Old church site is resurrected

Published February 2, 2007

Brenda Bader keeps the blue stained-glass panels in the back of her closet. She's not sure what she'll do with them, but she's not throwing them away.

Why'd y'all tear the church down? neighbors call over Laura Barnes' fence. There was a reason, she says, a good one. Sometimes it just doesn't seem good enough.

The First Baptist Church of Seffner stood for more than 100 years, and now it's gone.

This is the story of how a church died, and how it will be reborn.

- - -

The First Baptist Church of Seffner celebrated its centennial in 1984.

It was then a small church of about 150 members. Pastor Terry Lowe had been preaching there for three years.

Members liked the church for its old-fashioned services, its familiar hymns. On Sundays the congregation sang Old Rugged Cross, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, and Jesus Jesus Jesus, the Sweetest Name I Know.

They called themselves "friends for eternity." If you didn't show up on a Sunday, someone would notice you were gone.

"In the '80s," Lowe said, "we were growing really well."

But by the early 1990s, Seffner was growing and becoming more suburbanized. Lowe felt the church had to keep up or fall behind.

"I wouldn't say it was a country church, but they had some changes they had to make," Lowe would say later.

Lowe tried to make the church more "seeker friendly." He updated the music, brought in a new choir.

It didn't work.

Bigger congregations such as Bay Life Church and Bell Shoals Baptist Church were springing up in Brandon, drawing the seekers Lowe was trying to win. Meanwhile, his old congregation wasn't impressed by the changes.

"The people it was intended for weren't there and those who were there didn't like it," said Jon Wixtrom, the church's youth pastor.

"It was a bad situation," Wixtrom said. "The church just didn't mature."

For a decade, the church struggled along, slowly losing members.

"It just dwindled down, dwindled down," said Ernestine Dotson, 81, whose husband, Earl, had helped build the church's sanctuary 30 years before.

Then came the crisis.

Signs of trouble

In 2004, Wixtrom was trying to place rodent traps in the ceiling of his office. What he found dismayed him.

"It was orange and black and green and fuzzy," he said. "It looked like a bad science experiment."

The building Earl Dotson had helped build was full of mold and, even worse, asbestos.

Lowe did the math. There was no way the church, with its small membership, could afford to renovate the sanctuary.

The only thing they could afford to do was tear it down - and even that would put the church deeply in debt.

Bader came to Lowe's office to ask for some of the stained glass.

"It's like when someone passes away, you want to have some of their things to remember them by," she said. "Because it was part of you."

In May 2005, the church sanctuary was razed.

Pastor Lowe hoped he could sell some land the church owned across the street, pay off the debt from the sanctuary demolition, and start raising money to build a new church.

The land didn't have a sewer hook-up. Developers wouldn't touch it.

When he was alone, Pastor Lowe prayed.

"It's in your hands," he told God. "We've done exactly what we had to do. It's in your hands now."

The appeal goes out

That spring, Lowe started trying to find a way out. He turned to his fellow Baptists for help.

In June, a neighboring Baptist church, the Crossing, stepped in to take over First Baptist's mortgage.

Bader remembers that time. "When the sanctuary got torn down and the congregation got smaller and smaller, you realized that there isn't going to be a church here," she said.

When the church membership voted to merge with the Crossing, she said, "I couldn't even vote. It was like I was agreeing to that, and it wasn't what I wanted. What I wanted was something that wasn't possible: I wanted the church rebuilt and the pastor to stay."

Instead, Lowe became a pastor at the Crossing, and later moved on to a church in South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the Crossing decided it didn't have a use for the old First Baptist site. So last fall, Bay Life agreed to assume First Baptist's mortgage instead of the Crossing.

Bay Life's campus, just down the road, is the size of a small community college. Its congregation numbers in the thousands, and it absorbed some of First Baptist's last members.

Bay Life Pastor Mark Saunders said that the First Baptist members who came to meet with him didn't want the property sold off to developers.

"Their heart was with that property," he said. "They wanted it to remain in ministry."

He prayed for guidance - and found it.

Bay Life's school for children with learning impairments was so full it had been turning families away. The old site of the First Baptist Church would become the new site for the school.

In a way, Saunders said, this was the meaning - a reason - behind First Baptist's collapse.

"The way I explain it," Saunders said, "is God just chooses to do different things with his people and stuff from time to time. It's not that he leaves. He just rearranges his resources."

Bay Life has been refurbishing the remaining buildings at the site. The project will be finished this spring, and classes will start in the fall.

Former members of First Baptist say the new school will be a kind of continuation, a way in which their old church will live on.

"Churches are living organisms," said Wixtrom, who is now the pastor at Henderson Road Baptist Church in Tampa. "They're born, they live, and they die."

"It's a great ending for the church," said Pastor Lowe. "It's always going to be a place where the ministry is continued that started there a hundred years ago. It's changed. But it's still there."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.