JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Johns Creek Baptist Church has been a church on a mission. That mission was to find new and fertile ground that a dying church would find new life in a new place. Now 20 years later, members of that church past and present came together Oct. 20 to celebrate the success of all those labors.
It is also the story of the three ministers who have provided the leadership, each in their season, to prepare this church in its new mission to be a part of growing the city of Johns Creek. For what is a city but the sum of the people and their efforts to create the homes that comprise it?
The Rev. L. H. Sapp had served the First Baptist Church of Chamblee as senior pastor for 10 years. But as Chamblee changed economically and culturally, the membership was melting away as more families moved in search of new jobs or opportunities.
The church members wanted to stay together and ultimately voted to relocate – but with no specific place in mind. Sapp also had another calling and he decided he must answer it, but he found for the congregation a pastor willing to be the interim minister.
That man was the Rev. Bill Self, who was concluding 26 years as senior pastor at West Wieuca Road Baptist Church. That choice was truly inspired because he became the longest serving “interim” pastor ever. Actually, he was interim only a short while. Within a few months, he agreed to take the job permanently and was the guiding hand for 20 years as the congregation found its way to Johns Creek. Then it took on an ambitious building campaign that is supported by 4,600 members today.
Self said it wasn’t long after the discussion about moving the church that he became aware of plans for a sister church to seed a new church. It had talks with Technology Park to deed 16 acres for this start-up church at what today is Johns Creek Baptist Church’s location on McGinnis Ferry Road.
“But the new congregation was not that strong, and it was agreed that we could join the two together to make the new Johns Creek Baptist Church,” Self said.
And that is how it was accomplished. Of course it was not that easy, especially in the beginning. It was hard to look into the future and see the huge sanctuary, education building, gymnasium and chapel and the $45 million campaign that eventually paid for it all.
When Self retired last year, the Rev. Shaun King took up the reins as senior pastor, and now leads the congregation as it prepares for new horizons.
Barbara D. Brown and David T. Brown (no relation) took on the task to write the history of the church’s first 20 years, and as they were two of the parishioners who lived it, they knew just who to talk to.
They pointed to the story that the first female deacon of the church, Beth Ann Boland, tells about the move in 1991. She was an avid gardener, so she naturally looked at the move in gardening terms.
“Relocating our church is a lot like transplanting a big tree that has lived in one place for a long time,” she wrote.
It must be prepared, with the roots cut, the canopy pruned and a new bed prepared.
“Finally, once in its new location, the tree will require continual care through the years to come,” she concluded.
When it came time for the Sunday service of their anniversary celebration, the congregation got three sermons for the price of one as Sapp, Self and King all spoke movingly.
The Rev. Sapp returned for the celebration. He said he had to be there.
“You are part of my life,” he said. “Churches have a DNA. If you really become involved in the church, you will possess that DNA.”
The Chamblee church’s DNA is still here and it is in the blood of the congregation that has sustained it, he said. When he convinced Self to come into the picture, Sapp said it was the right man at the right time of life and experience for the right congregation.
The Rev. Self then spoke, and as usual came bluntly to the point. Remembering those early days, he said, “It took and enormous amount of courage to come out here. And we marched right off the map.”
The area then was so remote you couldn’t get a Domino’s Pizza. There were no traffic lights and they didn’t have sewer. But the people had faith.
“And we had the faith of those who had gone before us,” Self said.
The Rev. King came to speak of the things the church has yet to do.
“You are who you have been becoming,” he said.
When he first came to be senior pastor, he of course began to have talks with many parishioners and leaders of the church. He shook a lot of hands in the early days. The two longtime deacons of the church took him in hand and said it was time to meet the rest of the church.
They drove him down to the old First Baptist Church of Chamblee’s 100-year-old cemetery. And there they introduced him to people who had shaped that church and sustained it throughout all those years.
It came to King that this church was a “resurrection of love.”
“This old church lives on in the body of the risen church. We keep rising from the dead,” he said.