In 1998, Pastor George W. Autry, Jr. responded to a call from the Lord to begin a church in the Northeast area of Columbia. Concerned over the number of people in Northeast Columbia who did not attend church and burdened by a desire to see lost souls come to know Christ, Pastor Autry, along with his family and a few founding members, started the Higher Ground Baptist Church. The church plant was unique in contemporary times, in that it was not a mission of another church nor was it fully staffed on the day of its first service. It was started from scratch on faith, determination, and God’s grace.
Higher Ground Baptist held its first service on March 31, 1998 in the Richland School District 2 auditorium at Richland Northeast High School. Shortly thereafter, the church relocated to a temporary location on Hard Scrabble Road and changed its name to First Carolina Baptist Church. On November 8, 1998, First Carolina held its inaugural service and the church charter was signed by the first members.
In 1999, First Carolina was blessed with the opportunity to purchase 19 acres of land in Blythewood at the north end of Farrow Road at the entrance to Willow Lake subdivision. The church purchased the property in July 2000. On October 28, 2001, First Carolina broke ground for the construction of its new facilities and dedicated the property to the Lord. The new church facility, including a multipurpose building and parking, was completed in March 2002. First Carolina held its first service in the new facility on March 17, 2002.
In January 2003, Pastor Autry resigned as pastor of First Carolina and subsequently became the pastor of Coastal Shores Baptist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina. After a brief pastoral search that was clearly guided by the Lord’s hand, the church called a new pastor—Jeff Benson. At the time he was called, Pastor Benson was the pastor at University Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri. Pastor Benson joined First Carolina in June 2003 and his family followed shortly thereafter. Pastor Benson and his wife, Debbie, have five children—Deonna, Brock, Bowman, Daila, and Boone.
On January 1, 2005 our church again changed its name to Willow Lake Church. The purpose of this change was twofold: to better identify where we were located in the Blythewood community, and to attract unchurched people to our church family. The summer of 2005 approximately 3 acres of land was cleared, grass was planted, roots were pulled and the land was groomed for soccer fields. Subsequently, Upward Soccer commenced in August of 2005 with 116 players!
Thursday, January 12, 2006, Willow Lake Church was blessed by receiving an additional 3.18 acres (appraised value of $146,000), which adjoins our 19 acres at the north end. The property was given by the Carolyn Raines family. Willow Lake now has a total of 22.18 acres to use for the Lord’s glory!