JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – First Baptist Church of Jacksonville has announced plans to reduce its downtown buildings from ten city blocks to just one.
Membership for the 181-year-old church peaked in the 1980s and 90s. At its height, about 12,000 people packed the sanctuary.
Recently, membership has declined. Pastor Heath Lambert said about 3,000 people now attend church on Sundays. Lambert took over leadership of the church after Pastor Mac Brunson left in 2018. Brunson worked at the church 12 years.
Declining membership means a declining budget and the church cannot afford the $7 million yearly expense to maintain its buildings.
The church plans to sell nine of its 10 blocks and Lambert tells News4Jax that offers have already come in. The church sold another block of its downtown property last year.
“We want to work with the city. We want to work with investors and developers and brokers to figure out how the north end of downtown Jacksonville can be a remarkable place to live,” Lambert said.
Lambert sat down with News4jax to talk about the changes and believes church members support his plan.
“They have made a decision that our dreams for the future are more important than their memories,” said Lambert.
Daniel Davis, the president of JAX Chamber, wants to work with the church and developers to grow this section of downtown. He believes it will work for retail, business and residential space.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest all across downtown and I think this is something -- that there is a lot of opportunity. I can imagine that they’re moving very quickly. I’m sure that they’re talking to people that are already interested,” Davis said.
Lambert plans to renovate the church’s oldest sanctuary, the Hobson Auditorium. It was built in 1904.
His plan includes spending $30 million to renovate the auditorium as well as the building and parking garage next to it. The refurbished facility is scheduled to open in early 2022.
First Baptist also operates a school, First Baptist Academy. It has just under 400 students. Lambert said he has no plans to close the school, but said there are plans to move it to a different location.
First Baptist has a new satellite campus in Nocatee. It will remain open.