Published March 25, 2010
COLQUITT — If you were compelled to choose a place that typified unwavering tradition and southern charm you might zero in on Georgia’s Miller County and then narrow your selection to the county seat of Colquitt.
With only one traffic light, Colquitt is not exactly a thriving metropolis, but it is quaint, historic, teaming with hospitality, and has some of the finest eating establishments in the state in Moby Dicks, the Tarrer Inn, and Helen’s Pirate’s Cove.
Although Colquitt is steeped in the rich tradition of the past, Carl Marshall, pastor of First Baptist Church, insists his church’s growth is due in part to the congregation’s willingness to change.
In 2005 when Marshall was 65 years old he went to the small southwest Georgia town to help the church through a transitional period while they sought a new pastor. Marshall’s solid biblical preaching and strong leadership was so well received by the church that the pastor search committee began to lose their passion for the task of finding anyone to succeed the man already standing in their pulpit.
After nine months as the transitional pastor the search committee turned toward Marshall and recommended him as the church’s senior pastor. He received a unanimous vote and it appears the honeymoon has continued until the present day.
In fact, after five years the church is experiencing the best spiritual and numerical growth in her history. Since Marshall’s first Sunday in the pulpit the church has had 261 additions, with 138 coming on profession of faith and as candidates for baptism.
Marshall is proof positive that age is not a deterrent to a successful and fruitful ministry. At 70 years of age the venerable pastor is extremely effective as a preacher and an administrator and extremely well known and loved by the citizens of Colquitt as well as the congregation of First Baptist Church.
His ability to relate to young couples and their children is perfect evidence of the scope of his appeal. When Carl and Sally Marshall first arrived in Colquitt few children graced the campus of the church for any activity.
Sally, who has been serving as the director of the church’s preschool division, related, “Sometimes we only had two or three children in the preschool area of our Sunday School. Our preschool workers would come to teach the children on Sunday morning, but would often leave and go to adult classes, because there were no children to teach.”
That is certainly no longer the case. On the first Sunday in March there were 50 children in the preschool area of Sunday School. Sally has provided great leadership, but is passing the baton to Brandi Hosmer, a young woman whom she has mentored and seems ideal for the responsibility.
In the past five years the Sunday School attendance has grown from an average of 85 to 225 and the worship attendance from 135 to almost 300. On three recent Sundays the attendance totaled more than 320 each Sunday. The annual budget receipts have increased from $200,000 to $600,000.
Marshall stated, “Two years ago I started having chest pains and anxiety attacks. I went to a cardiologist and had a heart catheterization. The physician’s assistant said he wanted to pray for me before he prescribed any medicine. Subsequently, I began to examine areas of my life where I was trying to minister in my own energy.
“I was not seeing the fruit I wanted to see. I even began to look at some invitations I had to go elsewhere, but in September of 2009 I decided that I was not going anywhere even though some of the invitations were intriguing. Once I decided to stay, God began to move in my life and in the life of the church. Things began to change because I decided to change.
The Colquitt pastor explained, “Last October I was having my daily devotions, which always includes reading Oswald Chamber’s book “My Utmost for His Highest.” That morning the Lord got hold of me; and since then things have been different.”
Marshall continued, “After that experience I would go on a soul-winning visit and it seemed like the Lord had preceded me. People were ready to commit their lives to Jesus by the time I arrived.
“This church may never be as large or fast-growing as some churches I have pastored, but the work has been extremely fruitful and the fellowship has been incredibly sweet.”
For years the church would grow for a period of time and give some consideration to a building project to accommodate the growth, but time and again the growth was stymied for one reason or another and the building never became a reality.
Jane Merritt, who became a member of the church in 1948, wrote an open letter to the church and stated, “I served on the Long Range Planning Committee from the time it was appointed in 1988 and we have always had the enormous problem of not having enough space to conduct any of the needs of the membership.”
Merritt continued her letter by urging the congregation to look favorably upon the idea of constructing a new facility that would accommodate more people.
She concluded by adding, “We have a great and willing leader who has been through this many times, and I am sure he is perfectly capable – as he has proven – of doing it again. He always asks God to be there in time of need and I say ‘Let’s put our trust in God to guide him in the future of this great old church.’ I urge each of you to be in earnest prayer about a new building.”
On Feb. 21 Merritt’s letter appeared in the church bulletin. On the very next Sunday, Feb. 28, 89 percent of the congregation voted to launch out into a $3 million building program. On March 7 the church held the groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility.
The new building features a worship center that will accommodate almost 600 people with classrooms in the back of the auditorium that will be designed to provide space for an additional 200 people.
Charles Bodrey, chairman of the building committee, explained, “Our attendance has gone up and down since 1994, but we have never consistently moved forward until now. Our pastor has kept the vision before us. He has been a great leader and a great pastor. He leads by example. He has really become a pastor for our whole community. We are now at a high point both spiritually and numerically.
“We actually approved the plans to build in 2008, but last Sunday (Feb. 28) we voted to proceed with the construction of the building. We have $600,000 in hand which we have raised in the last 18 months. We are planning to raise a lot more during the fall harvest time.”
Two years ago Marshall planned to preach on Moses’ rod. He explained that when Moses gave his rod to God it became the rod of God and God said to Moses, “And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs (wonders).”
In order to illustrate his point Marshall asked one of his laymen, Wallace Phillips, to find him a stick and fashion it into a rod. When that particular sermon was preached Marshall had a six-foot rod made from a crepe myrtle tree to demonstrate his point.
After the sermon Phillips took the rod home and stuck it in a bucket of water. In time the rod, to Phillips’ great surprise, miraculously sprouted again like Aaron’s rod in Num. 17:8. Marshall showed the congregation a picture of the rod that budded when the church had a capital fund raising drive and exclaimed, “It’s growing again.”
The budding rod excited the people and challenged them to move forward and give generously to the campaign to insure that the building would become a reality.
Authenticity was added to the dream at the groundbreaking on March 7 as the congregation gathered on the site and the two oldest members, Callie Mae Maddox, 95, and Alice Andrews, 94, put their feet to the shovel. They were surrounded by scores of children, testifying that the future of the church is exceedingly bright.
From the standpoint of human reasoning there is nothing logical about First Baptist Colquitt launching out into a major building project in this depressed economy in an agricultural community with a 70-year-old pastor at the helm of the church.
But then Carl Marshall is really not at the helm. He may be God’s lieutenant, but has relinquished the helm to the divine Captain, and convinced his flock that God specializes in things that seem impossible.
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