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Church remains loyal to being missionary Baptists with help of Florida Baptists’ generosity

By Barbara Denman

August 29, 2013


The remnant members of Dunns Creek Baptist Church wanted to remain Southern Baptist even after back-to-back pastoral controversies, including the teaching of false doctrine, threatened their fellowship.  

Having already endured the first public scandal, a faction within the San Mateo congregation attempted to lead the church down a non-denominational road. Tired of the controversies and the new doctrine being taught, people began leaving the church in droves, reported church member Lana Johnson.

But a group of Southern Baptist traditionalists stood firmly on their foundational roots.

Dunns Creek, located south of Palatka, had been planted in 1997 by the historic Peniel Baptist Church, known in evangelical circles for baptizing a young Billy Graham in nearby Silver Lake and ordaining him to the evangelistic ministry in 1939.

“The founders of this church believed we needed a Baptist church in the area to reach people in this community for Christ,” said Johnson. “We wanted to stick to our roots, our foundation and our doctrine.”

When a vote was taken, the Southern Baptist faction prevailed but not without battle scars.

In a settlement, the remaining Dunns Creek members agreed to help the other group plant a separate church by providing their pastor a salary for six months and giving them supplies, furnishings and sound equipment.

In the aftermath of the conflict, the congregation had unraveled from 650 members at its highest to less than 60. But even more painful, families were divided and close friends barely spoke to each other.

Strapped with a commitment to subsidize the new church plant and a $7,000 monthly mortgage on the church’s sanctuary, the congregation could have easily closed its doors.

At the core group’s request, Asa Greear, director of missions for the St. Johns River Baptist Association, who was responsible for amicably negotiating with the other group, contacted the Florida Baptist Convention for help.

Greear had been talking to Ron Moore, retired pastor from Anastasia Baptist Church in St. Augustine, one of the association’s leading churches, asking Moore to pray about helping the Dunns Creek church through the transition process.

Moore “recently had successfully guided First Baptist Church in Bunnell through a transitional process,” Greear said. Transitional pastors intentionally help a congregation heal and prepare for their next pastor.

Revitalization funds from the Maguire State Mission Offering provided five months’ salary for Moore, whose wisdom is nurturing the church to health.

Church member Max Howell said when Moore arrived, the congregation was suffering through “depression. There wasn’t something here you could be proud of. There was no joy.”

Moore agreed, adding that each Sunday when worship was over, the congregation almost stampeded out of the building as he tried to greet members at the door. He knew the church had turned the corner one Sunday when he saw church members lingering during the welcome, visiting with one another.

“The natural love among the members was returning,” he explained. “I had a hard time getting them back to their seats because they were enjoying being together.” Attendance is slowly climbing upwards, with as many as 80 persons coming each Sunday.

“Ron has been loving on the group and guiding them since,” said Greear. “God is working there at a slow pace. He is providing all they need.”

Johnson, who also serves as the church secretary, agreed. “Pastor Ron brought experience, strength and stability, and is now helping to bring back church leaders who had left.” 

Lisa Depriest stayed at Dunns Creek in those difficult days while “a lot of young couples left during the split,” she said. “God wouldn’t allow me to leave,” even though her husband visited other churches.

Younger families like the Depriests are returning, she said, “Volunteers are joining together and trying to save our church. We need it in this community. There are a lot of lost people in Putnam County.”

Among financial assistance given by the Florida Baptist Convention was funding to repair the roof and to erect a sign on the church property. The sanctuary was built as a Sprung Building, a tension-membrane structure that gives the community few clues that it’s a church, but instead resembles an airplane hangar or circus tent.

The unique building with no steeple was a “huge disadvantage” for the congregation, said Moore, but the signs are helping alert the community to the church’s presence. The property was in disrepair, and through the revitalization process, improvements have enhanced its visibility and curb appeal.

Dunns Creek is located in a rural area south of Palatka that borders the St. John’s River and offers water sports, fishing and boating amenities to the nature loving residents. Yet despite its rural setting, one church member estimated that nearly 60,000 people live in a 20-mile radius, with nearly half not attending a church.

As the congregation continues to heal, church members are ready to begin an outreach campaign having prepared door hangers that state “our doors are open and you’re invited” and systematically mapped out nearby neighborhoods for visitation.

The San Mateo congregation always had been a generous people, strongly supporting the Cooperative Program and associational missions, but when troubled times hit, found themselves relying on the generosity of Florida Baptists.

“Without Florida Baptists, we would have probably lost the property and the building,” said Johnson.

Greear agreed. “It was the wonderful generous help of the Florida Baptist Convention that made this all possible.

“They have baptized people there and are seeing many people step up to help grow the church for God's glory,” he said. “Thank you Florida Baptists for your help in righting this church and keeping it missions minded through Southern Baptists.”

Yet Moore said it was a combination of God’s people working together who have held the church together—people within the congregation who volunteered their time as secretary, repairmen and yard workers despite desperate circumstances; a new worship leader; and Greear and other associational churches who supported their efforts.

“These are good people,” Moore said. “They wanted their church to stay Southern Baptist. I see a bright future for this church.”

The congregation has claimed Philippians 3:13-14 to say they are looking to the future and pressing toward the mark of the high calling of God.

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