Hyundai plant to explode population, ministry opportunities in west Savannah


PEMBROKE, Ga. — First Baptist Church of Pembroke is a midsized congregation in a small town, but, thanks to a massive Hyundai automotive plant under construction, it could quickly become a large church in a bustling industrial suburb.

Pastor Tommy Smith and his congregation are preparing for a population explosion. Pembroke is poised to grow by thousands almost overnight. Local governments have already begun expanding infrastructure to accommodate additional residents. School districts are planning building expansions. And, if churches are to minister effectively to the newcomers,  Smith said, they need to be prepared as well.

Smith sees a God-sized challenge ahead.

“I’m looking at what we can do as a church to minister to the folks who are going to come to us,” Smith said. “This is a mission field that is not something we have to go and get a passport for. It’s coming into our back yard.”

The Hyundai plant, 10 miles away in Ellabell on metro Savannah’s western edge, is the largest economic development project in the state’s history. It’s projected to have a direct payroll of $4.7 billion over the next decade. Occupying 2,900 acres, the plant is slated to build 300,000 electric vehicles each year, according to Hyundai, beginning in early 2025.

That means 8,500 new jobs at the plant and another 6,000 at facilities being opened by suppliers nearby. The number of new workers in the area will be greater than the current populations of Ellabell and Pembroke combined. Thousands of those new workers are expected to come from South Korea, Hyundai’s homebase.

That’s a big deal for Pembroke.

The plant is being built parallel to Interstate 16 on a site that covers more than 2,900 acres. Commuters have been able to watch the construction advance, from the initial groundwork, the erection of steel beams and girders supporting the superstructure, and now the roofs, floors and external walls that are taking shape.

“The site is advancing every day as we work diligently to complete this amazing project,” said Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America CEO Oscar Kwon during a briefing for reporters in October. “We are on track to start production in early 2025 … if not sooner.”

Trip Tollison, president and chief executive officer of the Savannah Area Economic Development Authority, told reporters the speed of construction has been astounding.

“It’s hard to believe what has occurred in just one year,” he said.

The reality of change to come hit Smith at this month’s Pembroke Christmas parade. A new townhome development is populated almost entirely by Koreans who have moved to town with Hyundai, and they emerged to check out the festivities.

“They had never seen or experienced a southern, Saturday-afternoon Christmas parade before,” Smith said. “They were taking pictures. There’s a language barrier, so it was hard to explain what was going on.”

That Christmas parade is a harbinger of things to come at First Baptist. Smith said the potential changes are mind-blowing.

The growing church of 200 soon may have to offer English as a Second Language classes. It will likely need to sponsor a Korean church plant. It will have to learn about Korean culture.

Additionally, Smith may need to improve his golf game.

“On Saturdays and Sundays, there is an influx of Korean folks playing golf here,” he said. “I may have to cultivate some sort of a golf ministry to connect with people to share the gospel. Maybe there is somebody in my church that’s a little better equipped for that than me.”

Yet, potential growth at First Baptist won’t comprise only Koreans. Thousands of American workers will come to the plant as well — which could present its own challenges. The church’s current sanctuary can hold 400, but its educational space is limited. That could potentially necessitate a transition from traditional Sunday school to home groups.

Smith doesn’t feel threatened by the changes, because, he said, First Baptist’s focus is the Great Commission.

Right now, First Baptist is focused on preparation. Smith and other area pastors have been meeting with a Korean pastor to learn about Korean culture and best practices for ministering among Koreans. Local Baptist leaders also plan to meet with their counterparts in Montgomery, Ala., where a Hyundai plant opened in 2005, creating thousands of jobs. Smith hopes that meeting can help generate ministry strategy for the Ellabell Hyundai plant.

Some 10 to 12 Georgia Baptist churches will be impacted by the new plant, most with a current attendance of 60 or less. Smith’s concern isn’t that churches will have to change. That’s inevitable. He’s concerned believers at First Baptist and its sister congregations won’t be ready to embrace the Great Commission opportunity of lifetime as the nations come to them.

They may need to hurry with the preparations, given that Hyundai is expediting construction  to take advantage of federal incentives that reward production of electric vehicles in America.

“Everything is about to change,” Smith said, “from the traffic to the schools.”