Who is First Baptist Dallas? | Lesson 2
By Ben Lovvorn
This is the second installment in our “iCampus 101” series. The purpose of this series is to be your boot camp, your basic training, your orientation to what the First Dallas iCampus is all about. What I want us to talk about in this second video is the legacy and current ministries of First Baptist Dallas.
We believe that the local church is God’s hope for the world and an essential part of the weekly and daily life of every Christian. So because you’re part of the First Baptist Dallas iCampus community, I think it’s important to take a little time to introduce you to who we are and what we do here at First Baptist Dallas. You’ll realize quickly that God has truly had His hand of blessing on our church throughout its 155 years of ministry to the city of Dallas. We are a church that is known for being built on the Bible and for being eager to share the gospel with others. We strive each day to embody this legacy in how we live, and we hope that you’ll join us in that effort too.
First Baptist Dallas was founded in 1868 in the middle of downtown Dallas. We continue to minister and serve in the same location today, now almost 155 years later. Our Sunday School program began in 1871 as an outreach to our city. Today, thousands of people come each Sunday to learn from God’s Word, fellowship with one another, and worship together. We have had three long pastorates from distinguished and visionary leaders that have shaped our church: Dr. George Truett (1897-1944), Dr. W.A. Criswell (1944-1995), and now Dr. Robert Jeffress (2007-present).
If you just look at where our church was in 1897 when Dr. Truett became the pastor, we had about 700 members and were a fledgling church in a relatively small town. The population of Dallas at the end of the 19th century was about 43,000 people. By the end of Dr. Criswell’s tenure, almost 100 years later, Dallas was a huge metropolis with over three and a half million people and our church had become the largest Southern Baptist church in the world. Our campus grew to cover five city blocks in downtown. We had thousands of members and a national and international influence. Our church had just two pastors in a century of ministry, and God blessed their long faithfulness to Him in this place.
And now, for the last 15 years, Dr. Robert Jeffress has continued this legacy of faithfulness and visionary leadership. Pastor Jeffress grew up in this church, served as the youth pastor, and was mentored by Dr. Criswell. And now he is a leader in the same mold, who has truly led the church to new heights in its ministry and its witness to Christ throughout the world.
The reason that the church has grown and flourished is because it has always stood for the truth. Our church has long stood for a commitment to God’s Word and to influencing the culture for Christ. We have welcomed five American presidents to our church. Dr. Truett was asked by Woodrow Wilson to travel overseas during World War I to pray with our troops. Billy Graham, the 20th Century’s greatest evangelist, was a member of First Baptist Dallas for 55 years. Dr. Jeffress was asked by President Trump to give the inauguration day sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. He is regularly consulted by leaders from many different fields for his godly counsel and biblical advice.
In addition to this incredible influence, our church has also started institutions throughout our city to minister to people, ministries like First Baptist Academy, Criswell College, KCBI Christian radio station, Dallas Life Foundation homeless shelter, a crisis pregnancy center, a professional counseling center, a special needs ministry, a silent friends ministry, a prison fellowship ministry, and many others. We are a church that exists to serve our city and make an impact for Christ in every way we can.
A major initiative that has been led by our Pastor, Dr. Jeffress, during his decade and a half of leadership here has been the revitalization of our campus. If you watch some of his early sermons, you’ll notice that the background behind him is completely different than it is now. That earlier background is our historic sanctuary, which still stands to this day and is a landmark in the city of Dallas. We have a contemporary worship service there each week. But in 2013, we completed the largest building project in modern church history when we recreated our church campus, built a new worship center, a new family center, and a sky bridge to link it all together. That’s also when we completed the iconic Jeffress fountain, which lifts high the cross of Christ as a witness to our city that this place is consecrated to Him.
And now we have thriving ministries across our church designed to reach to all kinds of people at all stages of life and spiritual growth. We have ministries for preschoolers and children, as well as junior high, high school, and college students. We also have a world-class Sunday School ministry for adults where we teach through the Bible verse by verse, fellowship and care for one another, and get equipped to do evangelism. We do special outreach Sundays each year, like Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter, as well as our annual Freedom Sunday and Explore First Sunday. We have a world class choir and orchestra, and we often bring in special music artists like Chris Tomlin, For King and Country, We the Kingdom, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and many more. Rebecca St. James is even a resident artist in our band-led service. All of these ministries and initiatives are meant to help people grow in their faith, and to equip them to invite others to know the gospel and have their lives transformed by Jesus Christ.
