Spiritual Renewal In Rural Georgia
By Jim Burton
ELLABELL—Wedged between the Fort Stewart Army base and Interstate 16 in Bryan County is a patch of land called Ellabell. About 30 miles west of Savannah, Ellabell is off the beaten track, which makes it a good candidate for a proposed private 268-acre waste landfill.
That landfill’s border would begin 250 feet from the property line of Olive Branch Baptist Church, and surround the church on three sides.
Pastor Clint Sullens opposes the encroachment. Why would their county approve a waste landfill next to a vibrant, growing church? From the outside, many may not see what God is doing at Olive Branch Baptist Church as it fills with more people.
When Sullens arrived more than five years ago, he found Olive Branch to be a good church with mature lay leadership, particularly from its four active deacons. With its family focus, the church could run up to 100 in Sunday School. Now, the average is closer to 135.
“God has done more as the church continued to seek Him over the past five years,” Sullens said. “God has accelerated this because of the faith foundation of our people.”
Sullens points to at least two factors that have brought spiritual renewal to this rural Georgia church in recent months.
First, Olive Branch has a strong prayer ministry. Consistently, the church regularly prays for one another and the unchurched. They pray for influence over their neighbors, schools, and work colleagues.
“God has helped people stay fresh in their engagement because of their praying,” Sullens said.
The church has even started an instant prayer ministry that involves up to 60 people in prayer within an hour of receiving a request.
Second, the church conducted a prayer revival last fall with State Missionary Marty Youngblood from Discipleship Ministries/Prayer and Spiritual Awakening.
“He preached to us for a week on being engaged with the Lord in prayer,” Sullens said. “As we’ve lived that out, we’ve seen 21 conversions since November, 18 of which are adults.”
Youngblood calls the prayer revival a model of what happened across America before the Second Great Awakening, which began in 1790 and lasted nearly 50 years.
” The church had been praying and was expecting God to move,” Youngblood said. “They had seen God move in the previous several revivals and believed no differently this time.”
The undergirding of prayer, coupled with biblical teaching and preaching, had also laid a foundation for greater missions involvement. Besides leading up to 35 members on short-term mission trips, Sullens is passionate about Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program (CP).
“I’m sick of seeing people undercutting the Cooperative Program,” said Sullens, whose church gives 11 percent through the Cooperative Program, 3 percent to the Ogechee River Baptist Association, and 1 percent to the W.M. Mann Center, an associational camp. “There are a lot of folks who don’t want to acknowledge anything that they aren’t doing personally.
“I’m proud to be an ant,” he continued. “I’m proud to labor and give from what I have.”
Olive Branch maintains that commitment with a strong mission education ministry. With Mission Friends, Girls in Action, Royal Ambassadors, Acteens, Challengers, Baptist Women, and Baptist Men, the church is consistently intentional to pray for missionaries.
Jerry Butler is a deacon who has attended Olive Branch since 1979.
“A fine group of people come here that’s on fire for the Lord,” Butler said, who is now one of seven active deacons. “Seeds have already been planted. We’re just reaping the harvest.”
Butler remembers when the church built its current sanctuary amidst doubts that people would ever fill the facility. Today, Olive Branch is considering how best to accommodate its growth in worship.
Sullens grew up in a traditional, rural Southern Baptist church near Spartanburg, S.C. He made a profession of faith at age nine, and surrendered to preach at age 13 having been deeply influenced by the ministry of the late Everett Talbert, a man whom Sullens describes as one who “preached with authority.”
“The Lord laid it on my heart to fill Everett Talbert’s shoes,” Sullens said.
Those shoes won’t be going in a landfill.
– Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, Ga., and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship, in Suwanee, Ga., (www.sifsuwanee.com).