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Baptisms on the rise as church experiences revival

VIRDEN, Ill. (BP)–Revival has swept into a small church in rural Illinois as more than 60 people have professed Jesus as Lord within the past two years, and the pastor says it’s because the congregation decided that God’s plans for the church are more important than their own.

Grace Southern Baptist Church in Virden, Ill., a town of 3,500 people about 20 miles south of Springfield, was striving to have 100 people for a Sunday service two years ago, but now they easily surpass 200 each week.

“It’s amazing over the last two years what God has done,” Brent Williams, pastor of Grace, told Baptist Press. “I’m originally from Arkansas and grew up in church in the Bible Belt, and what I’ve found out over the last two years of being here is that people are so receptive to the Gospel, that their ears and their minds are open to hear about the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

In early November, five people accepted Christ during a service, and the next week the altar was filled with people praying and five more came forward for salvation, including a 70-year-old woman.

“We were about to close the service. No one had come on the last time we were going to sing, and then all of a sudden I looked out of the corner of my eye and up walks this little girl onto the stage where I was standing, and she pulled on my coattail and she asked me, ‘Pastor, can I be saved?’” Williams recounted.

“Of course it just hit me, after witnessing a 70-year-old woman who by statistics wasn’t likely to come to know Christ at that age and then to look into the eyes of a 6-year-old child and see that God is in the business of saving someone at the age of 6 and someone at the age of 70. It was a beautiful picture,” he said.

The following Wednesday night, the 70-year-old woman’s 74-year-old sister approached Williams in his office at the church and wanted to be saved. Williams had ministered to her husband when he was terminally ill with cancer and the couple didn’t have a church home.

“About once a week during the last month of his life I visited with him and got to know him and ended up doing his funeral,” the pastor said.

So Williams baptized both sisters the next Sunday, describing the looks on their faces and the reaction of support and enthusiasm from the congregation as incredibly rewarding.

Not surprisingly, the church is intent on doing its part in Southern Baptists’ “Everyone Can” challenge to baptize 1 million people during the coming year. SBC President Bobby Welch has asked churches to register monthly baptism updates and testimonies using the “One Million Baptisms!” hotlink found in the left column on the www.everyonecan.net website. He also has asked Baptist associations to hold two baptism rallies by next September and for churches to emphasize baptism on Nov. 27, on Easter Sunday and on Sept. 30, 2006.

In Illinois, Williams said he intends to remember the story of a young couple when it gets tough being a pastor or when he needs to be reminded why God called him to the ministry. The two have been married for about a year and a half, Williams said, and they’ve had drug problems, marital difficulties and seemingly every obstacle possible. Anyone looking at their lives might have concluded they were destined to fail, he said.

“But someone in our church loved them enough and cared for them enough to invite them to church. And they came to church and sat there for a couple of weeks, listening,” Williams said. “And then finally both of them got up out of their chairs and came forward and asked me if I would share with them how to get saved. So right there as a couple I looked at them and told them both how to become a Christian. I shared the Gospel with them, and each one of them right there in their own words prayed to receive Jesus Christ.”

When it came time to baptize them, Williams had the wife go first and then stand to the side as her husband was immersed.

“She was dripping wet, water was coming off of her and her mascara was bleeding a little bit and there were tears rolling off of her cheek, and then I baptized the husband,” Williams recalled. “Afterwards, he looked at me and he said, ‘Brent, I have seen my wife many, many times, but my wife was the most beautiful that she has ever been in her entire life [after being baptized]. For the first time, I saw the beauty of my wife.’”

Another element of the story, Williams said, involves the history of drug and alcohol abuse in the couple’s family, a tragic legacy that may be averted for their two children.

“The beauty of why the church exists is that with that family we have an opportunity to stop the cycle in their family, that they now have the ability to begin to build a firm foundation in these children,” he said. “And that’s what it’s about.”

In a nutshell, the pastor said, God has chosen to use Grace Southern Baptist Church to reach a small town in Illinois that He has not forsaken. In recent weeks, they’ve had record attendance with more than 250 people entering the doors for worship services.

“I think really what it boils down to is the church has experienced a lot of different pastors over the years, and two years ago the church decided that it wasn’t about them any longer and that the next pastor that God had for them, they were going to allow him to lead,” Williams said. “So when they called me, the church was already ready to let me lead, so we went back to the basics on why we exist as a church and learned that we’re called to feed the flock but we have to get outside the walls. The church made a commitment that they would get outside of the walls and begin to really do what we’re supposed to do.”

A while back, the church had split to two services on Sunday mornings in order to accommodate the growing crowd. But through prayer and Bible study, God began to lay on Williams’ heart the idea of merging the two services again in order to promote unity and a common sense of purpose, even if just for a short period.

“It was going to be cramped, and we weren’t going to have room and it was going to be standing room only, but I just really felt like that’s what God wanted us to do,” Williams said. “So I shared this with my deacons, and we prayed through it for a month.”

After combining services this fall, the church realized they had been obedient to God and He was blessing them even more with revival.

“I would say 80 percent of the people over the past two years that have been saved have been adults over the age of 18,” Williams said. “These people have been pulled in from outside. These are unchurched people that our people decided they would go and invite. Our church has made intentional decisions that we’re going to be the church … and when churches decide that they’re going to take seriously the Great Commission, then God is ready to do amazing and mighty things.”

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  • Erin Curry