VBC: Our first 50 years

Trace through our history those themes that make VBC distinctive today.


Vienna signIn 1950 the Town of Vienna had a population of 2,020, but by 1955 it had grown to 5,000 and was beginning to feel the impact of suburban development. Young families were moving from apartments in Clarendon to the relatively inexpensive homes being built in a development called “Vienna Woods.” After a religious census indicated need for a Southern Baptist church in the area, Vienna Baptist Church was born as a mission of First Baptist Church, Clarendon; the Mount Vernon Baptist Association; and the Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education.

Led by mission pastor C.R. “Rudy” Davenport, the mission church held its first classes and worship service on Aug. 21, 1955, in a furnished model home purchased by the mother church. The mission grew, overflowing the model home as well as space in homes of several nearby members, and was constituted as a church on Jan. 20, 1957, with 122 charter members. Soon the new church purchased 4.5 acres on Marshall Road and broke ground for its first building on June 23, 1957. Pastor Davenport resigned and in 1961 VBC called John R. “Jack” Halsell III to serve as pastor. He was succeeded in 1966 by Lawrence E. “Larry” Matthews, who served until 1998.

Open to diversity

Worship in old sanctuaryIn the beginning, VBC implemented a full Southern Baptist program, but as a charter member said, “We came here trying to make a traditional Southern Baptist church, and it just did not work in this new community of Vienna.” From its inception the church was open to diversity and to doing things a little differently. Not only has Vienna Baptist Church remained a multicultural, multiethnic congregation, it has been in the vanguard of Baptist churches making decisions about such issues as ordaining women as deacons (1971) and women as ministers (1981). Although almost no other Southern Baptist church was ordaining women during that period, VBC made the decision without controversy.

Seeking the best way to function as a body of Christ, the church made other decisions about its organization during the 1960s. The deacons became a group set aside for ministry and were each assigned a group of families to minister to, and VBC developed its church covenant stating the commitments of the church body, which members signed for the first time on Palm Sunday, 1971.

During controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s, VBC fought hard on the side of the “moderates,” who eventually lost SBC leadership. In response, VBC became associated with the more moderate Alliance of Baptists in 1989. In 1991, VBC affiliated with the DC Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches, USA.

Doing missions

From its early years, Vienna Baptist Church has found creative ways to serve actively on mission in its community and beyond. While still a young church, in 1964 it hosted a Cuban refugee family, the Hidalgos. Other mission action groups followed: the 50/90 Club in 1968; a Mothers’ Day Out program in 1971 that eventually became the Vienna Baptist Children’s Center; ministry to the Ayr Hill adult home in 1976; Our Daily Bread food delivery in 1988; and participation in such other community ministries as the Committee for Helping Others and the Shepherd’s Center. Many are ongoing ministries today. From its beginning, VBC has contributed financially to local, state, national and international Baptist mission efforts. For 20 years, the church also gave one-fourth of the support for John and Mary Evelyn Divers, missionaries in Argentina.

God’s message through the arts

Music, arts and drama have been a form of mission outreach from VBC’s earliest years. In 1958 the church produced the play, “In the Same Country,” and dozens of productions have followed, including “A Man Called Peter,” “Godspell,” and “Shadowlands.” VBC has offered to the community each Advent since 1967 a “Living Nativity.” This area of ministry was formalized in 1983 when the church called Jack Price as Pastoral Associate for Music, Arts & Drama.

Retreat emphasis

Influenced by the church renewal movement in the 1960s, the interim ministry of C.C. Goen in 1965–66, and Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., VBC began to place more emphasis on the importance of prayer and retreat as central to church life. The first retreat took place in 1959 in Prince William Forest Park, and after some years of searching for a permanent retreat site, in 1980 VBC purchased 40 acres and a lodge in Lost River, W.Va., that became the Lost River Retreat Center. At first a separate nonprofit corporation managed the property, but in 1993 it was deeded to VBC.

A larger facility

Meanwhile, on Marshall Road, a major facilities expansion and renovation in the mid-1980s grew from the congregation’s desire for more space for worship and educational activities; more suitable music and drama areas; a larger, multipurpose fellowship hall; and a spacious foyer for fellowship after worship services. VBC began to see itself as a regional church, drawing families from outer suburbs as well as the Vienna community and the international community.

Growing together

Longer and more detailed versions of VBC’s history are available to document the activities of each year, the staff and lay leaders who served, the studies undertaken, the organizational decisions and ministry areas, and more. Those documents would further confirm the same themes running through the life of Vienna Baptist Church that are briefly noted here: openness to diversity, creativity and inclusiveness; a heart for doing Christ’s work in mission; a longing to grow closer to God through spiritual growth; and, as our covenant says, desire to live under Christ’s lordship as a local expression of His church.