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Beyond the Walls: Living on Mission

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Living on Mission
Georgia’s Peavine Baptist Church Leads the Way in Evangelistic Revival

Weeks before Easter 2017, Joel Southerland approached his staff at Peavine Baptist Church in Rock Spring, Georgia, with a question. As they were wrapping up their strategy to invite the community to church on Easter Sunday, the senior pastor put all the cards on the table.

“We’ve laid out our plan,” he said. “If I removed the financial element of it—if I said money is not an object, resources are not an object—what’s the one thing you would do?”

The church had already put forth a serious effort to mobilize the congregation for invitation and outreach. Southerland had written an email that members could copy and paste to send to friends. They passed out yard signs and created social media content for members to share. What else could be done?

One staff member responded, “Look, we’ve done everything but hire a plane to fly over with a sign that says, ‘Come to Peavine on Easter.’” Southerland said, “Somebody find out how much that will cost.”

So one Sunday, a plane flew over the church’s neighborhood and the Chattanooga, Tennessee-Georgia metro area, toting a sign that read, “Easter at Peavine,” with the church’s website URL.

“When both Sunday services dismissed, we had the plane fly over the church,” Southerland says. “And I ushered the whole church out to the parking lot and said, ‘Go take pictures and videos, and we’ll give away a prize to the people who do the most creative social media post and share it.”

By that afternoon, members had crafted videos and images and shared other creative posts. “We didn’t think we’d get a lot of traction from a plane flying around,” Southerland says, “but it helped encourage and mobilize our members.”

The efforts paid off—Peavine more than doubled its attendance, from around 1,300 people on a typical Sunday to 3,000 on Easter. In fact, the church has grown 48 percent overall in just 20 months.

Southerland, who also serves as executive director of evangelism for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board (NAMB), accepted the call to become Peavine’s senior pastor in late 2016, following a year of being the church’s interim pastor. His dual role allows him to lead denominational evangelism efforts while applying the principles he teaches in a local-church setting. “I jokingly say I’m drinking my own Kool-Aid,” Southerland says.

In his role with NAMB, Southerland studies the denomination’s top evangelism churches, which the SBC defines as churches that report a large number of annual baptisms relative to their size. From these churches, Southerland has extrapolated three evergreen principles that characterize highly evangelistic congregations. The first principle: Evangelism-minded churches have pastors who are evangelism-minded leaders.

“Highly evangelistic churches have a pastor who leads on mission,” Southerland says. “I don’t find a highly evangelistic church that doesn’t have a highly evangelistic pastor—that’s the bottom line.”

In far too many churches, he says, the pastor talks about the importance of evangelism but doesn’t give the congregation any practical resources to help them share their faith.

“When a pastor just preaches evangelism but he doesn’t give the tools or resources or clarify the ‘win,’ he heaps guilt on people and frustrates them,” Southerland says. What is the “win” when it comes to evangelism? “You’re going to invite people to church, you’re going to share Christ and you’re going to get rejected all the time. But the ‘win’ is you were obedient in doing that,” he says.

Hiring a plane before Easter is just one example of how Southerland has led the way in intentional evangelistic leadership at Peavine. The church launched 2017 with a 40-day devotional series through the book of Acts to get members thinking about gospel mobilization. He’s made a point to give a gospel invitation at the end of every weekend service, along with setting up a next-steps station by the door for those who have spiritual questions or want to take a step of faith. “Almost weekly we’re leading people to Christ,” Southerland says, adding that the church has baptized more than 150 people so far this year.

These intentional efforts on Sunday mornings dovetail with NAMB’s second principle of highly evangelistic churches: members who gather on mission.

“These churches are figuring out ways to preach the gospel, move barriers and construct engaging environments,” Southerland says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, if lost people are going to be in our building on Sunday, if people far from God are going to be in our building on Sunday, let’s make sure they know how to connect with God when they’re here.’”

Highly evangelistic churches have a pastor who leads on mission, a congregation that gathers on mission and, third, members who live on mission. These churches equip their members to take the gospel beyond the walls of the church and into every facet of the community.

Southerland says, “We’ve found that these highly evangelistic churches are resourcing their members by saying, ‘Don’t come work at the church. Go into your field, and what’s a resource we can give you to help you share the gospel in your field?’”

Part of members living on mission is what Southerland calls compassion evangelism or servant-based evangelism. Many churches have established independent nonprofits to bring about community transformation.

At Peavine, Southerland introduced a concept called “Peavine City,” which they designated as the area within a 20-mile radius of the church that members would try to specifically reach through evangelism and outreach efforts. The church recently acquired an old church building in a high-crime, lower-income area near Chattanooga and plans to open its second campus there.

“We’re going to launch a compassion ministry from that campus,” Southerland says. “We’re already connecting with schools and city officials, saying, ‘Hey, what do you need us to do? … This area needs transformation, and the gospel can do that. So what can we do to help you, as city leaders, bring about community transformation?’”

Southerland says he is excited about what he sees as an “evangelism revival” happening in the SBC. Twelve years ago, the average SBC church baptized five people in one year. Today, that number is three, with 80 percent of churches baptizing in single digits. But Southerland believes this trend is going to change.

“We’re starting to see your normative church say, ‘We’ve dropped the ball in evangelism,’” Southerland says. “And we’re beginning to hear the winds of evangelism revival in the SBC. We’re not there yet, but we’re starting to focus our time and attention there now. And that’s nothing but good for the convention in the days ahead.”

Rock Spring, Georgia
Senior Pastor: Joel Southerland
Founded: 1836

No.52 Fastest-Growing
Weekend Attendance: 1,252
Growth in 2016: +271 (28%)