of these were abortion-minded, but many of them were of course. And just to think of that 73,000, that's a stadium full of children. Now, many of them are adults living today because of the ministry of this church and this pregnancy center.
As far as highlights, the day we made the big trek from our church building in Dallas to this facility here in Plano [in 1991] and the add-on locations and our Espanol campus as well.
Our fastest growing segment is Prestonwood Espanol. We're growing like crazy in our Spanish-speaking services.
I would say that day when we stood here for the first time [in Plano], knowing that that accomplishment was made was a big deal to me. And for me, the unity and the excitement, the joy that we experienced that day.
CP: What is the name of that pro-life pregnancy clinic?
Graham: Prestonwood Pregnancy Center. We are near a major university campus in North Dallas. We also opened up a new center in South Dallas, an impoverished area in South Dallas. We also have a mobile unit. It travels all over the city and goes where people are. It is a regional ministry now.
CP: In what ways has the SBC changed since you became a pastor?
Graham: I was part of the generation that saw the Southern Baptist resurgence to move from progressive, liberal thought in some of our seminaries and some of our churches to see that turned around.
It's a great movement among Southern Baptist in the late '70s. I was just in my late 20s at the time. And then throughout the ’80s and ’90s, we saw the denomination turn around. That was incredible. It has never happened really before for a major denomination, which was drifting left, to make a U-turn and come back to its conservative biblical roots. That was all about the inerrancy of the Bible, the authority of Scripture.
Now all these years later, we have a new generation on the rise. I am personally confident in the new generation of Southern Baptists.
We have a mission network. Our network cooperates with North American Mission Board of Southern Baptist Convention to start and plant churches and help pastors get going. So I'm very encouraged about Southern Baptist churches. You know, the Southern Baptist Convention is not a denomination per se, it is a convention. So every church is autonomous.
I'm seeing young pastors on the rise and new churches that are being planted and developed that speaks well for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. So I'm encouraged and hopeful that the best day for the Southern Baptist Convention churches is on the way.
CP: How has Prestonwood been able to grow from a church of about 7,000 members to a church of 45,000 members under your leadership?
Graham: One of the key elements has been a vibrant worship service. You ask anyone who goes to a church the first time or the congregation, they'll probably tell you about going to hear the message.
The message, what the church is preaching and teaching, is still critical for people who are looking for a church and maybe even those who are looking for God in their lives. They want to know, what's your message, what's your message about God.
So the message needs to be clear and in an environment of vibrant worship, elevating worship.
But there are also small groups. We have a small group strategy where we have hundreds, literally, of small groups and classes that involve people in the congregation. They are the teaching groups, the fellowship groups, the disciple groups, the ministry groups that work within the structure.
We have this incredible structure for adults as well as children and students that teach the church being the church and not just a crowd in bringing people into full development as believers and followers of Christ.
And then giving people an opportunity to serve and making ministry opportunities available for members and witness opportunities.
I was telling you earlier about our mission partnerships. Most churches do it today, here 30 years later. ... But when we begin to think of what if we got our people actually going the mission field. Now, in the world, we can now go places — whether it's across the street or across the world — and preach the Gospel. And our members can go and they can share and they can witness and they can build churches physically as well as leading people to Christ.
And so once you propel people and equip people to go, then that changes your church from being self-centered and internally focused to being externally and eternally focused on what matters most when it comes to getting people to Heaven.
CP: What do you make of the recent debates that have broken out in SBC circles surrounding the idea of women preaching in the church?
Graham: Southern Baptist churches are in agreement. [I would say] 90 percent are in agreement. Not sure what the real number is. But in our doctrinal statement, it says the lead pastors, the preaching, teaching pastors of the church is, according to Scripture, a male. It’s a man. I don’t see that changing anytime soon with the Southern Baptist Convention. Beth Moore believes that herself and has said so.
The issue of women preaching in churches, I defer to local churches on that. I can only tell you what we do. We do not have a woman preaching to the gathered church on a Sunday morning. That's an issue of church authority and the role and responsibility of the pastor. And God called men who are in a position to teach.
So that's what we do. That will be up to every local church to determine how they are going to interpret the preaching ministry of their congregation. So I don't know what else to say about that. Other than that's where I am.
I personally think the problem has been exaggerated on social media. Here's what I really believe: We need to get back to focusing on the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission to evangelism and missions. And we seem to be getting sidetracked a lot with the issues that are in important but not the important thing.
And this whole issue of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, these are debatable issues that people are talking about on social media. But we need to get focused. Southern Baptist churches need to get focused on reaching their communities for Christ … That needs to be first and foremost and forever. The goal and the mission of Southern Baptist Churches.
CP: What do you think about the sex abuse proposal at the SBC annual meeting this week to hold churches accountable for not taking action or covering-up sexual abuse allegations?
Graham: I am glad the Southern Baptist Convention is speaking to the issue. It certainly needs addressing. Every church should be on guard to protect children and to help victims. And we as a church, and I know thousands of Southern Baptist churches are aware of the issue, alert to the issue. We're clear and going forward as to how we should go about it in a more intentional way to protect children.
It is not the issue that the Roman Catholics have had, at least not to that level. But what I would say is that one is too many. So we should care about everyone and every person in every church.
And so I'm grateful for the leadership of Ronnie Floyd, our new executive director, who has spoken to this issue most recently and done it quite well. And I'm sure coming out of Southern Baptist Convention, we will have a clear statement to the world and safeguards in place to help churches. Again, the denomination itself can only speak to the issue and offer churches an opportunity to get better. And what we're doing, certainly I'm supportive.