Jacksonville megachurch in 'cardiac arrest,' to sell off most of its massive downtown property

First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida | YouTube/First Baptist Church of Jacksonville

More than a year after Pastor Mac Brunson resigned from First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, the megachurch’s current senior pastor says the congregation is in “cardiac arrest” and in need of a drastic downsizing. 

“Our church is facing some truly significant challenges,” Senior Pastor Heath Lambert says in a video posted to the church’s website. “But I also think we have a really incredible opportunity to reach out to the city in Jesus’ name in a new and bold way we have never been able to do before.”

Lambert unveiled to his congregation on Sunday a $30 million plan to help the historic church stop “the bleeding from its pores” caused by 11 years of a sharp decline in attendance and the tens of millions it would cost to maintain the church’s campus that spans 10 city blocks. 

The Jacksonville Daily Record reports that the plan is called “A New Generation of Miracles.” According to the newspaper, the congregation voted on Sunday to approve the plan. 

“Here’s what I’m telling you — First Baptist Church is in cardiac arrest,” Lambert was quoted as saying as he told congregants about the $30 million loan the church will need to take out to renovate the parts of the campus they are keeping.

“And if we don’t jolt back to life with a loan, we’re not going to make it. We can die and be irrelevant and have 500 people sitting in this room thrilled to be a part of the memory of the miracle of Downtown Jacksonville.”

Lambert laid out five challenges the congregation is facing: attendance, location, campus size, maintenance costs, and financial struggles.

“First Baptist has been experiencing a general decline in attendance for the last 20 years and a sharp decline in attendance over the last 10,” Lambert said. 

Lambert reportedly displayed for the congregation a line graph showing that attendance has fallen from an average of 10,000 to 3,200 last year. 

Although the church experienced a 3% growth in the last year, Lambert said the slight growth is not enough to “erase” the problems the church is facing. 

“First Baptist Church is located in downtown Jacksonville, far away from the thriving areas of growth in our city,” Lambert said in the video.  

“What that means is that for us to invite visitors and guests to the church and for us to have an expectation that they will come, they have to do two things that they never do. First, they have to go downtown. And second, they have to come to church. Those are some pretty significant realities to ask unbelievers to deal with. So we just have to face the problem of having a campus of our church so far away from the surging areas of growth in Jacksonville.”

The entire First Baptist downtown campus measures in at 1.5 million square feet, according to the pastor. Lambert compared the size of the campus to a family of four living in a house that is 25,000 square feet.  

“The facts are nobody can afford that much space,” he said. 

With a large campus comes the high cost of maintenance, Lambert said. According to Lambert, the church spends about $5 million per year (37% of the church budget) to maintain the church's properties. Even then, $5 million is still not enough to adequately maintain the campus, he said.  

First Baptist Jacksonville commissioned a study in recent months to figure out what the church must do to update its facilities. 

The study found that it would cost the ministry $37 million to fix all of the problems on campus. The study also found that in order to adequately maintain the property, the church should really be spending about $7 million per year (about 53% of the church budget).  

“The fact of the matter is that an institution that is spending 53 percent of its budget on plumbing and heating and buildings and facilities, that is not a church anymore. That is a property management organization,” Lambert contended.

“It gets worse when you add everything up, the cost of our deferred maintenance added to what it truly takes to care for our property every year is an astounding $72 million bill that we would have to spend by 2025. That is a breathtaking amount of money.”

Lambert stressed that the church does not have that much money and even if it did, spending that much to maintain buildings is not a wise use of the ministry’s funds. 

As part of the restructuring plan, the church will sell off a good majority of its property in downtown Jacksonville and will be consolidated into one city block.

Lambert said that the church will use the $30 million loan to renovate the church auditorium and its administration buildings. Additionally, the church will sell off its excess property in downtown Jacksonville and begin occupying smaller pieces of property throughout the city in order to make the church more accessible to high-growth areas. 

“Instead of asking people throughout Jacksonville to come to our church, we will take our church to them as we will occupy smaller pieces of property throughout the city on multiple campuses,” Lambert said. 

“These are exciting days of a change in the life of our congregation but in a really important way, everything is staying the same. For our entire history, our church has existed so that Jacksonville may know Jesus Christ.”

According to Lambert, the tentative timeline to open the church’s consolidated downtown facility is sometime within the first six months of 2021.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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