As is Greenforest Community Baptist Church’s practice of providing Bible studies as well as opportunities for missions and education, a gathering last year commemorated the 400th anniversary of slaves from Africa arriving in North America. GCBC/Special
DECATUR — Greenforest Community Baptist has historically been known as a “teaching” church, says its pastor, Emory Berry, Jr. And while that background remains strong, the historic congregation has also grown in its missional focus.
For around a quarter-century, members have arrived every Saturday to prepare bagged lunches that are delivered to three homeless shelters – more than 12,000 lunches every year. The “Souper Bowl” held the weekend of the NFL championship collects canned goods. Volunteers step into the role of foster parents.
Others take part in outreaches for abused women or those struggling to escape human trafficking. Their Soles for Souls drive has sent more than 1,000 pairs of shoes to Africa. Backpack Buddy allows them to partner with a local elementary school listed as Title I, meaning all the kids receive a free or reduced-price lunch. That program, says Berry, Jr., gives children a backpack full of food to take home on the weekend. Through it, volunteers have provided at least 1,000 meals a year.
Those are only a sample of the efforts joining other longstanding involvement in events like MLK Service Day and Hosea Feed the Hungry. Such work goes hand-in-hand with an active faith, Berry, Jr. notes.
“We want to be a Matthew 25 missional church. We’re changing from the inside-out.”
It’s an effort for the church, he adds, to become more missional and have that reflected in its preaching and teaching.
“We bring guest speakers to share their stories of becoming more missions-minded, how that changed their communities, and how the Lord blessed them as a result,” says Berry, Jr. a member of the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Committee. “Our budget reflects a continued growth of supporting other mission causes such as the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Over the years we’ve committed to sending relief for those affected by hurricanes in Houston, Florida, the Dominican, and the Bahamas.
In December Berry, Jr. presented Georgia Baptist Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond, Jr., with a check for $10,000 toward helping relief efforts in the Bahamas. “It helps us become the hands of feet of Christ.” says the pastor.
5 areas of Fulfillment Hour
That change begins with a devotion to studying Scripture. Greenforest’s Sunday School time is called Fulfillment Hour and includes some 850 people in 115 classes stretched across its 94-acre campus in various buildings. An intentional small group model, each class is typically capped at 15 members. Greenforest’s 2,000-seat sanctuary helps accommodate the classes, with more than ten of them choosing to spread out in different areas.
The vitality of Fulfillment Hour can be found in several practices. Berry, Jr. listed five components for which each class must be responsible among its attendees:
“Teachers receive training every Wednesday evening for 45 minutes,” he says. “We review the lesson to make sure everyone is teaching with the same theology and understanding. We also answer any questions and share illustrations or activities related to the lesson.”
The mission of the church
The pastor’s testimony speaks to Greenforest’s penchant to mixing study with action. Raised in a middle-class home in Miami, his mother worked in communications and computer science and his late father an accountant. He grew up in church and his parents made sure he was there, even if it meant leaving football practice early on Wednesdays to get to Bible study.
His parents were able to have great careers and take care of their family. When he’d go visit relatives in more impoverished neighborhoods, though, it troubled him to see communities struggling and yet with no lack of churches. “The church should impact the community,” he reflects. “What good is it to be saved but then leave people to go hungry or live in substandard housing? As a kid watching that, it felt like something had to be improved.
“As a pastor, I wanted to be one who lifted up the name of Jesus but also address the social, economic, and educational challenges of the community. Every church I’ve served in has been in an urban context. I don’t have to go looking for opportunities to serve.”
Spiritual and social lenses
Berry, Jr.’s path didn’t always include the ministry. After high school he attended the University of Florida to major in pre-med. But on his way to medical school, “the Lord rerouted my path,” he says. Called to preach at age 19, he finished his degree at Florida and did some work in the medical field.
But, he adds, “The Lord wouldn’t help me negotiate the two.” He ended up in Atlanta attending the Candler School of Theology at Emory. After serving as pastor of Fourth Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., he came to Greenforest in October 2016 to become the youngest pastor in the church’s history at 38 years old.
Berry, Jr. appreciates the lofty expectations of filling the same pulpit as the church’s longtime pastor George O. McCalep, interim pastor and civil rights legend John H. Cross, and most recently, Dennis Mitchell, who currently serves as executive director of the National Association of African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention. Like them, he asserts a focus on applying the Gospel not only in one’s heart, but how that person serves others.
“I have a spiritual and social lens by way of the Gospel,” he says. “When Jesus was performing a miracle, he was dealing with that individual’s social reality. You have to be concerned with the existential as well as the hereafter.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.