Year in review: Salvation stories favorites of Index readers


SUWANEE, Ga. — The story of a 19-year-old aspiring preacher who baptized most of his teammates on the East Georgia State College baseball team amassed more readers in The Christian Index than any other news article in 2023.

Analytics show readers of the nation's oldest religious newspaper have an affinity for stories about people turning to Christ. Of the newspaper’s most-read news articles of the year, all involved people turning to Christ.

Robbie Lane, the starting shortstop on the East Georgia baseball team, hit a grand slam of a different sort when he baptized 11 teammates in early December. That story skyrocketed to the top of the most-read list.

Like so many other kids, Lane, who began playing baseball as a toddler in his hometown of Claxton, had always dreamed of a career in the major leagues, but, he said, the Lord began to shift his aspirations last summer when he sensed a call to ministry.

At first, Lane said he wanted to run from that call, but, after several excruciating months of wrestling with God, he surrendered his life to ministry and began accepting preaching assignments, first in his home church, First Baptist Church of Pembroke, and then at other nearby churches.

But it was when he began leading an on-campus Bible study that he began to see the fruits of ministry. His teammates began showing up to hear him talk about Jesus. He did it with such enthusiasm. The excitement was palpable, and his words compelling.

One after another, those teammates began giving their hearts to Christ, culminating in the mass baptism on the baseball field.

 A news article headlined Small-town Billy Graham sees 1,600 commitments to Christ in south Georgia crusade also made the most-read list.

That story painted a scene that harkened back to  evangelistic crusades of yesteryear when Americans gathered by the thousands to hear famous evangelists like Billy Graham proclaim the gospel. In this case, the evangelist was Rick Gage, a Georgia-based evangelist whose fiery sermons warn of judgment for unrepentant sinners and 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 local high school football 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.”

A news article from Villa Rica, west of Atlanta, about 220 football players, cheerleaders and band members making commitments to Christ also proved popular.

Kevin Williams, pastor of First Baptist Church of Villa Rica, said in the article that church leaders are seeing a spiritual shift that is bringing the Bible back to the Bible Belt.

“People are searching for truth,” he said in August. “We’re living in a time that the Bible warns about, when people will be calling wrong right and right wrong. We’ve reached a point where people are saying enough is enough. It’s like a switch has flipped and things are going back the right direction.”

The result has been remarkable numbers of Georgians turning to Christ in communities all over the state, including the astonishing move of God in August among student athletes in Villa Rica and Roopville, west of Atlanta.

David Rocker, who played for Auburn University and the Los Angeles Rams, shared the gospel with hundreds of students at Roopville Road Baptist Church Thursday evening. Simultaneously, on the other side of Carroll County, Rich Wingo, who played five seasons for the Green Bay Packers after finishing his college career at the University of Alabama, shared the gospel with hundreds of students gathered at First Baptist Church of Villa Rica.

Their messages were strikingly similar: Only Jesus can satisfy people’s deepest longings.

A column by Paul Baxter, the missions director in the Pine Mountain Baptist Association, has been at or near the top of the annual most-read stories list for the past six years.

The article delves into an event from thousands of years ago, an event that readers still find captivating today — two bears coming out of the woods and mauling 42 children after Elisha, the Old Testament prophet, cursed them in the name of the Lord.

Why would a grown man, especially a man of God, react in such a way to the taunting of children? Why would God send a bear to maul them? Baxter pointed readers to commentary that suggested these weren’t merely mischievous children, but that they were quite possibly a roving band of teenagers akin to the youth gangs in our modern-day cities.

An October column by Brad Whitt, pastor of Abilene Baptist Church outside Augusta, made the most-read list, as well.

In that column, Whitt encouraged churchgoers to go beyond the usual gift cards and cash to show their appreciation during “Pastor Appreciation Month.” He called on Index readers to give their pastors prayers, love, unconditional support, grace, a good word to the pastor, a good word for the pastor, faithfulness, time with family, time to himself, and a financial gift.

“Express your appreciation,” Whitt wrote, “for the long hours of ministry and love that he gives, not just during October but the rest of the year as well.”