“To me, one thing that has made a difference in our church is people’s willingness to step out by faith when they believed God was in something,” said Jerry Walls, senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church.
He should know: in October, Walls will have been at Southside for 30 years. During that time the church — which began in 1958 with 108 charter members in rented barracks on South Pleasant Hill Road — has grown to over 3,000. It’s moved from the barracks to a building it built nearby on South Pleasant Hill where 380 could be seated to its current location on Houston Lake Road that seats 2,200.
Walls said it was foresight, willingness to embrace change and patience that has helped the church grow. And more importantly, help people grow spiritually.
That, he said, and an abundance of God’s grace.
“We bought the first parcel of 20 acres on Houston Lake Road in 1991,” Walls said. “It wasn’t until 1999 that we began construction and we moved in 2000. The original sanctuary here seated 1,500. Our 2014 expansion added a 2,200 seat sanctuary.”
Peggy Nash, member, secretary and administrative assistant to Walls for 28 years, is keeper of Southside’s history. She supplies Walls with facts and figures.
According to church documents, she said the original Houston Lake facility cost $4.5 million. The more recent expansion cost $11.2 million and added 10 acres and 62,000 square feet for various uses.
What’s the difference between South Pleasant Hill Southside and South Houston Lake Southside?
“That’s not an easy question,” according to Walls. “In one way, I don’t know that there’s a lot of difference. We were always aware of the culture around us and sought God how to reach and help people. We’ve continued to try to do what God is asking us to. What brought us from Pleasant Hill to Houston Lake Road was an awareness that God was doing something and we had to keep up.”
If some things change, Walls said others don’t.
“Methods and styles change because times change,” he said. “We do things certain ways because of who God has us reaching. Things that were useful in 1987 aren’t necessarily useful in 2017, yet one thing never changes: everything, has to be based on God’s word. That’s whether it’s 1987 or 1887 or 2007 or 2017. Like we changed musical styles from hymn singing to contemporary worship music but our message hasn’t changed.”
One expression of message is in Southside’s mission statement: Love God, love people and love the world on the journey to life change.
“The fundamental life change is salvation,” Walls said. “And there’s freedom that Christ wants for us in every area of our lives.”
The idea of life change is key to one of Southside’s main ministries: Celebrate Recovery. Celebrate Recovery is centered on the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ and facilitates recovery from varieties of troubling behavior patterns. Walls said it includes alcohol and drug addictions, but isn’t limited to those. Celebrate recovery literature says it helps overcome “hurts, hang-ups and habits.”
“Celebrate Recovery is a main outreach and ministry and has brought a lot of help to people,” Walls said. “We saw the need of it in families that were being destroyed by addictions and all kinds of troubles. My son Matt actually came across Celebrate Recovery and said, ‘Dad, I think this is what we need to do.’ We bought the beginners program, the starter’s kit, and the rest is history. We’ve seen people set free of addictions to drugs, sex, porn, from codependency and all sorts of things.”
Matt Walls also serves as pastor at Southside in Warner Robins and is lead pastor at another Southside congregation in Kathleen.
Walls credits God with changing lives through Celebrate Recovery as one reason for Southside’s growth.
He said there are other reasons.
“When I came here there were great people at Southside and God continues to bring great people,” he said. “People ask how come we’ve grown and I say it’s because of our people. That’s the human side, anyway. Our people reach a lot more people than I do. Am I such a great preacher? Or all that much better after 30 years? I hope I’m more mature, but I don’t say that’s the answer. Anything I’ve done for Southside has been because of God’s grace. I’m very humbled to be pastor here. We have a great team of pastors, staff, deacons and members. Our member-volunteers are amazing.”
Nash said there are 35 full and part-time pastors and staff and around 700 volunteers at the Warner Robins church. She said on average there are 10 visitors a week.
Walls continually declines overdue credit.
“I don’t need to take the credit or the glory for what God is doing for my ego,” he said. “I’ve got a great wife, Debby, three great kids, Matt, