New Columbia church already bursting at the seams

Howard Neighbors

  • The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, greets Gloria Owens, a member from Columbia, during services.
The Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, greets… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 04, 2010|By Janene Holzberg | Special to The Baltimore Sun

Like a long crescendo, the music at St. John Baptist Church built gradually upon itself last Sunday as four hand-clapping, palm-raising songs lifted the congregation higher and higher.

Worshippers in the new $10 million brick-and-stucco building on 10 acres at Route 175 and Tamar Drive swayed and sang along with the male chorus' version of "I'll Be a Witness," which inspired many in the pews to rise. One woman got up frequently and gleefully tapped her own tambourine.

"This is the day that … what?" asked John West in song as the Praise Team took the stage for the next number, backed by a five-piece band. The congregation joyfully sang back in reply, "This is the day that the Lord hath made."

A mere seven months ago, members of the 39-year-old congregation with roots in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center were still meeting in the office space on Old Annapolis Road that they had leased for 10 years, said the Rev. Robert Turner. They'd never had a church building to call their own.

Today, seating in the brightly lit octagonal sanctuary - with its cathedral ceiling, natural-wood furnishings and single stained-glass window - is already at a premium, especially at the popular 10:45 a.m. "blended service," which falls midway in tone between the 8 a.m. traditional service and the monthly contemporary program.

The 30,000-square-foot facility has generated a lot of excitement, which in turn has increased attendance and giving, said Turner, who is 52 and a married father of two. He has seen the church's population of 300 triple since he took the helm May 1, 1993.

Since the building was dedicated on Sept. 27, 2009, 87 people have joined the church, boosting current membership rolls to 900, and another 78 are in the process of joining, said Vera Miles, operations manager.

"This is a challenge for us," said Turner of the nearly standing-room-only conditions. "But it's a good challenge to have. I think we are the exception to the rule."

Building the church
Inside the two-story glass-walled entrance beyond an arched portico, there are a generous foyer, large fellowship hall, chapel, seven classrooms, two conference rooms, five offices and a kitchen, among other spaces. Ohio-based Miller-Valentine Commercial Construction completed the building in about 15 months, Turner said.

The congregation's journey toward its new church home started in 2007, when the county public school system became interested in land the church owned at U.S. 40 and Marriottsville Road as a possible location for a future middle school. School officials proposed swapping their acreage on Tamar Drive for the church's 41.5 acres.

"We brokered a deal and got this very visible piece of property in Columbia and some money in exchange for our land," Turner said of the tract the church had purchased in 1998.

But despite this dream outcome practically falling into their laps, the congregation still had hard choices to make, said the pastor.

"We had to decide if we wanted to first build a large sanctuary and not the other aspects of a church until we had more funds, or build a slightly smaller sanctuary and everything else," he said. The all-inclusive plan won out.

Church officers reasoned that their 500-person capacity fellowship hall could be used as an overflow room where services could be televised and that it would be more cost-effective to construct the entire church at one time. But they weren't expecting to resort to crowd control so soon, he said.

With some vehicles being directed by attendants to park on the grass on Sundays, the 260-vehicle parking lot is being expanded by 90 more spaces. The logistics of adding a third service are also being considered.

"We are in the midst of updating our long-range plan, a process we hope to complete by summer," Turner said, but wouldn't elaborate. "There are a lot of things on the drawing board."

Behind the growth
Beyond the physical appeal of his congregation's new facility, Turner said he believes that what draws people to the church is its reputation for excitement and for loving one another and the community.

"We work hard at being intentional about being a place where love is experienced. We are a faith family, and we want members to act like families act. When you greet a family member, you embrace," he said.

"When I came here, I hugged everyone, and it took some people a while to adjust. But when they saw it was natural and genuine, people became more comfortable and free."

Many members attribute their church's growth to the oratorical skills of their senior pastor, who said he began preaching at age 16. He graduated from Boston University, earned his master's degree in divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate of ministry from New York Theological Seminary at age 28.

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