Pastor Brad Whitt welcomes members and guests to Abilene Baptist Church’s annual Christmas program featuring the Singing Christmas Tree. RICHARD THOMPSON/Special
MARTINEZ — Pastors say they can’t wait to get behind the pulpit, but Brad Whitt means it literally.
There are many ways one can see the growth currently being experienced at Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, just outside of Augusta. Since Whitt joined the church as pastor in 2012, Abilene has doubled its average Sunday attendance to more than 1,200. Two services demand constantly-running shuttle busses for members and guests, including those using an overflow parking lot. In October the church’s west campus launched, adding a third worship service.
This is where Whitt’s schedule gets even more hectic. Abilene West is more than 16 miles away. And though he could opt to be piped in via video, that’s not the path Whitt is taking.
Instead, his Sunday begins at the main campus’ 8:30 a.m. worship service. Upon its conclusion Whitt drives south down the Bobby Jones Expressway before merging into the westbound lanes of I-20. At the 183 exit marker he turns back south onto highway 221 and proceeds for another mile to Harlem Middle School, the current home of Abilene West, where he preaches the 9:45 service. Once he’s finished there, it’s back on the road, arriving at the main campus in time to preach for the 11:00 worship hour. Whitt has been doing this since the second Sunday of September.
Does he get nervous about not making it to the church in time?
“I prefer to drive myself,” he says. “It helps me work out the anxiety [of getting there on time]. Plus, I go faster than the other guys are willing to drive.”
No, he hasn’t ever been pulled over by one of Georgia’s finest. “But,” he admits, “I’ve been stuck at some long red lights. The service has usually already started by the time I get there. If I’m not in the room, they know to add an extra worship song.”
The routine has also impacted the way he preaches. “I’m definitely more conscious of getting done on time,” he says.
The main draw
Abilene has several annual events that draw in a crowd. Last fall former UGA and Atlanta Falcons quarterback DJ Shockley shared his testimony at the church’s Day of Champions, when hundreds of local high school athletes attend (previous speakers include former coaches Gene Chizik and Tommy Bowden). Approximately 6,000 showed up for the Singing Christmas Tree. Revival services lead to many visitors and decisions. Since 2013 the church has hosted an Egg Drop at Easter, drawing as many as 8,000 clamoring for 80,000 eggs, many of them poured from a helicopter.
However, Whitt says none of those are “the draw” for people to Abilene.
“Our biggest event is our regular Sunday morning service,” he stresses. “It brings consistency. When people bring their classmates and co-workers, they know what they’re going to get every Sunday. It’s going to be good, blended worship and evangelistic, expository preaching.”
It’s not uncommon for the three worship services to have more than 1,300 in attendance. It’s a symptom of one of those “good” problems Whitt and other pastors like.
“We’ve run out of space everywhere. For our west campus, we asked about 160 people to move to the Harlem area and help us launch. That gave us some space at the main campus.”
A vision team from the church had been looking for land for three years. But geography posed a challenge. The Savannah River cuts off expansion to the east and north. Fort Gordon lies to the south. “You only have a real narrow corridor along I-20 going west,” explains Whitt. “And there are only a handful of interchanges in that direction.”
The Abilene difference
In August the church approached the owners of a plot of land on the same exit as the west campus, a half-mile north of the interstate. Currently, the church is going through a 150-day due diligence process for purchase of the 62.39-acre plot that could serve as the future home of the west campus. “We’d like to put a Phase I building out there in the next three years or so,” Whitt notes.
One of his goals is to continue to build relationships in that part of Columbia County.
“One Sunday night we didn’t have our regular service at the main campus,” Whitt explains, “so that Sunday morning at the west campus I invited everyone to Yoder’s Ice Cream in Harlem that evening for frozen yogurt, my treat. We had 76 show up, including several new families. Thankfully, there was a green area next door for space.”
The recent changes at Abilene haven’t come during a period of inactivity for Whitt. He’s currently completing his second doctorate at Southwestern Seminary. But that extra work is only in anticipation of the ministry needs ahead.
“There are tons of young people moving into the area,” he says. “The U.S. Cyber Command is based at Fort Gordon. Three major hospitals are located here. Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant and Savannah River Sight Power Plant are nearby.”
Those factor into opportunities for ministry, he ascertains. And his church is set to do just that.
“What’s the difference at Abilene?” he repeats when the question is presented to him. “It’s the people. They’re just absolutely solid and supportive. They have a great heart for ministry.”