Days after announcing exploratory discussions of moving its campus to a site adjacent to Woodland Park Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church, in the Greater Chattanooga area, officials with Tennessee Temple University have listed most of the 65-year-old school’s 21-acre site for sale. In order to practice full disclosure, I must admit that I am emotionally attached to the Highland Park campus of TTU, for it was here that I received my ministerial education and here that I met my wife.
Benjamin Pitts, a listing agent with Herman Walldorf Commercial Real Estate, has announced the university had hired the firm to assist with a sale. The campus is listed at $19.6 million. “I think the market will respond well to the offering, which includes over 21 acres and more than 470,000 square feet of improvements in an urban setting near downtown Chattanooga,” Pitts said in a news release. “We think there are a number of potential uses for the property, including continued school-related use.”
Despite reporting a 47 percent growth in student enrollment, officials with Tennessee Temple acknowledged earlier this week having “exploratory discussions” with Woodland Park Baptist about a possible relocation. The college has no specific plans for its current campus but is open to options, according to Herman Walldorf.
Walldorf has been involved in past transactions concerning Tennessee Temple. Recently, the firm brokered the sale of 7 acres of land adjacent to the school’s property from the former Highland Park Baptist Church to Redemption Point Church and also helped broker the lease and eventual sale of Tennessee Temple Academy to the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. A total exit of Tennessee Temple will mean big changes for Highland Park, which surrounds the campus on all sides.
As an alumnus, I would like to offer several observations. First, not all relocations are bad. The Bible is clear that demographics is not the predominant consideration in deciding where to worship. When the woman at the well was struggling with her own demographical issue, Jesus told her that the condition of the heart in worship is more important than the physical location where worship occurs (John 4:21-24). Many solid, independent Baptist ministries have changed locations, leaving behind some precious memories for the sake of future growth. If we were married to locations, then most of our churches would still be meeting in store front structures.
Second, God is able work in spite of demographics. The two most significant church success stories in the independent Baptist movment, in terms of numerical growth, within my lifetime are First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana and Highland Park Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee – both of such suffered from terrible demographics. We must be honest that even in the days of Lee Roberson, Highland Park was not the most desirable part of Chattanooga to live. But in spite of its poor demographics, God blessed the ministry. Indeed, as I understand it, Lee Roberson purposefully stayed in Highland Park, despite its poor demographics, in order that he might be centrally located within Chattanooga and reach a community that had largely been abandoned by others. I wonder how much faster Highland Park would have deteriorated without the manifested presence of Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple University. In an age when most ministries are abandoning the inter-city for the suburbs, some attention must be given to the cities and the effect upon them when ministries pull up roots and move elsewhere.
Third, evidently students did not come to TTU in the past because of its plush, serene surroundings. Though there is nothing wrong with these features, and Christian ministries should strive for excellence, students from around the world came to TTU to sit in classrooms that were less than desirable. Evidently, fully-carpeted air conditioned classrooms is not always the draw that we feel it is. The touch and the anointing God is something that all ministries should seek. For 13 years, I had the privilege of being the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia, and to be quite honest, the demographics were not the best. One of my beloved predecessors, Walter Lee Hodges, was able to build a strong, vibrant church in a deteriorating neighborhood, however, because he had the touch of God upon his life. I have spent the last year at Greater Rhode Island Baptist Temple, which has marvelous demographics. I cannot and must not, however, trust in these demographics. I need the touch of God or all is vain. Without him, I can do nothing. We can aspire to better demographics, but we cannot trust those demographics for growth. It is by God’s Spirit, says the Lord (Zechariah 4:6).
Finally, I suggest to all TTU alumni that the greatest pain with regard to our alma mater should not be the moving of the campus. Indeed, most of us while we were there would probably have voted for a move to better demographics. The greatest pain is the move from the historical principles on which the school was founded. A shift in philosophy should hurt us more than the shift in location. There was a time when TTU and its 4000 students made an impact on the city of Chattanooga and from there the world. There was distinctiveness about the Christianity that was practiced there. There were noticeable differences between the student body population and the culture that it was called to reach. Separation from worldly practices and associations was the rule of the day, and Dr. Roberson was not trying to be relevant as much as he was trying to be righteous.
Indeed, I would argue that the watering down of this distinctive heritage has led in part to the diminished population of TTU resulting in the inability to sustain its 21-acre campus. I suppose a move in location is inevitable, but I am more pained by the move in philosophy that has preceded (and probably mandated) this real estate decision. I do, however, remind all alumni who graduated in the Roberson era that the TTU that we experienced never will be or can be sold. It exists today in the hearts of thousands who preach and practice Christianity that is “distinctively Christian.”