Baptisms at Central Baptist Church are looking a little different these days.
The format is still traditional, and the Decatur, Ala., church hasn't moved back to the creek, but instead of baptizing the usual young children and preteens, Central's baptismal services lately have included the over-70 age group.
It began, Mark Tolbert, Central Baptist's pastor, recounted, with his own mother, Juanita, who moved to Decatur last December and began attending her son's church. "She had belonged to another denomination, and I worried about her salvation," Tolbert said. "I had talked with her and prayed for her."
At a recent revival service, Tolbert noticed his mother appeared to be under conviction.
"I was down front to receive those who came forward and I sensed that God was speaking to her," Tolbert recounted. "After the service, I went over to her and asked her, 'Did you need to make a decision?' She really didn't want to talk right then."
Back at his mother's apartment, Tolbert's wife, Joy, went over the plan of salvation with her mother-in-law, who then prayed to receive Christ. But there were still the matters of public profession and baptism to deal with.
Juanita Tolbert, described by her son as timid and shy, was also afraid of water. In fact, the 72-year-old had never immersed her head under water before.
After encouragement from a member of still another generation – her granddaughter, Jennifer, the Tolberts' daughter, Juanita Tolbert mustered the courage to walk down the aisle, profess her new faith, and present herself as a candidate for baptism.
This set off a chain of events no one anticipated.
Peggy Tedford, a member of Central Baptist, relayed to her mother, Sally Martin, that the pastor's mother had been saved.
She remembered her 79-year-old mother's response: "That's what I need to do."
Tedford called her son, a college student, who went through the plan of salvation with his grandmother. Martin prayed for salvation, then walked down the aisle with her grandson the following Sunday.
Martin later said she never would have had the courage to do it without Juanita Tolbert's example.
Central Baptist's services are televised on a local Decatur station. The Mask family was watching the Sunday Juanita Tolbert was baptized. The 91-year-old grandmother, Edna Barnes, was moved to recognize her need for salvation, too. The following Sunday she came to Central with her family and walked the aisle to profess Christ. She is now awaiting baptism.
Ronnie Owens, minister to senior adults, plans to take the ladies through an orientation for new Christians.
Juanita Tolbert said she never expected others to follow her example. "I just went down and joined," she said, adding, "I was floored when the others went down."
Pastor Tolbert noted his mother's salvation was made extra special a week later. "Our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild six days after mother was saved. It's not often that you have a grandchild and a mother born in the same week."