U-Turn in North Carolina: A Story of Church Reform

The Revitalization of First Baptist Church Durham
Photo by Emil Handke

Before Andy Davis preached verse-by-verse through the book of Isaiah, he memorized all 1,292 of them. It’s a discipline he developed while working as a mechanical engineer in 1986, several years after becoming a Christian. To this day, fellow students from the doctoral program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary recall seeing Davis walk the streets near the school as he committed entire books of the Bible to memory.

When Davis finished his PhD in church history in 1998, he accepted the call as pastor of the historic First Baptist Church Durham, North Carolina. Scripture memory and meditation sustained him as he withstood a powerful faction of deacons and committee chairs. In 2001, his opponents tried to drive him away after he led the church to change the bylaws to reflect biblical roles of gender and authority.

Now nearly 20 years later, the pastor and TGC Council member leads his thriving congregation the same way he did back when the cabal tried to oust him: verse-by-verse, expository preaching.

Expository Faithfulness

As Davis walks down the hallway to his church office, he passes a portrait of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, surrounded by Catholic officials as the Reformer declares his allegiance to Scripture and refuses to recant his “heretical” views. Inside Davis’s office hangs the classic portrait of George Whitefield preaching in the open air of Moorfields amid the utter mayhem of hecklers. Having studied John Calvin for his doctoral dissertation, Davis says learning from history’s theologians, martyrs, and missionaries “gives you courage to face the challenges” of pastoral ministry.

While the congregational turmoil that marked his first three years at FBC Durham has disappeared, Davis recognizes the rapidly growing tides of secularism outside the doors of his church’s 90-year-old sanctuary. Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are all within 25 miles. Known as the Research Triangle, the Raleigh-Durham area boasts the nation’s highest number of advanced degrees per capita and a heavily liberal presence in an otherwise conservative state.

Educated at MIT with 10 years of experience in the workforce before earning a PhD at Southern Seminary, Davis possesses a professional and academic background uniquely suited for ministering among highly educated people. His sermons are well crafted, carefully reasoned presentations of truth, putting together the component parts of biblical exposition with the meticulous care one would expect of a mechanical engineer. While he designs his messages to feed his flock, he’s also equipped them to ward off threats to biblical authority.

“My way of fighting secularization is verse-by-verse exposition,” Davis said in an interview with Southern Seminary Magazine. “People start to see the magnificence of the Word of God, and I love the complexity of the interconnectedness of the Bible.”

No one influenced his hermeneutics more than Calvin, Davis says. Studying Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes of the Christian Religion offered Davis a model both for verse-by-verse exposition and also for presenting the big picture of redemptive history.

My way of fighting secularization is verse-by-verse exposition. People start to see the magnificence of the Word of God, and I love the complexity of the interconnectedness of the Bible.

“What Calvin did better than anyone in history is he had a big, hermeneutical circle—to go from an overarching, ever-growing, developed system of theology that comes from believing all 66 books of the Bible are perfect and true and they must be harmonizable into a systematic theology,” Davis said.

As he concluded his sermon series on Isaiah, which he had been preaching intermittently since April 2008, Davis referenced the classic Seals and Crofts song “We May Never Pass This Way Again” to illustrate the gravity faithful verse-by-verse preaching has on a weekly basis.Photo by Emil Handke

“They may never hear a careful sermon on Isaiah 65:17–25 again,” Davis said about the sermon he preached in February. “They may have never heard it up to that point, and they may never hear one again. So the idea is just do a good job. ‘Rightly divide the word of truth,’ but try to step back and show the big picture. Show how it harmonizes with the New Testament. Give people an ever-growing and sensible theological system.”

Committing to expository preaching makes challenging topics unavoidable when they arise through the course of a book, but it also prevents pastors from owning a bully pulpit from which to merely address hot-button issues and speak against internal strife. Taking another cue from Calvin (who, after being forced out of Geneva, returned three-and-a-half years later and picked up where he left off in his exposition of Psalms), Davis avoids speaking on church conflicts. When Davis lost an early battle in 2001 to change the church bylaws to clarify male-exclusive leadership, he showed up the next Sunday and continued preaching through Romans. This approach hasn’t changed, even when a growth in new membership allowed for the bylaw change to pass decisively a year later.

