Southern trustee sees God super-size his church

Communications Staff — June 17, 2005

The day Buddy Gray preached his first sermon at age 16 he did not lose a single member of his congregation.

Perhaps it was because his audience had no place to go.

“The first time I preached was in a jail,” Gray said. “I figured they couldn’t just get up and walk out. They were in the cells and I was on the other side of the bars. I just preached and I assume they listened.”

Today Gray is not preaching to tiny captive audiences but to hundreds who willfully attend services at Hunter Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Gray has pastored the church since 1986.

When Gray first began at Hunter Street, the average weekly attendance hovered around 120. Nearly two decades later, the church has grown into something of a colossus with numerous facilities and more than 4,300 members.

Within three years of Gray’s ascension to the pulpit at Hunter Street, the church grew to such a degree it was forced to relocate to the place where it now resides.

“God has truly blessed this church,” Gray said. “It has been an amazing time because there are such sweet, sweet people here at Hunter Street. I think the people God has brought here have been the key.”

When the church relocated, both attendance and membership began to skyrocket. Gray said he needed something to help him simplify what was rapidly becoming a large ministry.

Gray visited Saddleback Community Church in 1990 pastored by Rick Warren, author of the ubiquitously popular book “The Purpose Driven Church.” Warren’s approach seemed to fit Gray’s vision for Hunter Street, so the church organized around the five purposes that compose Warren’s purpose driven strategy.

“I think a big key to our growth has been a balanced approach to ministry,” Gray said. “We emphasize all aspects of church life the same. A lot of churches are known for their preaching ministry or their missions ministry or even their worship. I guess all that is fine and good, but I like the fact that we’re just balanced in all the areas of the church.

“We have organized around the five purposes that people understand to be purpose driven. That was a real help for me. When I went out to visit with Rick Warren in 1990, he said to do five things instead of 50 and that got my attention. We organized around those five principles and is has been an incredible ride.”

The growth has not been a mere numbers game, says Gray, who served as president of the Alabama Baptist Convention for two terms in 1999-2000.

“The main task of Hunter Street is to present every person complete in Christ,” he said. “That’s my vision for ministry, I guess. Eighty-percent of my job is to lead and feed and to make sure that every person is being equipped to minister wherever God has placed them.”

A present manifestation of this growth in grace is a hunger for biblical and theological truth Gray is witnessing among his members. Each Thursday morning, he meets with a group of members at 5:30 a.m. to discuss theology. The group has been working through Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology.”

Gray is also leading his staff in studying the same book. He is also studying theology with a group of high school seniors.

“I think so often in preaching, people have heard so many sermons, even though they were good and had practical application, they never understood ‘why?’” Gray said “They had never understood who God is, what God is all about, why God has done what He has done. I think if you don’t have a theological foundation, the Bible becomes no different than ‘Reader’s Digest.’ It’s just good advice.

“When people understand God’s Word they glorify Him. Then they really do sense that God’s Word is living and the reason they want to [obey God’s Word] is not because they have to, but to glorify Him. I am really sensing that in many, many people here at Hunter Street.”

It is of little surprise that Gray knows the needs of his church for he was anything but a newcomer to Hunter Street when he became its pastor. He served the church as a youth pastor while working on his undergraduate degree at Samford University in 1978. During that time, Gray met his wife, Tricia, who had grown up in Hunter Street.

“It’s funny because I had made it a personal policy not to date people at the church in which I worked,” he said. “But I met her my first day at the church on Oct. 15, 1978. I walked into a Sunday school class and there she was.

“Since I had this personal policy, we dated secretly for a while and we would act like we didn’t know each other and then we would go out at night. It was a lot of fun. Needless to say, I didn’t really hold to my policy. Hunter Street has always been home for me.”

Gray left the church the first time to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he received his master of divinity degree. He returned to Hunter Street less than a decade later. The Grays have three children Andrew, 18, Emily 16, Austin, 12.

Gray is a buddy to Southern Seminary. In addition to serving as a member of the board of trustees since 1995, Gray received his D.Min. degree from the school in 2002. This year also marked the end of his second term as chairman of Southern’s board of trustees.

“Serving as a trustee here at Southern has been the best thing I have done in denominational life,” said Gray who also served as president of the Alabama Baptist Convention for two terms in 1999 and 2000.

“Just to be around people who are so committed to God’s Word, committed to ministry, committed to the training of ministers, has been a wonderful thing for me.

“The type of students we attract to Southern is very impressive; they are very serious about God’s Word and very serious about the ministry. The young people at the seminary are impressive. The faculty the seminary has attracted is also second to none. It has been amazing to watch God work at Southern.”

God’s work in Gray’s heart began at a fairly young age. Gray’s father was a lifer in the U.S. Army and during his childhood, the family moved about the country and also lived in Germany. At the age of nine, the family settled in Prattville, Ala., the town which Gray considers home.

While his family did not regularly attend church, Gray was saved at age nine after being invited to a Royal Ambassador’s meeting at a Southern Baptist church by a neighborhood friend. The promise of an opportunity to play one of Gray’s favorite games first lured him to the church.

“I was playing with a little boy and we were shooting marbles and I was winning,” Gray said. “His mother came out and said it was time to go to RA’s. I didn’t know what that was and so I asked him. He said, ‘that’s what we do at church.’ I said, ‘yes but what do you all do there [at RA’s]?’ He said ‘We shoot marbles there.’ I guess that was their outreach program.

“I started walking down the street to go to church there and was saved one Sunday night after I heard the Gospel. I am thankful God saved me when I was young.”

With more than 25 years in ministry, Gray advises budding ministers and seminary students to focus on proclaiming God’s Word and to be active in ministry immediately even while preparing for full-time service. Gray also said ministers must have an obvious and abiding love for their congregations.

“You’ve got to have a commitment to God’s Word,” he said. “You’ve got to believe there is life-changing power in the Gospel. That is the bedrock.

“The next thing is you’ve got to love people. They know it (whether or not you love them) and that’s got to be evident. We live in a day in which the message and the messenger are so tied together, if they don’t see that you love them or that you are not genuine, then it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to stand on the Word and love your people. Without those things, there is no ministry.”

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