One-hundred years ago, North Park Church started as a small 40-foot-by-40-foot wooden frame building built by members of The First Baptist Church of Orlando at the corner of Mills Avenue and Woodward Street.
The church was built in one day by entirely volunteer labor.
The mission’s first service was held Sunday evening, June 11, 1922, and by Sept. 6, 1922, the organization was officially recognized as North Park Baptist Church.
The church had 34 charter members and was led by the Rev. M.J. Schultz.
On Sunday, Sept. 18, North Park Church in Baldwin Park will celebrate 100 years of family.
The anniversary celebration will include an elaborate history, a tent outside for the service, music from the 1920s to current hits, a meal catered by Cecil’s Texas Style Bar-B-Q and more.
Pastor Josh Malone says not only will Tuesday, Sept. 6, mark 100 years for the church, but also Monday, Sept. 12, will mark his 10-year anniversary at the church.
“As a church, we are seeking to glorify God by helping people trust and follow Christ through worship, community and mission,” Malone says. “For me personally, that is also what I want to do as a teacher, leader, communicator and pastor. I want to help people in their spiritual journey to know God and to build their life on a firm foundation, and we believe that’s done through the Bible and through a personal relationship with God through Christ.”
NORTH PARK VALUES
North Park Church’s aim is “to be a catalyst for gospel transformation in Baldwin Park and Greater Orlando.”
The church follows a set of core values that include gospel-fueled worship, gospel-shaped community and gospel-advancing mission.
Furthermore, North Park is the oldest entity in the community.
Malone says the church is known for being multi-generational, family feel, sense of community, friendly atmosphere and non-pressure environment.
“What people find is once they come here, it doesn’t take long to get connected,” he says. “We want that unwavering community environment.”
Malone teaches from the same book the church was teaching from in 1922 when it opened and people were going through the Great Depression.
“In the middle of a lot of changing times, uncertainties in our culture, cultural upheavals and social issues, we provide a firm foundation, because our values are rooted on a foundation that’s been there in the Bible for as long as we’ve had it,” he says. “We want all of the churches to provide that but that’s something we strive for.”
The pastor was writing a letter to invite past members to the anniversary when he began thinking about the community and the events the nation and Orlando have seen in the last 100 years.
Some changes were for the better, including Disney coming to town, Orlando development and the transformation of citrus groves to a massive tourist destination. Others left gaping holes in the community, including 9/11, the Pulse shooting and the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the middle of all of that, the church had to change to grow with the community,” he says. “The demographics and the style of the ministry has changed, but what we teach doesn’t change, and so our message doesn’t change, our message of hope and the Gospel, the good news we share from the Bible, the message of Christ — those things don’t change.”
Malone says anytime something happens in society, people start looking for answers and sometimes ask, “Why God?”
“It’s very important in society that people have somewhere they can go that they feel safe, somewhere they can go for answers, somewhere to find community and like-mindedness and something that can give them the strength to overcome those things,” he says. “If you are suffering, for instance, it’s a lot better to suffer together than to suffer alone. If you’ve got questions, it’s a lot better to get answers from a community of faith based on thousands of years of truth.”
From its beginnings in a wooden building on Mills, North Park, added a concrete block building next door and then the sanctuary, which now belongs to Lake Highland Preparatory Middle School.
The historical mammoth campus boasted more than 800 seats in its auditorium.
Betty Wherrell, 94, has been a member of the church for about 67 years. She lives just outside Baldwin Park.
Wherrell taught at the church for many years and one summer had 500 young people at the Bible school, where there are only about 20 at the Baldwin Park location now.
She has seen a multitude of preachers come and go throughout the years, and has worked with members from infancy through to adulthood.
Although the church still is working on establishing its home in Baldwin Park, Wherrell is hopeful more people will get involved.
“I just enjoy the people,” she says. “I mean, through the years I’ve met so many different types of people.”
One of her many students was Sharon Darling, a member of the church for more than 50 years, who was born into North Park in 1956 as one of the first babies enrolled in the cradle roll.
Wherrell worked in the nursery and was Darling’s Sunday school teacher for a long time.
Wherrell and Darling’s mom are two of the longest-standing members of the church.
Darling says the people are what make the church so special.
“We are one of the most giving, one of the most gracious churches,” she says. “Just friendly and caring so much about each other.”
Not only was the church there for Darling during her stepfather’s and her father’s funerals, but also North Park is where she met her longtime best friend, Gina Halley, when she was 8 years old.
She said when people ask her why she is still at the church, she says, “Well, God hasn’t told me to leave.”
MOVE TO BALDWIN PARK
Because of the church’s enormous historical size, Malone says it was difficult and expensive to maintain.
At the same time, the opportunity presented itself to move to Baldwin Park, kick-starting the five-year moving process between selling the original property, buying the new property and building the new building.
North Park has been a part of Baldwin Park’s history since the community broke ground in 2003.
The church offered ministry on the Navy base that previously occupied the land for more than 30 years, one of the many factors that drew the church to relocating to the familiar area.
Bradley Stiles, deacon at the church in his mid 20s, says he has been a member since he was a child.
“I have been going to North Park since 2004,” Stiles says. “I grew up in the church and I saw many changes. I was there when they decided to leave the Mills location, and I remember the first youth group event we held at the building in Baldwin Park. North Park is the ultimate family. The members of this church really do care about people and are kind and welcoming. When we did not have a building, I was baptized in a member’s pool. I met my wife at North Park and Pastor Josh officiated our wedding. It’s a really special place, and I’m proud to be a part of North Park’s 100 years of family.”
After two years in Baldwin Park, the church went through a pastoral transition before they connected with Malone.
Malone says since the relocation, the big passion has been to try to connect to the specific community, hence the preschool.
Led by Director Kristin Walls, Kingdom Kids Academy is a ministry of the church and is a faith based, distinctly Christian, preschool that uses WEE Learn Curriculum.
More than 95 children, ages 1 to 4, are engaged in hands-on activities in literature, art, music and science.
Malone says although North Park could have given up during its struggles, the organization continued on, attesting to the faithfulness of God.
With his goal of transforming the church into a multi-generational community that fits the needs of Baldwin Park residents, the pastor says he wants to find a way to reach and teach all stages of life and all ages.
North Park recently has worked with an architectural firm to create a new building design in addition to the current church location. The 300-plus seat auditorium will be a flat multi-use space with more room for Sunday morning services and to house more people, as well as larger events.
North Park is most popularly known for hosting special events, including the October Trunk or Treat and the Easter sunrise service and egg hunt. In addition, this year Malone implemented a catered community meal hosted on the fifth Sunday of the month to bring the residents together outside of just the church.
Malone, 42, has been a pastor at North Park Church since 2012, the first and only church he has pastored.
He became a Christian as a teenager and says he has been involved in ministry ever since.
“My passion was always communicating the Bible to people in a way that they could understand it and apply it to their lives,” he says. “I believe that’s the way real life change happens, from the inside, and I believe the tool God has given us for that is the Bible.”
One of his biggest goals is to see lives changed by the power of the gospel.
Malone served as a student pastor in his home state of Alabama and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The University of North Alabama and a master’s degree in divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
He heard about North Park and its search for a pastor through his seminary.
The interview process ran several months, with Malone and his wife, Kristi, traveling to visit the church and meet with the committee.
“God began to confirm for us that this is where He was leading us,” Malone says. “We saw it as an opportunity to try to take a church that was no longer as multi-generational as you would hope a church would be and to help it turn a fresh page.”
Kristi was pregnant with the couple’s first child when they came, and the birth marked the first child that came into the church’s nursery.
The Malones love living in sunny Orlando with their three children.