What is First Baptist Jacksonville’s strategy for retaining people?
Well, actually retention isn’t even a word that we use. Nor is it a goal. Our culture kind of mandates that. Jacksonville is one of the most transient cultures in America. We’re home to Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base—one of the largest in the nation. It is the youngest median-aged city in America—22.8—and primarily male. So, we reach young Marines and other military that support the Marine Corps. Lots of young families with children. It’s a fast deployment community; we have people, on average, for three years. And even within those three years, one or two of those years, the Marine or sailor will either be deployed or within training. Every June or July, between 300 and 500 people are PCSed—permanent change of station. So we’ve built our strategy with the end in mind, to say we’re going to be sending people out rather than retaining.
How are you getting them into your front door?
Our weekend experiences serve as the front door. What’s exciting about First Baptist, because of our culture, and what God is doing, our people are passionate about connecting their friends and fellow Marines to First Baptist. Our people are experiencing life change, and they’re looking out into a very broken culture. Divorce rate, infidelity, pornography addiction, male identity issues, men coming back to families post war. All of these things create tension within the heart of our city that you can see. So when our people experience transformation they get very passionate about getting their friends plugged into it as well—a church that speaks their language and isn’t about religion but relationships.
What’s your metric for success?
I think it comes down to this: Are people engaged in the mission of loving all people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ? Are they investing and inviting people? Taking their next steps in their walk with God? You can look at those metrics, and see whether or not people are taking steps. You can measure conversions, but we don’t want to just measure conversions. We want to ask the question, “How did you come to that?” The story of someone’s conversion for us, many times, is about someone else investing in the life of Christ and inviting them to church.
Can you share one of those stories?
We have men right now who, three years ago, their marriages were falling apart. They were really struggling with: How do you do a marriage after battle? How do you raise a daughter or son? They experienced the gospel and found not just the forgiveness of Christ but the grace to move beyond that. Several are now leading life groups on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. Others are leading groups in Afghanistan.
Is it hard to see so many people leave each year?
We have a monstrous back door to our church. It’s not about how to shut it, it’s, how do we put traffic signs to it and celebrate when people go? People are being sent out, but the exciting part is, God is bringing a whole new group of Marines to us each year so that ultimately they would go make disciples across the nation and the world. That’s why our growth is so dynamic. It’s fun.
FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
A 2013 Outreach 100 Church
No. 14 Fastest-Growing
Every quarter, 120-175 people in new membership classes and 50-100 baptisms