Major stories of 2023: Georgia Baptists re-elect president, add more churches to roster


SNELLVILLE, Ga. — Fayetteville pastor Josh Saefkow will serve a second one-year term as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious group with some 1.4 million members.

That’s one of a long series of significant stories reported in The Christian Index during 2023.

Saefkow, with his winsome personality and unwavering work ethic that had him crisscrossing the state for preaching engagements and meetings throughout his first term, had no opposition and was elected by acclamation at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention in November.

Saefkow said his role as president has given him “a front seat to see all that the Lord is doing in Georgia.”

“I have loved seeing how God is moving all over our state, and I have loved being with our pastors, our associational missionaries, our Mission Board staff,” he told The Christian Index after deciding to seek a second term. "It has been a joy. I just want to continue to focus on the mission that we would continue to take the gospel into our communities and cities and trust the Lord to bring a harvest.”

Messengers also elected Stephen Dervan, pastor of Oak Hill Church in Williamson, as first vice president and Javier Lopez, Hispanic pastor at First Baptist Church in Douglasville, as second vice president.

Hurricane Idalia slams south Georgia

Hurricane Idalia slammed into Georgia on Aug. 30 with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph, pummeling the state for several hours, toppling trees, knocking out power, and triggering lowland flooding.

The fast-moving storm hit the Valdosta area especially hard, blew eastward across the state, and went back out to sea off Georgia's coast, leaving residents with the task of clearing the downed trees and shoveling mud from flooded homes and businesses.

First responders in southern Georgia used boats to rescue stranded residents while others waded through murky floodwater to get people out of their homes. One Georgian was killed when a tree fell on him.

Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers deployed to the area included mobile kitchen crews, heavy equipment operators, chainsaw teams, chaplains, family care volunteers, mobile laundromats and shower units.

More churches join Georgia Baptist Convention

The Georgia Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious organization with 1.4 million members, grew even bigger and more ethnically diverse in November when 17 additional congregations, a mission, and six new church campuses joined its ranks.

Of the new churches presented at the Georgia Baptist Convention's annual meeting, three are Hispanic; three are African American; two are Korean; one is Vietnamese; and one is Russian.

“It’s encouraging to all of us when we’re able to welcome new churches into the fold,” said Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director W. Thomas Hammond Jr. “These congregations bring an enthusiasm, an energy that is contagious.”

Georgia Baptists give more than $60 million

Georgia Baptists are projected to give more than $60 million through the Cooperative Program and a series of special offerings to cover the cost of sharing the gospel throughout the state, across the nation and around the world.

That total represents a projected 4.2% increase in the Cooperative Program budget, a needed shot in the arm for what been described as the greatest evangelistic initiative of the modern church age.

For nearly 100 years, the Cooperative Program has been the primary means through which  Southern Baptists have supported missionaries and ministries at the state, national and global levels.

“The 4.2% is the largest projected increase in the Georgia budget in over 25 years,” said David Melber, chief operating for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

Disaster Relief crews help with cleanup in Vermont

Disaster relief volunteers from Georgia Baptist churches deployed to Vermont in August to help flood victims recover from what’s being described as that state’s worst natural disaster in nearly a century.

“The jobs are massive, lots of debris and flood damage,” Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief Director Dwain Carter said at the time.

Parts of Vermont received up to two months’ worth of rain in a matter of days.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared the hard-hit area a disaster, as did President Joe Biden, which allowed the state to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Noted Georgia preacher Michael Cat dies

Georgia pastor Michael Catt who showed Hollywood that wholesome family films can still be huge box office successes died in June.

Catt, executive producer of the Christian movies Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof and Courageous, had been battling prostate cancer. The Catt family had issued a statement in mid-May, saying doctors had found a tumor in the groundbreaking pastor’s brain stem.

Catt served as senior pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church from 1989 to 2021. The church developed into a regional, multi-generational and multi-ethnic congregation made up of people from more than 20 nations.

Atlanta preacher Charles Stanley dies

Charles Stanley, the beloved Atlanta preacher whose In Touch Ministries reaches millions of people each day via television and radio, died in April at age 90. He was remembered as a man of prayer, a faithful minister, and an unyielding follower of Christ.

Stanley, who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1984 to 1986, was named pastor emeritus at First Baptist Atlanta after his retirement there after 50 years.

Along with his preaching ministry, Stanley was a prolific writer and a New York Times best-selling author. He produced some 70 books.

Stanley became senior pastor at First Baptist Atlanta in 1971. The In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley program now reaches almost every major market in the United States, broadcasting to more than 115 million households across the country and more than 4,000 television, radio and satellite networks around the world.

Tornado destroys church in West Point

An EF-3 tornado with winds up to 165 mph destroyed Bethel Baptist Church and several homes in West Point in March. No one was killed.

First responded said 100 homes and other structures were damaged or destroyed.

Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief responded with chaplains, chainsaw units and a mobile kitchen to feed volunteers, plus showers and laundry units.

Northside Baptist Church in Milledgeville was damaged by one of several tornadoes spawned by a storm system.

Andy Buchanan, mission strategist in the Troup County Baptist Association, described the neighborhood around Bethel Baptist Church as unrecognizable.

Bethel Pastor Chris Hendricks and his congregation met for worship beneath a tent on the church’s parking lot on the Sunday following the tornado, declaring that they would rebuild.

Georgia Supreme Court leaves state’s heartbeat law in place

In October, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a lower court’s ruling that the state's abortion law was invalid, which left the so-called “heartbeat law” in place, at least for now.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney had ruled a year earlier that the heartbeat law was “unequivocally unconstitutional” because it was enacted in 2019, when Roe v. Wade allowed abortions well past six weeks. Georgia’s law bans most abortions after roughly six weeks.

The Georgia Supreme Court in a 6-1 decision said McBurney was wrong.

Suzanne Guy, one of Georgia's leading pro-life advocates and a member of Woodstock Baptist Church in metro Atlanta, called the Supreme Court’s ruling a victory for unborn children.

"There are still more battles to fight but we won't stop until every child is protected under the law,” she said.

Georgia's law bans most abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” is present, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. 

The law includes exceptions for rape and incest, as long as a police report is filed, and allows for later abortions when the mother’s life is at risk ,or a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable.

Gambling measures die in Georgia legislature

Georgia lawmakers ejected three bills in March that would have legalized  sports betting and pari-mutuel wagering on horse races in the Bible Belt state.

Pro-gambling forces were unable to convince enough Senate lawmakers to approve a proposed constitutional amendment. The Senate had already shot down a separate bill.

In the House, a separate sports betting bill, which would have authorized sports gambling without pursuing a constitutional amendment, was never called for a floor vote.

Pro-gambling advocates have been pushing their cause in Georgia for years. Their only success so far was in creating the state lottery in 1992.

Tim Oliver elected to key leadership post

Members of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Administration Committee chose Milledgeville Pastor Tim Oliver as their chairman in January.

Oliver, who had been serving as the committee’s vice chairman, was the unanimous choice for the top post. He has been serving in ministry for 34 years, the last 20 of which have been at Lakeside.

“It’s an honor,” Oliver, pastor at Lakeside Baptist Church, said at the time. “I’ve never felt qualified in anything God called me to do, but He has always blessed. “I’m excited about working with the Mission Board’s executive leadership team and all Georgia Baptists to reach this state, this nation and this world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”