Blackshear Place Baptist Church
Location: 3428 Atlanta Highway, Flowery Branch
What began as some 37 Christians trying to meet a need in the community of South Hall County has now turned into the 8,000-member Blackshear Place Baptist Church. And its small roots, originally planted on a 4-acre cornfield at the intersection of Atlanta and Winder highways, have grown to a 40-acre campus.
“From the very beginning, we had a full church program,” said Kay Herrin, a South Hall native and charter member. “Whatever the Baptists were doing, we did it, too. So we organized one Sunday afternoon. We met and organized officially with the 37 members.”
And those original members now can celebrate the church’s success as it marks its 60th anniversary this month.
“No charter member has ever moved the membership from the church,” Herrin said. “It has just been a joy to be here.”
But before the church could establish its physical foundation at 3428 Atlanta Highway in Flowery Branch, the congregants were slightly nomadic. While the building on the 4-acre lot purchased with $4,000 raised by members was under construction, church members met at various locations. Sites included the outdoor arbor of an area church. But when it rained, the congregation found shelter in a local funeral home chapel.
However, the charter members remained faithful to the cause of starting a new church.
Herrin is one of the five surviving charter members. Despite the congregation’s growth, she believes it is still made of the same kind of people. It’s just a bigger family now, she said.
“I’m still around, still involved and glad I can be here and I’m blessed,” Herrin said. “You just hear people talk that maybe haven’t been here very long and they’re just enthralled and feel like it’s (a) real blessing to be a part of Blackshear Place.”
Since its inception, Blackshear Place has had nine pastors.
“We’ve had some really good men, and we have a wonderful ministerial staff now,” Herrin said.
When Jim Austin became pastor in 1986, he brought the initiative to spread the word on a global scale and made mission trips a real idea. Herrin has been a part of several trips in various parts of the world. She is looking forward to an upcoming trip to Germany in August.
Aside from Austin’s missionary initiative, his sermons and services have lured more people to the church, including Connie Coker and her husband.
The Gainesville couple joined Blackshear Place in 1987. Throughout the years, Coker and her husband have been greeters, navigating new and old members through the large church.
“We’re a very friendly church,” Coker said. “It’s a big building, but it feels like a small, friendly church, very family-oriented.”
In 2003, Jeff Crook became pastor, bringing a different style to the pulpit.
“He preaches out of the word, and he doesn’t back down,” Coker said.
And serving families is one of the central themes of the church.
“We’ve gone through several things in our lifetime since we’ve been here, and the church family just comes together,” Coker said. “They’re so close. Any needs you have, they’re there. It’s a family. It’s a true church family.”
The widespread demographic of the church and programs serving all ages from infants to senior citizens gained Ken Thomas’ attendance when he and his family settled in Flowery Branch in 1987.
“We came here one Sunday (and) we met a couple of older folks, met a couple of younger folks, and saw just how much love was in this church,” he said. “We just fell in love with it. Over the years we’ve just continued to see the Lord just blessed.”
As his family grew, both of Thomas’ daughters found a place to belong in the church. Following in the steps of their musically inclined father who performed his first solo with the choir in 1987, the entire family is part of the church’s music ministry.
“Even though we’ve been here just 28 (years), we’ve seen the growth and we’ve seen what God has done by us being here located in Flowery Branch,” Thomas said.
The massive size of the church led Kelly Bennett of Gainesville to attend Blackshear Place but the close-knit feeling was the reason she chose it as her church home.
“We came here because it was the big church on the corner,” she said. “We thought that we probably wouldn’t like it because it was too big. But it was wonderful and we never went anywhere else.”
That sentiment has stuck with one of her five sons. Her oldest son was called to preach at the church and now leads the middle-school ministry. And her granddaughter is enrolled in the child care program.
A large portion of the church is dedicated to children from preschool to high school age. Bennett believes part of the success is from the programs.
“When you go to look for any type of programing, you look for high quality and you look for energy, and we have those things,” she said.