In Johnson Magazine article “The Answer: Used Typewriters, Office Equipment, 40 Chairs, a Van, and 39 students,” Johnson University professor Twila Sias answers the question “What was required to start Central Florida Bible College?”
When Dr. Gary Weedman visited campus last spring and addressed the Florida Christian College student body for the first time, he closed his session with a time of Q & A. No doubt the very first question came as a bit of a surprise: “Do we get to keep our mascot name?”
Amidst all the possible questions and concerns relating to the merger, the apparent focus on the name of our athletic teams surely seemed frivolous. However, the question had already risen among the student body and several alumni. Historically, at Florida Christian College, school identity among the student body focuses at the heart of FCC’s vision and mission. We are “SUNS.”
In 1976 the first students established traditions that would help set the tone and personality of the College. Their choice of Suns seemed obvious with the new school’s location in the middle of the Sunshine State. They also considered the biblical imagery from Psalm 19—the heavens declaring God’s glory, the voice of the heavens reaching to the ends of the earth, and the sun, rising with nothing able to hide from its heat.
The Florida Christian College vision has a rich context. In the early 1970s, Florida was the third fastest growing state in the nation and saw the highest rate of migration—not only from other states but from other countries. Florida had become the fourth most populated state, with the numbers shifting towards the geographic center. At the time, 139 Christian churches were spread throughout Florida, mostly small congregations. The nearest college in the Restoration Movement was over 400 miles away from Orlando.
It was within this landscape that Fred W. Smith Jr., preaching minister of the Englewood Christian Church in Jacksonville, Florida, saw a need and took action. In 1972 he spoke the vision to the congregation at Englewood. Nancy Royal, a young woman in the church, handed him a check for $3,000 in memory of her father who had been a preacher. She wanted the funds to be used to start a college. This seed money further kindled the reality of a Christian college in Florida.
Over the next two years, Fred Smith met with church leaders throughout the state to discuss the possibilities. In 1974, at First Christian Church in Orlando, eighty ministers and church leaders determined to establish a college in Florida.
Anyone who ever heard Fred Smith preach or who even engaged with him in casual conversation knew of his confidence, not in himself, but in the Lord. “If God is your partner, plan big!” The steering committee moved ahead, determined to plan big! They sought the best professors/preachers to lead the new college. John P. Hasty, president of Great Lakes Bible College, agreed to be president of the new institution. Two top-rated Bible professors left productive, long-term teaching positions for the sake of the vision in Florida. Dr. James E. Smith, from Cincinnati Bible Seminary, arrived to serve as academic dean and professor of Old Testament. Dr. Marion W. Henderson came from Lincoln Christian College to teach New Testament.
Because the name “Florida Christian College” was already in use by another institution, the School opened as Central Florida Bible College in September 1976. Thirty-nine students enrolled as freshmen. They were more like pioneers than consumers. After all, they had come to a higher education institution with no campus, no accreditation, and no traditions. The College owned only a couple of used typewriters, some donated office equipment, 40 classroom chairs, and a van. At the invitation of the elders and senior minister Francis Reid,
First Christian Church of Orlando graciously opened hospitable doors to welcome the new college. Offices and library filled less than a thousand-foot space with additional areas reserved for a classroom and chapel. Central Florida Bible College began with only a track of freshman level courses in order to build the curriculum steadily, adding students and teachers each year. By the end of the fourth year, student enrollment had grown to 120. Three more high quality professors rounded out a solid faculty team. Professor Roger Chambers made the lessons of history come alive for application in the 20th century church. Professor Michael Chambers developed a program of philosophy and apologetics, not available in most undergraduate schools at the time. Professor Glenn Bourne brought considerable knowledge and experience to the practical ministry program. Professor Bourne’s passion for missions and evangelism led to the development of a college wide outreach program that has taken teachers and students to 19 countries on five continents.
This history of Florida Christian College is a continuing story of God’s provision. The growing college needed a place to expand. Clifford Chapman was a man who often declared, “You can’t out-give God!” He believed that and practiced it. The 40-acre field, 22 miles south of Orlando in an undeveloped part of Kissimmee, looked like what it was—a cow pasture. God honored the sacrificial land gift of the Chapman family and turned an ordinary field into something extraordinary. In 1985, the College moved to its own campus and became Florida Christian College.
The need for the Gospel is greater now than ever! Today, independent Christian churches number 202 in Florida, but the state population has also grown to 20 million. In Florida, 40 graduates of Florida Christian College are lead evangelists/preachers, with an additional 110 serving in other paid ministry positions. Twenty-five percent of FCC graduates serve in paid ministry positions. Many of those leaders have spouses who also graduated from FCC.
God continues to do great things through people who lead with hearts of faith, who allow themselves to be vessels for His holy purposes. The mission remains. Our students are SUNS. May their voice continue to be heard to the ends of the earth.
Twila grew up in southern Illinois in a home dedicated to ministry. Her relationship with Florida Christian College began at its inception in 1976, when she oversaw the College office. In 1980, she began teaching in the areas of English and Christian Education. Twila’s academic preparation includes a B.A. degree from Lincoln Christian College, an M.Ed. degree from University of Central Florida, and doctoral work with Nova Southeastern University.
Professor Sias is one of the original six persons who made up the staff of Central Florida Bible College (original name of FCC). Currently, she oversees the Children’s Ministry program and teaches in the areas of education and psychology.
She and her husband, Don, have one son, Jonathan, who is a student at JUFL. They also share in a rich family life with First Christian Church in Kissimmee. Twila appreciates the ministry that God has put before her. She is especially grateful for and inspired by the students and alumni who put their faith, grace, and compassion into action throughout the world.