First Baptist Church in Altoona celebrated its 130th anniversary in services April 6. According to Pastor Gary Robinson, the 135-member congregation is the definition of a “typical” Southern Baptist church.
“If you want to see what a typical Southern Baptist church is, we’re it. We’ve even had people say we are just too Baptist. We take that as a compliment,” he said.
Located on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest, the City of Altoona was incorporated in 1887–three years after local residents chartered First Baptist Church in 1884.
Church Historian May Whitlock assumes the residents first gathered for Bible study and worship informally before they decided to form a church—the oldest Baptist church in today’s Lake County. In 1884, Altoona was still part of Orange County, she said.
The church’s original 130-year-old building is still in use along with newer facilities built through the years on the campus. The oldest building is home to church offices, Sunday School classes and the church’s food pantry. The wooden nails of the building were replaced a few years ago to preserve the structure.
Also a few years ago, Whitlock found a long-forgotten book of church history in an old box in a storeroom. The dusty, delicate scrapbook, dated 1904, contained a formal declaration of faith, church covenant, and rules for deacons and officers. She copied the documents onto cardboard stock so she could do research without harming the originals, she said.
From the beginning, the church was mission-minded, Whitlock said. Its commitment to missions was the focus of extensive historical displays at this year’s anniversary celebration. Whitlock traced the histories of five former pastors and members who went from the church to work in missions. Included in the display were pictures of the headstones of those who have died.
“We’re still serious about missions,” Pastor Robinson said.
The church gives 9.25 percent of its receipts to the Cooperative Program, and a total of 23 percent to mission causes. Mission groups from the church have served in Haiti and in Costa Rica.
“We’ve always been a mission-giving church, but we’re now becoming a mission-doing church. We used to send money and say, ‘ya’ll do it,’ but now we go and do, too,” he said.
Local missions includes a mission to Lake View Terrace where 360 senior adults reside. For 13 years, morning worship in the community center has drawn 75-80, and 30-35 attend the afternoon worship in the nursing home. Robinson served the church as chaplain at the facility after he retired from auto industry in 2006. He has been pastor of the church since 2010, and a member since 1998 when he moved from Sarasota.
The church recently began a Wednesday evening ministry to youth and children of the community through TeamKid. Every week, 60-70 children and teens gather for activities, and many return for Sunday services, which Robinson called blended-lite.”
Both the church’s pastor and its historian see a bright future for the church. Whitlock said the church split in 1973, an event that “put weight on the church,” but it recovered to start a mission less than ten years later, Sandy Acres Baptist Church.
“That is the spirit that is here,” she said.
“That is why this seems like a home church to me,” Robinson said. “We have continued on a serious commitment to love each other, and we’ve seen God’s hand here.”
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