Fifty years ago, the Rev. Roy and Ruth Stockstill held church services in their Baker home. Eleven people were there.
Since then, Bethany Church has grown to be one of the largest — if not the largest — churches in the Baton Rouge area. It has two sprawling campuses — one in Baker and the other just off Siegen Lane and I-10 in Baton Rouge — and a third campus is planned for Livingston Parish next year.
On Sunday evening, more than 10,000 people are expected to celebrate Bethany’s 50th anniversary in the River Center. The “Legacy Lives” service will feature three generations of Stockstill pastors — “Brother Roy” Stockstill, 94; his son and former longtime Pastor Larry Stockstill, 60, and his wife Melanie; and current Pastor Jonathan Stockstill, 32, and his wife Angie.
Two years ago this weekend, Jonathan, who’d served as worship pastor for 15 years, accepted the mantle of leadership from his father Larry during an emotional service before 6,000 members in the North Campus auditorium. Shortly thereafter, Bethany World Prayer Center was renamed Bethany Church.
“I really feel like God has blessed us,” says Jonathan Stockstill. “The big deal about the 50th anniversary is to celebrate what God can do through a local church over the span of five decades.
“Close to $100 million has been given to world missions. Millions of believers around the world have been converted. We have churches that have planted ‘kid’ churches that have planted ‘grandkid’ churches,” Stockstill says. “We’re celebrating what God has done around the world and in this community, and how lives have been changed and greater things are to come.”
After years of steady growth and multiple facility expansions, Roy Stockstill retired in 1983, and Larry Stockstill assumed the pastoral mantle. The church quickly grew from hundreds into thousands. The 6,000-seat Baker auditorium was completed, and racial diversity became the norm.
While he downplays statistics, Jonathan Stockstill acknowledges that Bethany is “one of” Baton Rouge’s largest churches.
According to a list of the Top 500 churches in America compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion, Bethany in 2012 was the 100th largest and Healing Place, Baton Rouge’s other non-denominational ‘mega-church,’ was 119th in the nation.
Attendance at this year’s Easter service “was right at 10,000,” Jonathan Stockstill says, and average attendance combining the Baker and south campuses is around 6,000.
He says he is grateful for Bethany’s reputation of diversity with members of all races, ages and incomes joyfully mixing in worship.
“The thing I love about Bethany is that if you go to a Target store, the demographic that you would see there is what you will see here on Sunday,” he says. “It IS Baton Rouge. Sunday just looks like a melting pot of ages, races, culture and financial diversity from low income to white collar.”
Friends and family legacy
A church of Bethany’s size is not possible without the help of family, a lot of volunteers and a staff of executive pastors that includes Wayne Brown, Chuck Stearns, Jaime Zachary, Hank Henegan, Garland Mizelle and Melanie Stockstill’s father, James Clark.
Larry Stockstill oversees an exploding worldwide missions programs. His son, Jared Stockstill, oversees the Bethany support staff, and Angie Stockstill, Jonathan’s wife, oversees the Bible College and the 200-student, pre-K through 12th grade Bethany School. Jonathan and Angie have two girls — Evie, 4, and Andi, 2.
James Stockstill, another brother to Jonathan, works with college students and young adults, while youngest brother Jason is attending Bible college in Dallas, where oldest brother, Joel, a Bethany youth evangelist, awaits a kidney transplant.
The Livingston Parish campus pastors will be Cameron Wiggans and his wife, Melissa, who is Jonathan’s sister. More than 800 members who commute into Baker or Baton Rouge will meet at Walker High School until a facility is built.
Jonathan Stockstill is aware of critics who claim Bethany is a ‘family business,’ and he disagrees with them.
“God is very family oriented. He works in families,” he says, referencing God’s promise to Abraham that went to his sons Isaac and Jacob, and God’s priesthood covenant with Aaron and his sons and David’s descendants that were promised the throne of Israel.
“I served here my entire life. I loved the people of this church and led them in worship for 15 years,” says Jonathan Stockstill. “The church was for it — there was a personal call I felt from God. I feel it’s a blessing we can have three generations serving God.”
Wisdom passed down
In the two years Jonathan Stockstill has been senior pastor, he said his dependence on God has grown, and he relishes the wisdom of his grandfather and father.
“Brother Roy’s biggest advice is ‘keep it simple. Take it easy,’” Jonathan Stockstill says. “His philosophy is, ‘This is a marathon — not a sprint.’ Whenever I get stressed out, he’ll tell me to relax.
“From my dad I get the realness, the integrity,” he says. “His prayer life is authentic. His devotion to the word is authentic. The way he treats my mom is authentic. … from my dad — be genuine in ministry.”
Jonathan Stockstill says he plans to keep expanding the ministry as things divinely develop.
“My goal is to see the Gospel advanced around the world,” he says.
Bethany anniversary celebration
WHAT: Legacy Lives, 50th anniversary of Bethany Church.
WHEN: 5 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: River Center, 275 S. River Road
INFORMATION: (225) 774-1700 or bethany.com