CONYERS, Ga. (BP) — If Eric Suddith would have looked at Emmanuel Baptist Mission Church as only a business proposition in 2004 when he first encountered it, the Wharton-trained businessman-turned-pastor might have given it up for dead. Just over a decade old at the time, the church had dwindled to eight members. It had no plan to move forward and impact its community.
But Suddith knew that Emmanuel wasn’t a business proposition. It was a spiritual one.
“Jesus Christ created the church to go out and message His redemptive plan and teach believers how to grow in His living Word,” Suddith said. “That I didn’t learn at the Wharton Business School. They didn’t teach me that. They taught me business stimulation, strategic planning. I didn’t learn that from AT&T either.”
Rather, a church planter must understand God’s redemptive plan, Suddith said.
Nearly a decade after Suddith arrived at Emmanuel to “replant” the Atlanta-area church — now called Emmanuel Community Church — it has reached 1,300 in attendance in a 70,000-square-foot ministry hub in Conyers.
Suddith spent 25 years in the corporate world, including 15 in executive positions at AT&T. He resigned from the corporate world in 2009 after nearly 20 years of juggling ministry and business. While he has learned from his business background, maybe the most important lesson has been how different the two realms are.
“What really shook me about the work of a church planter is that the work is spiritual,” Suddith said. “… [T]his is spiritual warfare. Satan wants to disable the church planter because the church planter is the most effective way to evangelize the lost. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”
With only eight people in attendance when he arrived, along with five members of his own family, finances were tight. Suddith’s corporate background reminded him of the importance of developing a workable plan to turn the church around. Immediately, he set forth a goal to redirect what they were currently paying on rent within a year to begin securing a new building.
“Corporate gave me the framework for forming a strategy,” Suddith said. “The context for that wasn’t corporate because God isn’t corporate — He’s spiritual,” he explained. “But some of the fundamentals were there — like financial management, modeling, all the pieces you need to do analysis, create a plan and execute it.”
Asked how the church grew to 1,300, Suddith simply replied, “I didn’t grow it. I taught Bible studies. I preached solid, theologically sound sermons.”
Today the church not only has numbers but ministry in the community, including a preschool, a variety of youth sports programs, men’s and women’s ministries and a large food bank.
“There’s a team of 50-60 that keeps [the food bank] going,” Suddith said. “You come over here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and it’s like a McDonalds drive-through. Cars are wrapped around the building.”
Suddith said he is excited about the North American Mission Board’s church-centric focus on planting and replanting churches through its Send North America outreach in key cities across the country. When he got started in 2004-05, he said, it was tough to find mentors to guide him in the replanting process. Since everything was new to him, he counts many mistakes along the way but believes NAMB’s new apprenticeship-oriented “Farm System” will go a long way in nurturing church planters.
“God has really blessed us to have capabilities,” Suddith said of the church’s revitalization. “The harvest is great,” he said of the challenge he and other church planters face “to extend the Gospel of Christ so that people come to know Him personally. God is pleased with a healthy church plant.”