God has the same mission for every church—the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. But he also has a unique plan and calling for how each church will best accomplish that mission. For First Dallas, our calling has always included media ministry. This is one of the most efficient and effective ways to spread the gospel throughout the world. First Dallas has always been at the forefront of media ministry, with a desire to use every new medium to share the gospel with the world and build up the church of Jesus Christ.
Under Dr. Truett, we began using microphones and began recording and broadcasting sermons on the radio. This was highly innovative at the time. Under Dr. Criswell, we continued media innovations. Dr. Criswell was instrumental in starting KCBI, a Christian radio station that is a ministry of our church. It has now become one of the top Christian radio stations in the nation. Dr. Criswell was also one of the first preachers to have his sermons broadcast on television.
Now, under Dr. Jeffress, the media influence of the church has gone into the stratosphere. Pathway to Victory is a daily radio and television broadcast that reaches people in every major market and in all 195 countries of the world. Pathway to Victory has become the #1 program on Trinity Broadcasting Network, which is the largest Christian television network in the world. With Dr. Jeffress’s leadership, we started the iCampus ministry in 2016 and it has quickly become a way for hundreds of thousands of people to receive encouragement and biblical teaching each week via internet platforms.
Livestreaming weekly church services now seems like an obvious necessity, but in the early days of the iCampus, we weren’t sure exactly how it would go. We knew that we had the capability to stream our services live on the internet, but we didn’t know exactly what kind of response we would get or how many people would join us. Over time, we added features like the chat option and chat hosts, so that we could actually interact with people and minister to them live, as they were watching the service and encountering Christ.
Then the pandemic hit. The world shut down. Most major cities were on full lockdown. Here in Dallas, we were completely closed for over two months. And so when we entered the darkest hour, when there was so much chaos and confusion, then we saw how God was going to use the capability and the experience we had gained with the iCampus to minister to people. But even we couldn’t have imagined how much God would use it.
The iCampus went from being an online stream to being a lifeline for people who needed to hear biblical truth when they were isolated and afraid. It became church for all of us during the two months that we were completely shut down. The iCampus viewership exploded to over 10 times its average from before the pandemic. Over 1 million people joined us live on Easter in 2020, including the President of the United States, and heard an incredible message from our pastor about the resurrection of Christ. These were strange times, they were unexpected times, but God used the iCampus to reach many people for Christ and to encourage the church locally, nationally, and across the world.
As the pandemic wore on, we were confronted by questions about what could be taken online and what was best done in person. I think we all recognized that the iCampus was great for that season, when the alternative was either digital community or complete isolation. But we also began to feel the spiritual dryness and lethargy that comes from being away from in-person community for so long. I heard from so many people at our church who had tears come to their eyes as they worshipped for the first time back in person after months of being away and watching only the livestream.
Our Pastor Dr. Jeffress reminded us regularly of the importance of meeting together in person. We did an initiative earlier this year called Spring Training, and the theme verse for the effort was Hebrews 10:24–25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We took the threat to our physical health very seriously and wanted to act prudently in dealing with COVID. We also recognize that the iCampus continues to be a vital lifeline for those who are unable to come to church physically, those who are dealing with health challenges, and others who for a variety of reasons are unable to get to church for a season. But we also realize that there is a serious threat to our spiritual health if we neglect meeting together as the church. As Pastor Jeffress would say, “Christianity is a team sport.”
We will talk further about how to use technology well, and about the opportunities and limits of online church in our fifth video in this series.
In closing, I really want you to hear the heart that our church has and has always had. We always want to stand for biblical truth. We want to think biblically about every issue. We want to encourage you in your faith. And we want to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fundamental truth that our church is based upon is that Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, can save us from God’s judgment if we place our faith in Him. Through Christ, God offers us His free gift of forgiveness that leads to eternal life with Him. It’s not something we can earn; it’s something we receive by His grace. First Baptist Dallas is a community of people who believe this truth, whose lives have been changed by Christ, and who want to witness to this truth here and throughout the world.
So I pray that you share that same heart and that same commitment as well, and that you will come join us sometime soon here at First Baptist Dallas.