A small meeting that began in a building at the corner of Shallowford & Gunbarrel Roads evolved into what we know now as Grace Baptist Church. In 1963, under the leadership of Kenneth Bode, Grace Baptist Church was organized and established. Although no pictures of the original site are currently available, the first meetings were held in a small, one-room building, possibly a converted store. The room had three or four rows of pews with a center aisle and could have been divided into two sections for Sunday School by hanging a curtain across the room. The nursery was held in an old school bus parked just outside the building.
Pastor Bode was a student at Tennessee Temple School in addition to serving as pastor of this small church. He also worked at Sealtest Dairy and every other Saturday would bring home a five-gallon bucket of ice cream, which the church would use to sponsor a hot dog and ice cream social.
In 1964, the church had a dream of purchasing property at the corner of Shallowford & Jenkins Roads and eventually building a permanent place they could call their own. Pastor Bode wrote and distributed a letter to the community to plead for needed funds to purchase the property. Here are a few excerpts from the letter:
“We are writing this letter as we feel the Lord would have us to share with you our endeavor in obtaining the property on which to erect a building for the Grace Baptist Church. The owner has given us permission to locate our tent and use the six-room house on this location until we can purchase the land and put up a building. This is a wonderful two-acre tract . . . where a Bible-believing church is much needed. The members will be doing as much of the actual building as possible.
Now comes the sad part, we have no money. As you know we are not backed by any group or other church, so this is a work of faith. Our membership is growing but as of now we are not big enough to reach in our pockets for $1,000.00 down payment on this property. We need your help . . . Thank you for your kindness in doing what you are able. . .”
Although the details are somewhat vague, in 1964 the terms were met and Grace Baptist Church purchased what is now part of the present property that the church owns. On the corner of the property sat the small, six-room farm house where the church met until 1969. They met in a tent in the beginning while partitions in the house were being rearranged to make more space for the main assembly. They met under the trees in the open air for Sunday School classes when the weather was warm. In 1965, Pastor Bode borrowed a bulldozer and began digging a hole for the basement for a new auditorium. Because of finances, neither the basement nor the auditorium were finished at that time.
In 1966, Bruce Lackey became the pastor. He remained with the church until September, 1967. It was some time during his tenure that further work was done on the block for the auditorium. Due to flooding problems in and around the foundation, a number of obstacles had to be hurdled before construction on the building could begin. Completion of the building would come a few years later.
In October 1967, Grace called a new part-time pastor. Clyde Paul White was originally from Johnson City, TN, but had lived in California for 30 years before the Lord called him back close to home. For six years he and his wife worked at Tennessee Temple Bible School before coming to Grace. Under Pastor White’s leadership, the first building was finally “under construction again” in 1969. The following quote was taken from a church newsletter dated November 9, 1969:
“This week we are moving to repair the porch on our temporary meeting place. Already our attendance is increasing and we must make some minimum improvements. The new building already started is to soon be completed. Plans are followed which we trust will result in being able to be in our first unit within a few weeks.”
The Chattanooga Times also reported:
“The partially constructed building, started three years ago, will be completed as funds become available. Four months ago the church began a bond sale. Sufficient funds were raised to put a roof on the building and make it usable . . . “
Again, details are sketchy, but plans to have a basement for Sunday School space and then the main auditorium on top of that were altered. The plans included only the auditorium construction. The building was finished and the Chattanooga Times reported on April 4, 1970:
“Members of Grace Baptist Church have occupied their new building at Jenkins and Shallowford Roads. . . Before moving into the new church, the congregation met for several years in an old farm house.”
Presently, the area of this first auditorium houses the library and a large meeting room.
In June, 1971, the church purchased one additional acre of property and a house that sat on the property.
On August 12, 1972, after five years of pastoring the church, Pastor White resigned, saying, “The church has grown to the point that a full-time pastor is needed and desired for the ministry of the church.”
The membership of the church had grown to more than 100. The auditorium now had new carpet, pews and chairs, and the smell of the country air had been replaced with central heat and cooling.
Pastor White had been the dean of men and an instructor at Tennessee Temple Bible School and continued teaching at the school after resigning his position at Grace. On January 6, 1973, the headlines of the newspaper read:
“Dr. Ronald Dingess to assume pulpit of Church in East Brainerd. . . Dr. Dingess comes to Grace Baptist Church from the Berean Baptist Church of Eatonton, GA, where he was pastor for five years.”
Dr. Dingess pastored Grace until August, 1976. During his pastorate in 1975, the church built a 40’ x 40’ addition on the rear of the existing auditorium. This area is presently being used for offices and practice studios.
Dr. Dingess resigned late in 1976, and the church called Dr. Doug Rutherford to be the pastor in January, 1977. Dr. Rutherford was very faithful and consistent in prayer and in visitation, visiting much of the East Brainerd area; however, due to a severe sickness and paralysis, he was confined to his bed for six to eight weeks. The church struggled financially during this time, too. Dr. Rutherford was selling vacuum cleaners on the side and could barely make ends meet. In July 1978, Pastor Rutherford felt it was best if he resign and open the door for someone else to pastor the church.
On September 3, 1978, Dr. Steve Euler was voted on as pastor by the small congregation of only 13 voting members. Dr. Euler had been teaching at Tennessee Temple College and Seminary for six years and was the head of the speech and drama department at that time. The church began to grow again quickly and construction on a new 275-seat auditorium began.
The fall of 1978 marked the beginning of the AWANA program. It was one of the first recorded organized programs of the church. Due to the growth of AWANA, a regular game room and assembly room was needed. Thus, the AWANA building went up in 1980. The new building was also used for other things such as the fellowship hall and gymnasium.
In 1985, a dream of starting a church-sponsored school became a reality. Enrollment for the first year for grades K-4 through 9 was 242. The need for more space was evident very quickly and an education wing was added next to the fellowship hall/gym the next year.
The first school building was built in 1987 and is used now by the high school of the Academy. A new phase of the ministry began in 1989, when Grace Children’s Center was established. The new building accommodated about 90 children ages 6 months to 4 years old.
Another building for classrooms was erected in 1995 and is now used by the middle school. Two more pieces of property were purchased in 2000 and 2001 to expand the total acreage for the church’s property to 22 acres. These purchases allowed room for yet another building, which was completed in 2006. This two-story building has 27 classrooms and now serves as the learning facilities for the entire elementary level of the Academy. The Academy’s enrollment has grown from 242 to over 900 in its 25 years of operation.
In 2005, the church and school built a new building for the Children’s Center, and then the church renovated the old Children’s Center to make room for much-needed church staff offices. For years the staff had been scattered throughout the campus making communication very difficult. The remodeled facilities have eight offices, along with two secretary offices and lobby, a large workroom & file room, a conference room, a counseling room, a restroom and a full-service kitchen.
The latest renovation was completed in 2006 to the main auditorium. The only thing that remained in its place was the original baptistry! The expansion of the facility would raise the seating capacity to over 950. The platform and choir loft were enlarged, the balcony was extended, and gallery seating was added on the extreme sides to help make the balcony more accessible from the main floor.
New pews on the main floor, chairs in the balcony, and new carpet and colors changed the appearance drastically from its original ‘80’s orange’! A new choir suite, two drama dressing rooms, a music library, a new 40-seat classroom, and a beautiful entrance to our main lobby were added as well. This addition to the front of the existing auditorium changed the ‘look’ from the road of one of the busiest intersections in Chattanooga. The ‘lighthouse tower’ has a light that shines 24 hours a day to remind us of our mission to be a ‘light’ to our community.