DALTON, Ga. — Boxes of Kleenex are always at the ready in the sanctuary of McFarland Hill Baptist Church.
They’re for wiping tears of joy among a growing congregation that nearly ceased to exist just more than a decade ago.
The church that sprouted from an old-fashion brush arbor service in 1940 had fallen into a funk, and worshippers were leaving in mass.
By 2011, the congregation had dwindled to about 35 regular attendees, and they were shouldering some $330,000 in church debt. They had cut off electricity to the gym and canceled the insurance on the church vans to save money. They didn’t see a path forward. They were considering shuttering the church permanently.
That, says current Pastor Charles Rogers, is when God showed up in a big way, restoring the church and touching off a wave of thankfulness that is still sweeping across the congregation.
“I am totally amazed,” Rogers, a former life insurance salesman who surrendered his life to ministry some 40 years ago, told his congregation in a sermon on Sunday. “We’re back.”
Since Rogers arrived 12 years ago, the McFarland Hill pulpit has thundered with his voice, the church has baptized nearly 250 new believers, and the congregation has paid off the debt that had been such a heavy burden a decade ago.
Now, Sunday morning attendance is averaging about 250 people who have given between $150,000 and $300,000 a year in recent years to fund robust ministries at McFarland Hill.
It's a testament, Rogers said, to what God can do when people put their trust in Him.
“I don’t know what God has in store for you,” Rogers told his congregation during Sunday’s sermon. “But I can tell you this: You can trust God.”
Darey Kittle, mission strategist in the Conassauga Baptist Association based in Dalton, said McFarland Hill was in serious trouble before Rogers arrived.
“They probably would have dissolved the church,” Kittle said. “They were having a difficult time, and the church just wasn’t going anywhere. People were leaving, as they’re prone to do. Now all that debt is paid off, and the crowds are back, sitting shoulder to shoulder in that sanctuary.”
To accommodate the crowds, Kittle said the church is considering adding a second service beginning early next year.
Kathy Jones has been at the church since she was born 74 years ago and has stuck with it even through the tough times. She remembers well when Rogers arrived, bringing with him hope for revival.
Jones said she saw in Rogers a man who was determined, with God’s help, to turn McFarland Hill around.
“I thought he was the right one,” she said. “He had a heart for the church.”
The turnaround under Rogers’ leadership, Jones said, has been dramatic.
“We pack it out every Sunday now,” she said. “We put in extra chairs so people will have a place to sit. And the atmosphere is wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
So, what has been the key to the turnaround?
“I’ve asked myself that so many times,” Rogers said. “Of course, we know it’s all by God’s blessing.”
The church has created ministries geared toward every age group and has beefed up the music ministry with a worship team and a choir that have brought a renewed vibrance to worship services.
In the past 12 years, more than a dozen young men from the church have been called to ministry, which, denominational leaders say, is a sign of a truly healthy church.
“We try our best to get people to answer God’s call on their lives, whether it's a call to salvation or a call to serve,” Rogers said. “And we allow people to exercise their gifts.”
The church’s student ministries have exploded in attendance, too. Half of the 200 people at the church last Wednesday were chidlren and teens.
After Rogers preached Sunday morning, seven more people went to altar to pray, where they found an ample supply of Kleenex to wipe away those tears of joy.
“There’s no greater feeling than for people to know things are right between them and God,” the pastor said.
“Lord, we love you,” he said in his closing prayer. “Thank you for loving us.”