Green Acres Baptist Church will celebrate 60 years of history during Homecoming 2015 on Sunday. The church will recognize all remaining living charter members in attendance. Pastor David Dykes will preach a message about the church's heritage and hope. Sunday Morning Bible Study and worship services are at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. at the main campus, 1607 Troup Highway, in Tyler. The south campus, 1010 County Road 137, in Flint has Sunday Morning Bible Study at 9:15 a.m. and worship at 10:30 a.m.
When Dale Eppler and his wife, Pat, visited Green Acres Baptist Church for the first time, it didn't take them long to make it their church home.
The Epplers already had received a glowing recommendation about the church from a Tyler couple who bought their Dallas house.
So when the Epplers moved here in 1968 and lived just a few blocks away from Green Acres, that was their first and last stop.
"I just felt at home from the very first Sunday that we visited," said Eppler, 75, who is semi-retired from the printing business. "I looked at my wife. She looked at me. And I said, ‘Let's join.' We walked the aisle and I never regretted a day of it."
In its 60-year history — which the church will celebrate on Sunday — Green Acres has become home for thousands of East Texans.
From 297 charter members on May 1, 1955, it has grown to more than 16,000 members. Sunday worship averages about 4,800 people.
"I really do believe that Green Acres Baptist Church is the greatest church on the planet," Pastor David Dykes said. "And I would hope that every pastor would say the same thing about the church they serve, but I really do believe that. And the church is the people and we have some of the greatest most generous, hardworking folks I've ever met anywhere."
The church started in the basement of First Baptist Church with the blessing of that church's leadership.
Paul Powell, the church's fourth pastor from 1972-89, said one of the reasons the church has prospered so "is that it was born well. It was not out of a split."
The First Baptist members simply had a desire to start a church in what was then south Tyler, according to the book "Celebrating God's Faithfulness" by Mary Ann Lackland.
Lester Collins, who served as the church's second pastor from 1962-65, said the church grew rapidly from the beginning.
When he arrived in 1962, the church averaged a little more than 500 people on Sundays. Three years later that number had reached 750.
The growth came in part from the fact that it was a new church in a neighborhood with relatively few churches, Collins said.
The congregation desired to be inclusive and get other people in the church, he said. The church's leadership also visited prospective members.
"It really didn't make a difference who was pastor," Collins said. "Green Acres was determined to grow … because of the people. They had a real vision for what a church ought to be like."
When Powell started at the church, it had about 700 people in Sunday school. During his 17 years there, the church saw new members join regularly with several hundred being added to the congregation each year, he said.
Like Collins, he attributed the growth to the spirit of the people, something he said he appreciated from the first time he visited.
"They had a wonderful spirit," Powell said. "They wanted to go forward and they needed a leader and I just happened to be that leader who was privileged to be here at that time."
The size of Green Acres can intimidate some people, but it is finding a niche in the church that is key to making it a real community, Dykes said.
"The challenge of a large church is to plug people … into a ministry and into a small group so that they can be a part of other people who know their names and who know their needs and who love them," Dykes said. "And that doesn't happen in a big huge worship service; that happens in our small groups and in our various ministries."
Glance through a list of the church's ministries and it's clear there is a place for people from most, if not all, walks of life.
Opportunities exist for children, youth, college students, single adults, married adults and senior adults.
There are classes for adults with special needs, recent immigrants to the United States, single parents, grandparents and other relatives who are raising children from their extended family, widows, Spanish speakers and empty nesters, just to name a few.
There are ministries for those who like sports, for those who need counseling, for those who want to pray and for those who want to serve.
"We're constantly trying to move people into ministries and small groups, but as the church continues to grow with new members, it's just an ongoing pleasant challenge to give them an outlet to serve," Dykes said.
The church's heart for service has led to the creation of many ministries over the years that have gone on to operate independently of Green Acres. These include the Good Samaritan Outreach Center on Beckham, which became the Cornerstone Assistance Network; the Christian Women's Job Corps and the Christian Men's Job Corps; and Hope For 100, which exists to help churches care for the fatherless through adoption, foster care and orphan care, according to its website.
During Powell's tenure in the 1970s and 1980s, the church concentrated on establishing mission churches.
Several of these churches were about to close their doors because of low attendance. Others, the church helped to start.
Green Acres' goal was to support the churches financially and with personnel until they were strong enough to stand on their own.
The church's mission work didn't stop in Tyler though. Dykes said Green Acres' heart for the world goes back to the church's first pastor, Cecil W. Johnson, who was fluent in Spanish and had served as a foreign missionary in Latin America, according to the book "Celebrating God's Faithfulness."
"I think that from the very beginning that was bred into the DNA of the church," Dykes said.
Today, the church is involved in 14 strategic partnerships around the world including Cuba, the Philippines, China, Belize, Colombia and Costa Rica.
The partnerships involve programs with orphanages, medical clinics, youth ministry, evangelism, construction and leadership training for pastors.
"It's such a mission-minded church," longtime member Ken Dance, 76, of Tyler, said. "It just reaches out in so many different directions. It's neat to be a part of something that's as spiritually alive and well and moving."
Dance, who attends with his wife, Bobbie, 75, said some churches turn inward and take care of themselves, but Green Acres turns outward and takes care of the world and the community.
Dykes said the church gives about 30 percent of its offerings to world missions and some years the church sends more than 1,000 people on short-term mission trips.
And although the church is not the largest Southern Baptist church, it routinely has led the nation in contributions to the Cooperative Program, which supports the denomination's statewide convention and the national convention's missions and ministries.
"That's really the one thing that makes our church unique is the involvement in missions," Dykes said. "But for us missions is both going across the street and going across the globe. It's not just foreign missions. It's right here in Tyler and in Texas."
As Green Acres looks ahead, growth is in the future. The church is building a $3 million addition to its south campus, which is located off of U.S. 69 South in Flint. That should be finished in about a year, Dykes said.
The addition will include a fellowship hall, kitchen, and space for classes and a nursery.
The church also plans to continue its focus on church planting in parts of the U.S. where churchgoers make up a very small percentage of the population.
Through this program, launched in earnest about three years ago, Green Acres already has planted two churches, one in Fort Collins, Colorado and one in Seattle, Washington.
The church is in the process of finding a minister to train for its third church plant in a yet to be determined location.
"There's only a limited amount of what growth we may see here, but now let's just start planting churches in other parts of the nation where churches are needed," Dykes said. "That's kind of our focus for the future."
As Dykes thought about the church's history, he spoke about the significance of what has been done.
"Well I think that probably this first group that came out here … in 1955, I think they just probably had no way of imagining the great things God was going to do through this church and how they were going to be a part of a church that maybe they thought was going to be a neighborhood church, but over 60 years has become a church with global impact," he said. "And I think … just the cool thing about that is that if they had known that at the time it probably would have scared them to death."