BAXLEY, Ga. — Hundreds of people streamed out of the bleachers at Jimmy Swain Stadium on Wednesday, responding to a call from evangelist Rick Gage to get right with God.
In a scene that harkened back to evangelistic crusades of yesteryear, they crowded around the platform where the man dubbed the “small-town Billy Graham” had just wrapped up a fiery gospel sermon that warned of judgment for unrepentant sinners and promised eternal life for those willing to turn from their sins and commit their lives to Christ.
Over four nights of preaching, some 10,000 people gathered into the stadium in Baxley, a Bible Belt town with a population of 5,000. Of the attendees, Gage said more than 1,600 made commitments to Christ,
“It was amazing to see,” said Samuel Ayala, a Georgia Baptist Mission Board staffer who served as a Spanish interpreter at the crusade. “The people were hungry for the gospel.”
Gage, leader of Georgia-based GO TELL Ministries, takes his crusades to places that other evangelists might see only from the air on their way to big cities.
An Associated Press article from 20 years ago said Gage fills stadiums just as full as Graham did, except that the stadiums are much smaller. That’s how Gage got the moniker “small-town Billy Graham.”
Leading up to the crusade, Gage, a Texas native who once coached running backs at Texas Tech and Liberty University, ramped up excitement with personal appearances across seven counties. He and two other evangelists — Adrian Despres, a former chaplain to the South Carolina Gamecocks, and Scott Camp, a Texas-based evangelist and missionary to Africa — hopscotched throughout the region, appearing on local TV and delivering motivational talks in school assemblies.
They also shared the gospel in local jails where about 50 inmates made commitments to Christ.
At nearby Brewton-Parker College, 150 students made commitments to Christ after Gage preached in a chapel service.
“The Holy Spirit was moving in a way I have never seen before,” said Steve Echols, a longtime preacher and Christian educator who serves as the college’s president. “I have seen some marvelous things, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more precious than this.”
Echols said many of the students were weeping when Gage gave an altar call.
“So many students responded that you couldn’t even get down the aisles,” Echols said. "They were completely full of students on their knees praying. We lost count, because they kept coming.”
Having walked away from a promising coaching career in 1986, Gage has spent his life preaching small-town crusades like the one in Baxley. He told people in the stadium Wednesday about the experience in a Texas church that changed his direction. His father, also an evangelist, had urged him to come to the church.
“When that altar call was given, I made a beeline to that altar, got on my knees, a 25-year-old football coach, weeping, sobbing, crying,” he said. “My spirit was broken; my heart was broken; and I told God, ‘I’m sorry for my sins. I’m sorry for the lifestyle I’ve been living. Please forgive me of my sins. I give you my heart. I give my soul. I give you my life. … God invaded my heart. God saved my soul. God changed my life. And I have never gotten over it.”
In the years since, Gage has earned the respect of church leaders like Joy Fowler, a worship leader at Rehoboth Church in Tucker, who used her Facebook feed to plug the Baxley crusade.
“I traveled with Rick as part of these crusades across America and parts of Mexico for 12 years, and I can tell you first hand that these folks are straight up and unapologetically passionate about leading people to Jesus,” she wrote.
That passion yielded results over the past week in Georgia, which has been seeing large numbers of people coming to Christ since the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. The state’s 3,400 Georgia Baptist congregations have reported a 47% increase in baptisms since 2020.
The impact in Baxley started days before the crusade, when, on September 13, some 600 people gathered for a pre-crusade youth rally. Nearly 300 of the attendees made decisions for Christ.
“It is a cause for great rejoicing when see such a great harvest,” Echols said of the Baxley crusade. “Truly, south Georgia has been touched for the glory of God.”