A Glorious Calling
“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake” (Psalm 115:1, KJV).
The call of God was clear. It possessed his mind and heart. Rayburn Blair knew without a doubt that God was calling him away from his beloved hometown to preach the Word in another city—even another state.
Four-year-old Rayburn had grown up hearing his great-grandmother’s prayers: “Dear Lord, may Rayburn grow up to be the man you want him to be. May he amount to something for You.” By age six, Rayburn was having thoughts of God and of becoming a preacher someday. But it was not until he was twelve years old that he understood he was a sinner and needed Jesus to forgive him and become his Savior.
At barely seventeen, Rayburn joined the Marines and received training as a combat radioman. Sent to Korea with the First Marine Division, he fought in one of the bloodiest battles in the Korean War—the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea near Manchuria. During the coldest of wars, seeing death all around, Rayburn realized how fragile life was. One night as he held a dying friend in his arms, he sensed God’s presence in a way he had never before. He surrendered his life—what would be left of it after the war, he thought—fully to the Lord. He realized that life without God’s presence was void, no matter how long he might live. Sharing with a friend later, Rayburn remarked, “If I was worthy, I would like to be a minister of the gospel someday.” To which his friend responded, “I’ve never known anyone who was worthy.” Rayburn never forgot that comment.
A Call to Leave
After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Bettie Ashcraft, the Blairs began their family: twin boys were followed by three girls and then another boy. Desiring to be a preacher trained in the Word, Rayburn attended seminary and was called to his first church. A gifted evangelist, Rayburn shared his faith in word and deed in the community, and the church grew under his leadership. The congregation consisted of about two hundred and fifty loving people, and the Blairs were happy, serving the Lord and living among relatives and friends.
But Rayburn sensed God had something else for him to do. After weeks of prayer, he told Bettie that God had impressed on his heart that they should leave their comfortable pastorate and go preach the Word in another city. Bettie, trusting God and her husband, understood. Over the next two years the Blairs waited for God to show them that the time to leave had arrived. During this time, their excitement grew, as well as their zeal to become missionaries for God in a new place.
Finally, Rayburn was convinced that God was leading them to Tallahassee, Florida. Two years earlier he and a friend had overnighted in this beautiful little city with its big oak trees and azalea-lined streets. He believed, absolutely, that God was calling them to go to this sleepy little town. He believed it presented a great opportunity for a positive, aggressive ministry.
Getting Started in Tallahassee
Pulling a small U-haul truck loaded with household items and two hundred wooden folding chairs, the Blair family arrived in Tallahassee on February 20, 1963. The bargain-bought chairs were a down payment on the new ministry the Blairs hoped would flourish in this new city. With enough money for rent, gas, and food for a month, and the twenty dollars a week support promised by several churches in Texas, the Blairs knew the Lord would supply all their needs. They had come to Tallahassee by faith, because God had called them there.
After settling into a small rented house, Rayburn began a plan that he would continue throughout his years in ministry. He began knocking on doors and visiting every business in the city. Arising early each morning and continuing until after dark, he invited people to come to the first service of Temple Baptist Church—the name he had given this yet-to-be church—to be held at a community center on March 17.
On that first Sunday morning, there were thirty-five people, including the eight Blairs, who showed up for the service. Within two months, the congregation had outgrown the community center building and needed to find another place to meet. The young, friendly preacher from Texas who went by every week to say hello and renew the invitation to come to church convinced a lot of people to give the church a try. People in the city began to refer to him simply as “Preacher.”
At Home Among the People
Rayburn Blair believed that, in order to build a church, a man must have a love for God and a love for people. And the only way people would know you love them is by communicating with them. So, as pastor, four days a week he would spend his days knocking on doors. Then on Thursday evenings, he would mail a handwritten card to every home he had visited that week. On Fridays, he would visit Tallahassee businesses, meeting every clerk and executive in the stores. This personal approach laid the foundation for the expansion of the church’s ministry in years to come.
Bettie and the Blair children contributed to the ministry and made their mark on the community as well. To help meet the needs of the family, Bettie went into the dressmaking business, sewing for Tallahassee ladies so her husband could spend his time building the church. The twins worked paper routes and the girls did babysitting. The children also swept the floors and cleaned the restrooms at the building where the church met, and the girls kept the babies in the nursery.
Believing that Christians need to fellowship together, Pastor Blair brought a custom to Temple Baptist from his Texas roots. Sunday dinners on the ground became a regular on the church calendar. These dinners were times of bonding, when people spent time together and got to know one another better.
In late 1963, Pastor Blair went on the air with a 15-minute gospel message on a local radio station. By 1964, the radio outreach extended into Alabama. The gospel message was going out, and new people were showing up at every Temple service. Through many deeds of kindness, the people in the community showed their affection for their preacher and his family. A local grocer gifted them with their favorite sausage links, a neighbor shared his catch of fish after a fishing trip, friends replaced their car’s worn-out tires, and sometimes even strangers would hand the preacher a fifty-dollar bill.