But Davis has found secularism an abiding threat. When he preached on biblical marriage from Hebrews 13 at the end of a two-year series on the book, a local woman visiting that Sunday organized a protest outside the church the following week.

I think Christianity is going to become more and more controversial, and Satan is going to try to marginalize. Christians are going to have to learn to be winsomely countercultural and stand up and make hard arguments.

“If you faithfully preach the Word and don’t shrink back from controversial, pointed topics, you’re going to have a hard time,” Davis said. “I think it’s going to get worse in our culture. I think Christianity is going to become more and more controversial, and Satan is going to try to marginalize. Christians are going to have to learn to be winsomely countercultural and stand up and make hard arguments.”

Preaching for the ‘Infinite Journey’

As he approaches his 20th year as pastor of FBC Durham, Davis isn’t complacent now that the external threats to his ministry have subsided. His new book, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again [read an excerpt], shares the story of FBC Durham’s renewal and offers guidance on how other pastors can revive their churches. Davis has now memorized 41 books of the Bible and relies on God’s Word internalized as he battles the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual trials of ministry.

Davis has now memorized 41 books of the Bible and relies on God’s Word internalized as he battles the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual trials of ministry.

Meditating on large portions of memorized Scripture also aids him in preparing multiple sermons and lessons each week, since he also teaches courses at Southeastern Seminary. He says it’s the simplest way of reducing preparation time, as the memorized Scripture has “marinated” often years in advance of preaching and teaching through the text.

He also cherishes the role his family plays in shaping his ministry. His wife of 29 years, Christi, has been “a river of blessing” to his ministry, and as three of his five children have reached adulthood, he hopes his love for the local church abides in them as well.

“I want my kids to see the wisdom of God in local church, the covenant commitment we have, and the fact that there are no perfect churches,” said Davis, who later explained the story of his church’s conflict to his children. “People are going to let you down, they’re going to hurt you, they’re going to say unkind things, but you’re going to let them down too. You can’t be on your own. If you’re on your own you’re going to drift away, and you’ll die spiritually. So the rest of your life, you need to be involved in the local church.”

His youngest children help him build a theological vocabulary for his congregation. In his February sermon on Isaiah 65:17–25, Davis used terms like “amillennialism” and “eschatology,” but only after he made sure his children understood. While he preaches in a highly educated community, he recognizes some people in the congregation will have limited theological depth, so he strives for clarity in each sermon. He says while he determines “to preach meat as meat,” he provides “an oasis of milk in the middle of every sermon,” presenting the essential message of salvation in Christ.

Preaching expositionally requires patience, which is why Davis says the Gospels contain so many agricultural parables. Pastors must “trust the Word” and recognize their dependence on Scripture to accomplish the salvation they preach.

“We’re talking about a supernatural thing. We’re talking about people being brought from death to life,” Davis said. “The more you’re aware theologically of what you’re trying to do, the more you’re aware the Word has to do it all. There is nothing we can do.”

The more you’re aware theologically of what you’re trying to do, the more you’re aware the Word has to do it all. There is nothing we can do.

In 2014, Davis authored An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness [interview], a manual for the Christian faith. He says advancing the gospel and growing in sanctification require “an infinite power source” and extend to the end of a Christian’s life. One of the primary ways Christ accomplishes these journeys in individual lives is through expository preaching.

“Faith comes by hearing God’s Word, and I believe faith is sustained by God’s Word,” Davis said. “I am sustaining the salvation of the people who are coming here. That’s what Paul is saying in 1 Timothy 4:13–16: ‘Devote yourself to preaching and teaching . . . for in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ Save them? He didn’t say justify them. Salvation is bigger than justification; there’s an ongoing work of salvation. Keep feeding them the Word, keep their faith strong; you’re going to need your faith until the day you die.

“When Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ that’s the number one thing I think of every Sunday morning as I’m walking up the steps: feed their faith.”


Editors’ note: This article appeared in Southern Seminary Magazine. Davis’s new book, Revitalize: Biblical Keys to Helping Your Church Come Alive Again (Baker) [excerpt] is now available.

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