Church Revitalization – A Growth Explosion
By Jim Burton
DACULA—In February 2012 when Ebenezer Baptist Church called Sam Davis to be their pastor, the naysayers started yapping.
“You’re too young to be a pastor,” some said of the then 24-year-old farmer and mechanic.
“You’ll have to catch a ride to church,” said others, implying he was too young to drive.
“I’ve got socks older than you.”
Today, the naysayers have gone silent.
Ebenezer Baptist Church formed in 1847 in rural Gwinnett County, near Dacula. The church cemetery stretches for several acres next to the red brick church. Fortunately, the hundreds of graves are the only indicators of death. Today, Ebenezer is very much alive.
Davis entered his first pastorate with no formal training other than mentoring, primarily from Johnny Wright of Bear Creek Baptist church in Statham. At age 19, he felt the call to preach and started preaching in prisons and jails, and supply preaching. Davis did “Whatever I could to help anyway I could.”
Through another mentoring relationship with Larry Wynn, a Georgia Baptist Convention state missionary responsible for church revitalization, Davis received an invitation from Ebenezer to be their pastor.
Before preaching in view of a call, Davis met with the church informally and took questions the prior Saturday night. One man asked him what he’d do first to make the church grow.
“My first project is to do nothing,” Davis said.
When Davis started, the church was stagnant. The Sunday school ran about 80 people and 100 attended worship. There were three to four children. The congregation was mostly ages 60 and older.
Davis did more than nothing. He began building relationships. That effort helped him to determine how to grow Ebenzer.
“It’s hard to drive a broken car or to work with broken tools,” the former mechanic said.
The church mirrored what some researchers believe is happening in up to 90 percent of Southern Baptist churches that have reached a plateau or are declining. More often than not, fear or pride paralyze churches from facing the changes around them.
“They were terrified that I was going to blow the church up,” Davis said.
Instead of a destructive explosion, Ebenezer has experienced a growth explosion, nearly doubling its Sunday School and worship attendance in the first 18 months.
“The magic formula for church revitalization is Jesus Christ; finding the will of God for your church,” Davis said. “If there is a faint heartbeat, then we want to invest in them.”
The heartbeat at Ebenezer proved to be stronger than faint. Soon, the church members were wearing smiles and the church’s spirit began to change. The church has unity.
“I want to thank you for getting everybody going in the same direction,” one longtime member recently said to Davis.
“Because of this unity and the spirit that the people talk about, when visitors come they immediately feel welcome,” Davis observed.
Much encouragement has come from the influx of younger adults and families. Within the first year, Davis estimated that 60-70 adults joined the church. That’s the kind of revitalization Wynn hopes to see across Georgia.
“God doesn’t just want his church to survive, he wants it to thrive,” Wynn said. “The witness of Jesus Christ will stand in any environment. A church that is on mission will literally ram the gates of hell and will make progress.
Progress at Ebenezer is evident in its young-to-middle adult Sunday School class. When Sam’s wife, Morgan, first attended, there were four people. Today, that class runs up to 30. There was no children’s church, and only three to five children in the nursery. Today, up to 30 attend children’s church, and the nursery has up to 15 babies.
With the fellowship established, Ebenezer is experiencing unity in its ministries. In 2012 and 2013, the church had nearly 60 Vacation Bible School volunteers, including many senior adults.
For Davis, the bottom line is this: “People are growing in the Word of God.”
With that growth in biblical knowledge coupled with ongoing unity, Ebenezer’s revitalization should keep the naysayers silent.
– Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship, in Suwanee.