By early 1965, Temple had grown to about a hundred and fifty members, and the church needed more space. They were able to rent an elementary school auditorium, but still had the problem of storing all the equipment needed for services. Finding an old box-trailer that someone wanted to get rid of, Pastor Blair and the song leader cleaned it up, put a roof and small steeple on it—making it look like a church—and this little trailer hauled the small piano, nursery beds, two-hundred folding chairs, lectern, and song books back and forth to the school every week. Without a permanent building, this “little church” witnessed to the community that something special was happening at the church that was meeting in the school.
A Philosophy of Service
Rayburn Blair seemed to always be at the place where things were happening. Never one to sit still, he saw opportunities—or created them—and acted on them. He was the champion of the underdog. In many cases, thinking he and the Lord had changed some wayward son, he would give them money, help get them a job, be their character reference, and even sign monetary notes for them. His compassionate nature would not let him turn away a hurting individual who had no friend or hope. Pastor Blair believed deeply that you will never help someone unless you allow yourself to become vulnerable. His philosophy was to reach out and touch every individual possible for Jesus Christ.
One long-time church member recounts this story: One hot summer day, a gentleman from the town had a flat tire and had pulled off the road when another car pulled in behind him. A young man, dressed in a suit, got out, pulled off his coat, asked for a tire wrench, and changed the tire. Then wiping the sweat from his brow, he extended his hand. It was Rayburn Blair.
Under the pastor’s leadership, the members of Temple were always fixing the roofs of widows’ houses, putting in a hot water heater for someone who couldn’t afford it, cleaning homes of the elderly and afflicted, and reaching out to touch the hurting. The Bible clearly outlines the duties of the church in caring for widows and orphans. To Rayburn Blair, it was like a commandment. He assigned deacons in the church the responsibility of looking after the needs of widows.
In late 1965, the church began looking for land to buy. A twenty-acre tract of land on the outskirts of the city was found, and after considering it as a possible site for a new church, Pastor Blair asked the deacons to get on their knees and pray for God to lead in their decision. In 1973, a church auditorium, with a seating capacity of 3,000, was erected. With the Lord’s blessing, in only ten years, the church had gone from meeting in a store-front building to having their own spacious auditorium.
In 1975, the church began televising their worship services, reaching out hundreds of miles in all directions. Pastor Blair’s influence was sought by men in politics, from governors to local councilmen, many of whom would seek counsel from the pastor. The survivors of the Chosin Reservoir battle in Korea formed a group called “The Chosin Few” and chose Pastor Blair as their chaplain. Two universities bestowed honorary doctorates on Pastor Blair, a man whose only desire was to honor God.
Over the years of Pastor Blair’s ministry, he—along with a Christian layman—founded three Christian schools. In the 1980s, the population at one of the schools swelled to more than 1,600 students. Pastors from across the nation, interested in Christian education, came to Tallahassee to observe the program. Concerned about the wayward children who were out of control and had lost their way in life, Pastor Blair led the church to play a role in helping to save these young people. In 1977, the Lighthouse Children’s Home was established, which later expanded to include a home for boys and a home for girls. These homes have reached out to hurting families all over our nation. Many of the children, experiencing the love of Christians and the Heavenly Father’s love, left the Lighthouse with a new purpose to become a positive influence in society.
When asked to describe his calling as a pastor, Rayburn Blair explains it this way: “In studying scripture, I see that Jesus ministered to physical as well as spiritual needs. God admonishes us not to withhold from the needy that which is in our power to give. I could not pray that God would do something about the needs in Tallahassee unless I was willing to do something about them myself. I have always known that the first calling of Temple Baptist Church was to win the lost to Jesus. But I also remembered His teaching in Matthew 26 that when we serve the least in our world, we are serving Him. I believe God wants us to act, not just as individuals, but also as a body of believers—as the church.”
“God gives pastors different visions. My concern is to focus on what I believe God has called me to. That is why we started the Christian schools, the Haven of Rest Rescue Mission, the Tallahassee Food Bank, the Lighthouse Children’s Home, and the mission in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It’s the reason we have one of the oldest and most active prison ministries in the nation, and the reason we established the W65BG television station in Tallahassee.”
When asked by a young ministerial student what he had done differently from other pastors to build such a large ministry in so few years, Pastor Blair modestly responded: “All I can say is that I have preached God’s Word; I have loved people; I have worked hard; and I have not quit.” From observers inside and outside of the church, the obvious answer to the young man’s question is Rayburn Blair’s faith. The Bible says that man should live by faith. Pastor Blair lived by faith. His faith fueled his vision and his energy.
Called to Leave a Second Time
In 1991, after open heart surgery, Pastor Blair shared with his beloved congregation that the Lord had impressed on him that it was time to leave the church. His farewell letter to the church included these remarks: “I understood from the beginning of this ministry that someday God would call me away. I thank God that He has kept before me all these years that this is His ministry—and not Rayburn Blair’s. I thank the Dear Lord for allowing this West Texas boy to have a small part in building a wonderful church and laboring among all the precious people of Temple. I grieve to leave you, my beloved friends. But our faith is in our God—not in each other. He is sufficient!”
The people of Temple Baptist Church will never forget the pastor who dedicated his life to God’s work and was at their beck and call at any hour of the day or night. He was a man who counted it a glorious honor to be among the servants of Almighty God.
After Pastor Blair’s resignation, Temple Baptist Church harmoniously transitioned to the leadership of Dr. Randy Ray. The church has since been renamed North Florida Baptist Church.