First Baptist Dallas opening new campus on Easter Sunday

Posted Friday, Mar. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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DALLAS -- Honoring the past and looking to the future, First Baptist Church of Dallas will open its modernistic $130 million campus on five blocks of downtown Dallas on Easter Sunday.

A montage of the life of Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection will be projected on the new sanctuary's massive screen. At a climactic moment, the orchestra will rise to stage level on a hydraulic platform while playing the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah.

The congregation's first hymn in the new sanctuary will be All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name, the same as at the dedication of the old sanctuary on June 7, 1891.

Work on the massive church began in 2010 with the implosion of four older buildings and the demolition of another. Replacing those buildings are a new sanctuary, a five-story family life center with a gymnasium, a glass bridge, a plaza with a fountain and a baptistery, and a parking garage.

"The amazing thing is that our members gave this money in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress.

First Baptist's new 3,200-seat sanctuary is technologically sophisticated but has traditional features. It has prayer kneelers similar to the ones in the old sanctuary, a pulpit and pews rather than theater seats.

"We wanted to make the pews comfortable so it would be easier to fall asleep during the sermon," Jeffress joked.

A dominant feature of the worship center is a 143-foot-long high-definition screen stretching across two-thirds of the sanctuary.

During the opening services, a short clip of a sermon by the church's legendary former pastor, the late Rev. W.A. Criswell, will be projected on the screen. In it, he talked about a time when the church would have a new sanctuary.

"I think Dr. Criswell would be thrilled to see all of this," Jeffress said.

Although the church wants to reach the growing number of people who live in or near downtown Dallas, it will remain a regional church, he said.

"We have members from Fort Worth, Arlington and one couple that drives two hours from Oklahoma to worship with us," he said.

After Criswell became pastor in 1944, the church reached some of its highest points.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was considered one of the nation's largest churches, claiming 26,000 members. For many years, evangelist Billy Graham had his membership at First Baptist Dallas, but he transferred it last year to a church nearer his home in Montreat, N.C.

First Baptist's membership waned in recent years as huge churches were created in the suburbs.

One of the goals of the rebuilding was to reverse that decline and create a modern facility that would appeal to future generations, Jeffress said.

The church is growing now, he said, and has about 11,000 members.

What hasn't changed at First Baptist is the focus on the Bible, Jeffress said.

"Our church is not built on tradition or denominationalism," he said. "I don't have any interest in turning people into a Baptist. What I want to do is help people in becoming faithful followers of Jesus Christ."

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