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Small, rural congregations get creative with revival, pack churches


William Brown, at 24 the youngest pastor in Merritt Association, believes in the power of revivals. He will be one of six pastors preaching in the Tri-County Revival that begins Sunday night. WILLIAM BROWN/Special

RALEIGH COMMUNITY, Rural Meriwether County — Don’t tell small churches that revivals don’t work anymore. You just have to get creative and think outside of the box now and then, say pastors in some of South Georgia’s smaller churches.

That’s what drove pastors in Merritt and Summerhill Association to put their heads together and come up with an annual Tri-County Revival that begins this Sunday evening.

“Lots of churches are just too small to hold a revival of their own. They don’t have a large enough congregation to plan and organize one and they have very limited resources to promote and bring an evangelist in for the week,” explains Ken Dobbs, retired president and CEO of Georgia Baptist Children’s Homes and Family Ministries. For the past six years he has pastored Salem Baptist Church in the unincorporated Raleigh Community of Meriwether County.

The church is typical of those in the Georgia and Southern Baptist conventions. Small. Rural. Limited resources. And in Salem’s case, it means averaging about 25 in attendance on a good day.

Churches that size are scattered throughout the rural Georgia landscape and, when combined, compose the backbone of the denomination. They live in the shadow of the much larger churches in metropolitan areas, but their presence is just as important for their communities.

So, how did the churches pull it off?

Where there's a will, there's a revival

Where there’s a will, there’s a revival and four pastors put their heads together and came up with a new concept and decided to see if it worked. That was four years ago and the plan was so successful, two other churches have now joined the “in reach” and outreach.

The “in reach” focused on reviving and casting a new vision where needed among believers, and the outreach was moving those members into the community in new avenues of ministry and evangelism. Revival first begins within the church, Dobbs stressed.

Ken Dobbs serves as pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Meriwether County. KEN DOBBS/Special

It’s brought a breath of fresh air into the idea of just how simple a revival can be when churches pull together in the historic Baptist idea of cooperation. By pooling resources and cutting overhead and using local pastors, there are virtually no expenses. The speakers receive no honorarium and since they live in the Association, there are no travel costs like mileage reimbursement or hotel or meal expenses.

Its back to the basics. And the churches are packed.

“We decided to call it the Tri-County Revival because the founding churches were in three different counties. We decided to have a four-day revival rotating among the four churches,” Dobbs explains.

The plan was easy to execute and is not exactly new, but an old idea whose time had come once again: a pastor from each church would preach, but not in his own pulpit. That gave variety and contributed to the sense of unity among the churches.

“Many of the churches down here are small like ours, and are largely composed of senior adults. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the desire to reach those in the community; we just lack the resources.”

The former administrator said he enjoys the idea that rotating among different churches gives everyone an opportunity to worship with a different congregation while building harmony and a sense of family.

“It’s a great way to renew relationships with people who you may not otherwise see but once or twice a year. There is still a need for revival to focus on who we are as believers and renew our focus on the unchurched community.”

Four churches become six, others to follow?

Curt Hampton, associational missions strategist for Merritt and Summerhill associations, is pleased with the success of the venture. The four churches have now been joined by two others and he hopes others will join, as well.

Curt Hampton has entered his 10th year as associational mission strategist for Merritt and Summerhill associations. CURT HAMPTON/Special

Curt reinforced the idea of just how small the churches are in his two associations, and how they dot the landscape. Merritt Association is spread over Talbot and Meriwether counties; Summerhill is spread even more thin over Webster, Stewart, and Terrell counties.

There are only 36 churches in the two Associations. What some saw as a problem, the four pastors saw as a challenge.

“Our largest church is First Dawson which averages between 130 and 150 in Sunday worship, but that is the outlier. We have a lot of churches that average 20-30, and a few such as Shady Grove outside Lumpkin and Parrott outside of Parrott which are in the high 20s to low 30s.

“There are very few in the 50-60 range … and then we have those like Sardis in upper Terrell County which averages 4-5,” he explains.

That’s why it was so encouraging to see the revival concept catch on in such a lean setting.

Two churches joined the original four last year, boosting the total to six. The theme was The Seven Churches of Revelation with one speaker addressing two of the churches. This year’s theme is The Seven Sayings From the Cross and the same formula will be used.

“We are really excited about this catching on with our people. Last year all of the churches were full, even the small county churches. The only time they usually have that many people are for a wedding or a funeral,” Hampton says only half joking.

'It really did our pastors good to see their churches full once again.'

“It really did our pastors good to see their churches full once again.”

The low budget … or no budget … event ends on Friday night with a pot luck dinner when everyone comes together one last time. In some ways it’s the highlight of the week.

William Brown, pastor of Cove Baptist Church outside of Woodbury, is the youngest pastor in the association at 24 years of age. Yet he believes in the need for revivals for rejuvenating the church to reach the community.

“A lot of our congregations are filled with older people who fear for the future of their churches. They see young people more preoccupied with social media and less with spiritual matters. They see the churches under siege by an increasingly secular society. They don’t see much to be encouraged by.

“When you fixate on those things you lose sight that God is still working. These revivals have changed all of that,” he says.

Brown, who says he has a strong heart for church revitalization, says the movement sends a message that “we’re still in this and the God of the universe is still in charge of saving people. The power of revival has never changed, regardless of how we think about it these days.

“Maybe we need to change the way we have been thinking about how to do it. We are getting back to the basics and breaking bread together again through good, Bible-based sermons and losing that sense of isolation.

“This is real fun, I’m telling you,” he adds.

Pastors began thinking outside the box

Hampton could not be more pleased with the pastors who took a risk to think outside the box.

“The Church needs to be rejuvenated to catch the vision to take the gospel to the world. That is where you have the beginnings of a spiritual awakening, which follows true revival. Our responsibility is to share the gospel with our communities, but we first need to be revitalized, confess our sins and renew that commitment. We need to be awakened,” he explains.

“The world doesn’t care about the church any more. It may have been different in the 50s and 60s but that is no longer the case. People do not come to church, so we must take the church to them.”

Next year Hampton is hoping to expand the concept to the Southeastern part of Tolbert County. He’s not the least bit interested In the movement growing into one large Association-wide event. He prefers to have more revivals throughout the Association that address the spiritual needs of each community.

The movement grew from four to six churches by word of mouth. What happens if they add a seventh church, Hampton ask?

“We’ll go through Saturday night,” he says with delight.

And what if they add 14 churches?

“We go to two weeks,” he quickly responds.

Tri-County Revival Schedule

The Tri-County Revival begins this Sunday night, Sept. 9, and continues through the Friday evening pot luck dinner after the service. Services begin at 6:30 p.m. nightly with music led by Associational Music Director Pinson Garrett from Macedonia Church.Following is the schedule for the event. Click here for a PDF to print out and use as a reference for the week.

Sunday, Sept. 9

Northside Baptist Church, Manchester

Pastor Bill McCollough

Speaker Ken Dobbs

Monday, Sept. 10

Salem Baptist Church, Reynolds Community

Pastor Ken Dobbs

Speaker Wayne Gannaway

Tuesday, Sept. 11

West End Baptist Church, Manchester

Pastor Dwayne Steedley

Speaker Don Voyles

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Woodland Baptist Church, Woodland

Pastor Wayne Gannaway

Speaker William Brown

Thursday, Sept. 13

Shiloh Baptist Church, Shiloh

Pastor Don Voyles

Speaker Bill McCollough

Friday, Sept. 14

Cove Baptist Church, outside Woodbury

Pastor William Brown

Speaker Dwayne Steedley


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