From the sawgrass to the beach, two Jesus-loving churches have joined forces in a unique partnership that maintains their individual distinctions under the leadership of one pastor, while creating a powerful spiritual synergy that is breathing new life into one of the oldest churches in Fort Lauderdale. Raised in South Florida, Pastor David Hughes, lead pastor of Church by the Glades, one of the fastest growing churches in the county, known for its creative approach and high-energy music, took on a second role in June as Lead Pastor of First Baptist Fort Lauderdale.
A 115-year-old historic church, First Baptist Fort Lauderdale is an iconic landmark in downtown Fort Lauderdale that was in decline after the impact of COVID and four tumultuous years of controversial leadership by former Pastor James Welch over confrontations with congregants, financial transparency and the cancelling of the beloved Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant after a 36-year run.
Pastor Hughes said he has felt called to First Baptist Fort Lauderdale for over a decade! It all started 12 years ago when Former First Baptist Fort Lauderdale Pastor Larry Thompson suggested Hughes conduct a Church by the Glades service on Saturday nights at the Fort Lauderdale church to attract more youth to the congregation.
Hughes said, “I prayed about that for about for about three seconds and said, ‘Larry I would love to!’ It’s one of the most unselfish Kingdom things I’ve ever heard. However, when he took it back to his leadership team, they weren’t comfortable with it, so it never happened, but that’s what lit the fire in me… I have driven by Broward Boulevard arguing with God for 10 years, saying, ‘Come on Lord, I don’t understand.’” In retrospect, Hughes said he believes it all comes around to “God’s timing is God’s timing.”
With 25 years of pastoral experience, Hughes calls himself the Abraham generation and says he’s raised up an Isaac generation of young leaders who now direct efforts at Church by the Glades, where the focus is heavily on reaching the unchurched based on the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.
Resurrecting the church
Formerly known as Coral Baptist Church in the 80ies, Church by the Glades grew out of a similar situation. Hughes explained, “Coral Baptist had a very kind and loving pastor who retired. However, in the years before I came here, there were a couple of staff-led divisions and splits. They started other churches within blocks and there were a lot of hurt feelings. The church went from 900 in attendance to 470, so it didn’t totally fall apart but everything was trending the wrong way. At the time it was almost all senior adults. When the interim pastor became suddenly ill, I was invited to speak one week and stayed, then eventually we saw God resurrect what was a dying church.”
Today Church by the Glades is a thriving church, known for its “No Perfect People Allowed” slogan and high-quality video production, with more than 6,000 in attendance weekly at its three campus locations. A graduate of Baylor University, Hughes earned a Master of Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also somewhat of a showman. Having worked as a former model and actor, he appeared in commercials, magazine ads, infomercials and feature films, which begs the question: does he plan to resurrect the Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant?
“If this had happened 12 years ago it may have been a different story, but practically speaking, it’s not even a possibility right now,” Hughes answered. “The pageant people see first Baptist as the pageant church, and we were, and it was great. The pageant had purpose in its day, but now we’re just kind of building back.”
Reflecting back on his 22 years at First Baptist Fort Lauderdale, Thompson said, “When I met David, I said, oh man, there’s a kindred spirit. I love the guy. He’s a great communicator with a commitment to the Lord Jesus who is able to love the people. I have great admiration for David, and I don’t think Fort Lauderdale could have done any better than that, so I’m really excited to see what God is going to do.”
In a video message during Pastor Hughes’ first official service at First Baptist, Former First Baptist Fort Lauderdale Pastor Dr. O.S. Hawkins, recalled, “I’ve known David for decades. When he was a young teenage boy, he used to come up to the church and meet with me, and I saw such potential in him that has been so fulfilled… We’re thrilled to hear that David and Lisa Hughes are there in view of a call to pastor First Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, and there’s an extra bonus in their son Charlie, who I’m proud to say is now a student at Southwestern Seminary where I’m now Chancellor, and he’s one of the greatest young preachers in America. So I’m thrilled.”
An innovative partnership
Now the pastor of two churches, Hughes emphasized, “This is not a merger. It is a partnership that helps both churches. It gives CBG a place to reach, and it gives First Baptist resources, help, energy, volunteers.”
The innovative union maintains two separate churches with two separate governances and structures. And when it comes to worship, Hughes said although CBG is kind of known to be a little “crazy and wild,” I wanted to honor the stylistic service of First Baptist, which we’re calling new classic. Then we’ll do a second style service that feels more like Church by the Glades with a little higher energy. We’re describing the contemporary service as a double expresso, and the new classic as café con leche because it’s a blend of beautiful flavors.”
However, the challenges ahead are much greater than worship style. Hughes compares it to climbing Mount Everest, saying, “we’re at base camp, but we can climb this mountain together.”
In the midst of the transition, the City of Fort Lauderdale was hit by a 100-year flood in April that damaged much of the 300,000 square foot facility, making their 3,000-seat auditorium unusable while they await settlement of the insurance claim, and the building was already in dramatic disrepair. When the air conditioning went out in the kids’ space, Church by the Glades gifted $600,000 for its replacement, saying, “We feel like it’s God’s money and it’s our call.”
A Fort Lauderdale institution
Many in the Christian community feel First Baptist Fort Lauderdale is just too important of a church for us to lose. “For generations this was the turf taking church, leading the charge in terms of the Kingdom, and we cannot just let it go quietly into the night and sell off its assets,” Hughes remarked.
Stephan Tchividjian, CEO and co-founder of the National Christian Foundation in South Florida, agreed. “I’ve been pretty vocal for the last five to six years plus that a healthy First Baptist is essential to the South Florida Christian community. And it’s not just a matter of keeping a church on life support or protecting a piece of property; it’s way bigger than that. You’ve got one of the oldest churches in South Florida on one of the busiest and most influential intersections in our community. If you get on an airplane and look out the window, you see this beautiful big church right smack dab in the middle of it, and I think that church should be thriving. There should be multiple services. There should be lines of people trying to get in… I also believe because of the massive amount of growth in Fort Lauderdale over the last 20 to 30 years you have a significantly unreached population that live in those apartments and work downtown.”
“There are also tremendous needs, and he’s got a church there that has great potential to penetrate the inner community in all kinds of ways,” added Tchividjian. “I remember when I was young, back in the O.S. Hawkins days, they used to have a big event called the Feast of Plenty in which they closed down the streets and fed many… it just had this testimony of this is how we take care of those around us. So, I told David plenty of times, you’re not alone here. You can count on us to support and help you in any way we can… I’m a huge David and Lisa fan because they have such an evangelistic heart, and I think God will bless them for that.”
When speaking with the search committee at First Baptist, Hughes referred to a passage in Luke 5 when Jesus said cast the nets on the other side and they had a giant catch. “As the boats began to fill and the nets began to break, they called their partners in the other boat. So, Simon is the one who obeyed the Lord, and he got the blessing, but James and John got spill over blessing because they came and partnered, and both boats were full,” explained Hughes. “God lit this fire in me 12 years ago, but I’m doing this because two boats catch more fish than one, and I’m ready to catch some fish!”
Read more articles by Shelly Pond at goodnewsfl.org/author/shelly/