Mark Bethea said if he’s allowed to bare his soul for a minute, there have been many nights lately that he’s gone home and wept.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, he got word that someone had started a fire in the main sanctuary of First Baptist Church Montgomery, as well as in its historic Stakely Sanctuary, which the church worshipped in until 2004. The fire also destroyed the church’s administrative desk area and damaged the bridal parlor.
And it almost consumed him for a minute.
As Bethea — who became FBC’s pastor in August 2020 — walked around the church looking at the damage, “alarm bells in my heart are going off,” he recalled. He said he prayed, “Lord, I can’t do this. I’m not ready for this. I’m not prepared for this. Surely Jay (Wolf, pastor emeritus) should be back here at the helm. Surely he can come out of retirement because I can’t do this. This is too much.”
He said a spirit of fear began to creep into his heart. But the next day, he sat down to watch the security camera footage of the arsonist setting the fire, and something caught his attention as he watched the person running away.
“There in the background in the center of that security footage was our pulpit cross dancing with the flames, that metallic golden cross. As the flames are just raging up, you see that cross shining brightly in the center of the room,” Bethea said. “In that moment, my heart began to change. … It became almost a rallying cry for me that there is nothing that is going to overcome the cross of Jesus Christ.”
Leaning on Jesus
So he rallied, and so did FBC, leaning on Jesus. They held the next Sunday service in a parking deck, the three services after that in the parking lot and then, starting Oct. 31, in Stakely Sanctuary.
Bethea said it was meaningful for him because along with being ordained in Stakley, he also proposed to his wife and got married there. He’s heard many people making similar comments about their salvations, baptisms, weddings and ordinations in that sanctuary.
And he heard other things too.
“I keep hearing these comments from our church members of family members who have not had a church conversation or religious conversation in years asking what’s going on — they’re very interested in our season,” Bethea said.
He believes the church has entered a “sacred stewardship,” an opportunity to use a season of hardship to share the gospel. He doesn’t deny that it’s been a difficult time.
“I’ve gone home many a night and wept, been overwhelmed, not known what to do, been scared that I would steward this season poorly,” Bethea said.
But he’s seen God give him, as well as the other staff and members of FBC, an abundance of gospel opportunities.
“Over the past several weeks, I’ve had more people ask me as the pastor of this church, ‘Hey, what’s going on down there at First Baptist? What happened?’ People who don’t know the Lord, who have never set foot in our church, people who have turned their back on faith, they’ve wanted to know, and the door for the gospel has been opened wide,” Bethea said.
Praying for salvations
The church is sharing with everyone it can and praying for the salvation of many — including the arsonist. A suspect was arrested Oct. 4 and charged with the crime.
“Our church is praying and believing that if God could save sinners such as us, then He can save a church arsonist. So we’re praying for this person who has done this, that the Lord would save [her], that these earthly consequences would lead to eternal repentance,” Bethea said. “We’re praying for her, we’re praying for our community to rise up, we’re praying for revival in our church and we’re seeing the Lord do a great work.”
He said he has seen the church come together, experience a sweeter fellowship than ever before and do what needs to be done to keep ministry going. It’s been such a sweet time they haven’t wanted to rush the process — they just want to be faithful and obedient in each step they take.
“We could say, ‘Lord, we want to be back in the main sanctuary, we want to get this thing over with,’ or we can say, ‘This is where we are, the Lord has brought us here. How are we going to steward every conversation, every moment to bring the Lord glory and honor and ultimately show the community where our trust is — not in buildings, not in walls, not in pews, but in what the Lord has done in our lives?’”
The cleanup and restoration process is a long one, Bethea said. Smoke and soot got into the church’s air conditioning systems and circulated to “nearly every foot” of the sprawling facilities.
“Some of the Sunday School classrooms that were on the third floor away from the sanctuary, you could actually write your name on the tables (in the soot),” he said.
So church leaders want to be cautious. Every day, a team of about 100 people from ServPro works on the facilities to ensure every toy and ceiling tile is cleaned and that the organ pipes are cleaned from the inside out.
“Our teams are doing an amazing job, but it takes a lot of time,” Bethea said.
People, not pews
But the church has never been about pews — it’s about people, he said. “Pews haven’t gone out to share the gospel, people have. Walls don’t speak up, people do.”
It’s about people being sent on mission and, for FBC in this season, using the story of how God is working at their church to share the gospel with the community.
“I hope for us as a church to walk out of this season revived, changed, full of the gospel presence that would take us out of the church and into the world around us,” Bethea said. “I pray to God that we steward this season in a way that says we’re not just ready to get back in the buildings, we’re ready for the church to go out. The greatest failure for our church is to leave this tough, tough, tough season and be unchanged by it.”