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Those Amazin’ Southern Baptists


By Preston Jones | May 2000
Preston Jones, who grew up Baptist but is now an Anglican, is writing a book on the history of his native San Bernardino Valley since World War II. He is a lecturer in the Department of History at Sonoma State University in northern California.

Nestled against the mountains that rise at the eastern end of the San Bernardino Valley in southern California, in an up-scale housing development called Highland, stands the church where I grew up, Immanuel Baptist Church (of the Southern Baptist Convention). Immanuel is a thriving church. Its choir alone is bigger than the entire congregation at many a Protestant or Catholic church, with about 150 parishioners lending their voices to Immanuel’s cause each week. Add to that an orchestra, bell choir, a slew of music programs for kids, a choir for “the young at heart” — i.e., senior citizens — and a bucketful of annual special music productions, and one isn’t surprised that, at a time when much church music is led by volunteers, Immanuel Baptist has two full-time music ministers on its payroll.

Sheer numbers tell much of the story. When Immanuel was founded in 1953 it had 54 members. The next year membership was up to 78; the year after that 111. By now Immanuel’s total membership has grown to 6,500, with a weekly attendance of 2,500. To keep track of that many people with different needs and interests, Immanuel now employs a full-time ministerial staff of 12, a full-time administrator, an accountant, an office manager, and nine secretaries. Donations to various missions throughout the world exceed $460,000 annually, and the church currently sponsors three mission churches in California. Immanuel owns — and uses — three vans and two buses. On its property is a softball field and a basketball court, and it has its own teams to play on them.

Immanuel also sponsors bowling and volleyball leagues. And if golf is your thing, it’s got an annual tournament or three just for you.

At the center of Immanuel’s history is its senior pastor, Rob Zinn — a friendly if fearsome six-foot-plus dispenser of bear-hugs who says that he never asked to be a minister, didn’t want the job when he was offered it, and doesn’t always like it now that he has it. But he says that he is compelled to go where God wants him to go, and that for the time being God wants him at Immanuel.

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