The American railroad boom of the late 1800’s allowed Lakeland, Florida to become a hub of travel for central Florida. During this time, 12 charter members began holding services once a month, becoming First Baptist Church of Lakeland. From its original location in a general store on West Main Street, the church body built a 32 ft. by 50 ft. wooden frame structure in 1886. The church grew steadily through 1903 and began holding weekly services. They were able to dedicate a $25,000 brick building debt-free on December 18, 1904. The church leaders later built a new library in order to preserve its lengthening history and to educate its members.
Like America in the 1920s, First Baptist Church of Lakeland prospered. By July 1920, the church membership increased to more than 1,100 people. Pastors baptized 250 people in 18 days during November 1926. The next month, the church witnessed the baptism of another 120 people in the waters of Lake Morton. God was using this growing church to impact this growing community with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As America battled through the 1930’s Great Depression, tragedy struck First Baptist. An arsonist set fire to the church building during the night of December 2, 1939. Firefighters and volunteers saved the building that night, but three days later arsonists succeeded in destroying the entire church building. In the wake of this adversity, members met across the street at Lakeland High School (known today as Lawton Chiles Middle Academy) until a new Sunday School building was completed in 1940. In 1946, ground for the new sanctuary was broken. The first service in the incomplete building was on February 6, 1949. The sanctuary was completed in 1957 and still resides at 301 N. Florida Avenue.
Beginning in 1996, First Baptist Church of Lakeland encountered tremendous growth and blessings. Dr. Jay Dennis and his family accepted the church’s call to serve as its senior pastor. Led by Pastor Jay, the church committed to pray the Prayer of Jabez, and over the next three years the church worshiped in the Christian Life Center Gym and the Lakeland Center’s Youkey Theatre to accommodate unprecedented growth.
As the millennium neared to a close, the church attracted more and more members. Space became limited and leadership looked for options. A few miles away, the old Lakeland Mall had remained empty for ten years. Church leadership realized the potential of this run-down property, and after much prayer and research, the church voted in May 1998 to purchase the mall for $5.5 million. First Baptist Church of Lakeland became First Baptist Church at the Mall.
After almost a year of demolition and renovation, members opened the doors for the first worship service held in the old Montgomery Wards building on the west end of the campus in February 1999. By 2004, the affectionately-named “Wards” filled to capacity and work began on a new worship center located on the east end of the property in the old Sam’s Club building. In April 2006, First Baptist Church at the Mall held its first services in the new 2,400-seat worship center.
In 2011, only 10 percent of the campus remains undeveloped with 3,000 people worshiping in one of the three services, 2,400 people growing in Connect Groups, 1,500 people encouraging one another during Wednesday night LifeStores, and averaging 50 new members monthly. As in its early history, First Baptist Church at the Mall continues to be blessed by God while striving to connect to God, growth, and ministry.