After 20 years of ministry in other cities, Waco native John Durham returned home in August to take the job as pastor at Highland Baptist Church.
Durham’s return is somewhat of a following in his father Ron’s footsteps, who was the pastor at Columbus Avenue Baptist for 30 years.
“Waco poured into me when I was growing up,” Durham said. “I want to give back to this city.”
Durham is Waco-born and bred, as he would put it. He attended Mountainview Elementary, Lake Air Junior High and Waco High, and then went to Baylor University for his undergraduate studies.
After leaving Baylor, Durham and his wife Jennifer relocated to Houston, where he was a youth minister at First Baptist Houston while getting a degree in Christian counseling.
“I thought I wanted to be a counselor, but I learned quickly that I actually didn’t enjoy that at all, and meanwhile I was loving youth ministry,” Durham said.
After several years in Houston, Durham was asked to move to Irving, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, to pastor a church. He said he didn’t have any intention of taking the job when it was first offered, but that God seemed to have another plan for him.
“I was loving First Baptist in Houston,” he said. “I had gotten to where I was preaching on Sundays every once in a while to thousands of people, and I had no intention of leaving. I liked where I was at. Turns out God had a different plan, as He usually does.”
Durham moved to Irving with his family and got to see a struggling church grow and thrive during his years there. He said he wanted to cultivate a community that had a heart for the nation and for missions both local and global.
“We wanted to be a go-and-tell church, not a come-and-see church,” he said.
It was in his last couple of years in Irv-ing, though, that he began to have a soft spot for Waco.
“I knew God was doing something in my heart for Waco when I found myself reading the Trib online almost daily,” Durham said. “I just all of a sudden wanted to know what was going on in Waco, what the people were doing and what God was doing.”
Durham said he wanted to come in and be a breath of fresh air to the church in Waco. Sitting in a room with him, he exudes a passion that’s tangible.
Exuberantly boyish at the age of 44, Durham said he is eager to see a city he loves transformed by the gospel.
“I want to see Waco redeemed,” he said. “I think it starts by the Church just being the Church.”
Durham has practical plans to carry out big dreams in this city that’s dear to his heart. He said he’s both encouraged at how it’s already happening, and eager to see a growth in the way the church serves the city.
“I don’t want there to be a hungry person within 10 or 15 blocks of Highland,” Durham said. “This is the neighborhood God has placed us in to impact, and we are going to do that. You can see other churches in other neighborhoods, like Columbus and Antioch, doing a great job of that, and I want us to be one of them.”
Durham expressed his passion for the way the church is supposed to do the things that the government can’t. He said if the church loved the people the way it’s supposed to, we wouldn’t be “having all this disappointment in a government that’s failing at something it isn’t even called to do.”
While he knows his job is to lead Highland Baptist well, Durham said his heart is to see churches across Waco loving and serving the city together.
“There is so much still to be done to see this city really thriving,” Durham said. “It’s going to take all of us, not just Highland Baptist. And that will start with pastors partnering together, and being the unified church of this city.”
One of the things Durham said they’re working on at Highland in order to love its own neighborhood well is to have an after-school program for Dean Highland Elementary School, just down the Maple Avenue from the church. They will bring kids over from the school in vans and have tutoring, lessons and games. They also plan on feeding kids in the neighborhood every weeknight.
Highland Baptist has about 2,500 members. A few years ago it built the multipurpose Life Center next door to accommodate the numbers that attend Sunday morning worship services.
Having grown up a pastor’s kid in Waco to where he’s now pastoring a Waco church himself, Durham said it’s kind of funny, because when he was growing up he never thought he would be a pastor.
“I always loved church and loved Jesus, but I just thought having my dad’s job one day would be the worst thing ever back then,” Durham said.
Now, following in dad’s footsteps after all, Durham said there are some definite similarities he can see in the way he does ministry compared with his father.
“Dad and I both love people. We tend to put a high premium on relationships and knowing the stories of people,” he said.
Durham added that the biggest difference he can think of between him and his father is just that he’s a much more casual dresser. He preaches in jeans and wears T-shirts in the office, whereas he said he remembers his dad always preaching in a suit and wearing ties in the office.
Durham’s time at Baylor, he said, is when things began to shift and he began to think maybe ministry is something he could do.
“Baylor was really formative for me,” he said. “It was really formative for Jennifer, too. Even though Waco isn’t where she grew up (she is from Southlake near Dallas), those four years did a lot in her to make her want to come back also.”
“I think Jennifer may have even begun to feel the longing to be back in Waco before I did,” Durham said. “It’s home to both of us, after how much Baylor shaped us.”