In the beginning, Prestonwood Baptist Church was little more than a notion, an idea of the Dallas Baptist Association that had already been turned down by a couple of local congregations.
But the association recognized the need for a vibrant church in North Dallas, and took the idea to Northway Baptist Church. Northway, led by Pastor Bill Weber, agreed to support Prestonwood.
Ron and Cheryl Murff were among 12 founding members of Prestonwood, and among the first volunteers—going door to door telling people about the new church.
Its beginnings were modest. The tiny group of volunteers learned that the Fretz Park Recreation Center at Hillcrest and Belt Line roads was available for use on Sunday mornings, Cheryl said. So after six weeks of canvassing nearby neighborhoods, the fledgling church held its first service.
The volunteers trusted God to bring the people.
That first Sunday, February 6, 1977, a modest crowd attended services at Prestonwood. And each Sunday that followed, volunteers arrived early to set up the recreation center for church, and then take everything down after services.
“We were having church in a gym and had to move everything in each week including chairs, risers, piano and baby beds,” said Cheryl, who now serves as Special Assistant to the Executive Staff, “sort of like when we first started the North Campus in Prosper.”
Some of the early volunteers didn’t plan to stay at Prestonwood long term, Cheryl recalled. But as it turned out, “the experience captured our hearts.”
“I was the pianist and organist and we had 102 people that first week we started holding services. And in a couple of weeks, we were up to 200 people.”
Those first families became leaders, and almost every week, the congregation grew. Within two years of its founding, the church at the recreation center had grown to several hundred people and three services, along with Sunday evening worship.
Sondra Saunders—Senior Minister of Preschool and Children for decades at Prestonwood who now serves as Assistant in Pastoral Care—was an original staff member.
“I would work part of the morning at Prestonwood and then rush back to Northway,” she said. “On my fourth anniversary at Northway, we opened a new children’s building (at Northway). And after that, I just went to Prestonwood.”
In those early days, everybody had to pitch in, setting up for services and then taking it all down again, teaching classes, doing whatever needed to be done.
“There was a lot of manual labor—everybody did everything—after a couple of years, we began making plans to build the first building on a piece of property at Hillcrest and Arapaho,” Cheryl said. “It was quite daunting for that small congregation to take on those financial risks.”
When it moved into its first real home at that location in 1980—the first part of a multi-building project that did not yet include the worship center—the church could comfortably seat 600 people, Sondra said.
“But at our first service we had 1,000,” she said. “So we got several portable buildings. We grew so quickly that we were holding Bible studies in buses and in trailers that leaked when it rained.”
The church expanded in phases, and with each bit of growth, more and more people came.
“The church has always grown exponentially,” Cheryl said. “When we moved into the 3,500-seat worship center (in 1983), it was packed.”
Prestonwood was thriving. But in late 1988, the congregation suffered a severe crisis that led to the resignation of Pastor Weber.
“It was a very dark time, and nobody thought Prestonwood could survive,” Cheryl said.
Fourteen members served on a search committee to find the right pastor to lead the church forward. Ron Murff led the committee, and in January 1989, they began accepting nominations.
“They received hundreds of names, and they contacted people and then they started visiting, traveling every weekend,” Cheryl remembered.
Early on in the search, the name Jack Graham came up.
“He was very young—38 years old—and he had been recommended by three different people,” Cheryl said. “He piqued the interest of the group.”
There was just one problem. Senior Pastor Graham was leading First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach in Florida. He loved it there. And he had no plans to leave.
“After the search committee visited West Palm Beach to hear Jack Graham preach, Ron called Jack—Jack described it as ‘the calm, steady voice of Ron Murff.’ Jack said, ‘Let me pray about it,’” Cheryl recalled.
Throughout the search process, Jack Graham remained at the top of the committee’s list.
Born in Arkansas and raised in Fort Worth, he knew Texas and Texans. He understood how deeply the Christian faith ran through the state. God stirred in his heart and he felt led to return to Texas.
So he preached in view of a call, and a month later, accepted the role of pastor—preaching his first message on June 6, 1989.
Neal Jeffrey, who had joined the Prestonwood staff five years earlier, still remembers the moment when Senior Pastor Graham stepped forward to preach.
“As soon as he got here and started to teach, people just knew he was God’s man. The search committee, who had talked with a lot people, overwhelmingly knew he was our guy,” Neal said.
“He was just himself. He wasn’t overwhelmed. And the people loved his preaching.”
Almost immediately after his arrival, Pastor Graham wrote a word of thanks to the congregation in the church bulletin.
“From the very first day we met you, the Grahams have felt the family spirit and loving fellowship of Prestonwood,” he wrote. “Even though our bags are yet unpacked and our furniture is stored in a warehouse, we already feel at home—our hearts are here.
“ … The call to become your pastor one month ago brought a deep certainty that Prestonwood is the place that our God has put us,” Pastor Graham wrote. “God has given me a heart to speak the Word of God to the city of Dallas and to plant our lives with you in faith and fellowship.”
In his first sermon Senior Pastor Graham spoke of a “new chapter in the life of Prestonwood Baptist Church.”
“Our Lord has significantly blessed this congregation in its young history,” Pastor said in 1989, “and now we begin to build a future as bright as our past. I am confident the days ahead will be filled with victory and praise for our Lord. It’s a new day, but the same message 2,000 years ago is alive and well.”
Over the years, much has happened at Prestonwood—the relocation to Plano, the launch of the North Campus and Prestonwood en Español and PowerPoint Ministries and Prestonwood Pregnancy Center, Prestonwood Christian Academy, Prestonwood Foundation, Prestonwood Network … and so many incredible ministries that seek to make a difference with the saving message of the Gospel.
Senior Pastor Graham has often said that Prestonwood will not be a church that waits for people to come; we will not be a congregation that coasts or rests on the past. Too many people have yet to hear the Good News of the Gospel, and there remains much to do.
The mission to fulfill our calling has not changed, Senior Pastor Graham said.
Until He calls us home, he said, “We’re going to keep moving forward for the glory of God!”
Published: Nov. 6, 2017
Author: Michael Young
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