LYNCHBURG, Va. (FBW)—Florida Baptist pastors and leaders responded May 15 to the unexpected death of Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Richard Powell, pastor of McGregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers, said he is "stunned, shocked and saddened" by Falwell's death just days before commencement exercises in Lynchburg.
A member of Liberty's board of trustees, Powell and his family have close ties to the school. His daughter Heather Nix is a Liberty graduate whose husband, Andrew, will graduate this month from the school's seminary. Powell's son, Alan, is set to graduate from Liberty later this week, and his daughter, Kayla, is a freshmen. Many students from McGregor also attend Liberty, Powell said.
Falwell took to the pulpit at McGregor during last year's Florida Baptist Pastors' Conference in November and more recently spoke at the Annual Pastors' Conference at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville in February.
"What a blessing it was," Powell recalled, describing Falwell as a "gentle giant" who was caring and passionate about what he believed in.
"He believed in the things from the Word of God and he lived them deeply," Powell said. "His favorite phrase was 'to build champions for Christ.' That was pretty much his motto as a pastor. He wanted a church that was filled with people who were born again and living a life boldly for Christ."
Powell said Falwell started Liberty University because he wanted to see kids educated to become "champions for Christ" around the world.
"He just loved teenagers and he knew my kids by name," Powell remembered. "That was a special blessing. He was just very, very genuine, very transparent and just greatly loved by his students."
Calling on Florida Baptists to pray for folks at Thomas Road Baptist Church and at Liberty University, Powell said the news is shocking during this week of exams and graduation preparation.
"They have suffered a tremendous loss," Powell said. "Pray that God will help us to continue to advance the cause of Christ."
Tim Patterson, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said he believes Falwell was one of Christendom's "last statesmen."
"He was one of those kind of guys that really made a huge difference not only for the church, but also for our country - and he is going to be greatly, greatly missed," Patterson predicted. "He was an inspiration to many, many pastors and Christians across the country to get involved in their Christian duty to make a difference."
Calling Falwell influential in Southern Baptist life, Patterson credited him with training a great number of Southern Baptist students from across America.
"I'm saddened at the loss of such a great soul and we're going to be looking for the man who will really step up and be his replacement and we believe God will have someone there for us at the right time," Patterson said.
David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, called Liberty University one of Falwell's "greatest legacies" and said many of the young people attending The First Academy, the church's school, have gone on to attend Liberty.
"We are deeply saddened by the news of Dr. Jerry Falwell's passing. For decades, Dr. Falwell has stood on his convictions, never compromising his beliefs. He has been a champion for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as well as a defender of the truth of the Scriptures," Uth said in a news release.
"Dr. Falwell weathered many storms, holding fast to his faith in the face of great criticism. He has encouraged millions of people to be strong and courageous, not bending to the moral relativism of our society," Uth continued. "I believe that regardless of the public's opinion of Dr. Falwell's views and positions, everyone must respect his integrity, his perseverance, and his resolve. He will be greatly missed by countless numbers."
Ken Whitten, pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, told Florida Baptist Witness, "I believe that the nation as a whole has lost the voice of our moral conscience and I believe that the Kingdom of God today is mourning also that same loss of a friend who was a man of vision, a man of faith, and a man of extreme courage. Dr. Jerry Falwell was a personal friend to so many and he was a man that many will only remember for what he was against but those who knew him well and loved him the most will remember him for what he was for."
Whitten commended Falwell for both his work against abortion and the establishment of ministries to care for unwed mothers, as well as his opposition to alcohol and ministries to assist those trapped in alcoholism.
"I think the thing I respect most about Dr. Falwell is that he finished well. ... And he died never dipping the banner in the dust and when great leaders have fallen morally and financially, Dr. Falwell never had a hint of a lack of integrity in any of the areas that some men face," Whitten added.
"He had a wonderful marriage to Macel for 50 years and he raised three champions for Christ...he was the epitome of a man that stood for what was right even in the midst of a world that stood against him for wrong and we will miss him greatly and we will miss his voice that he spoke into our life."
In a statement to the Witness, Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, said, "The church of the Lord Jesus has lost a great leader, educator and soul winner. I have the deepest respect for Dr. Falwell and appreciate his courageous commitment to truth in our culture."
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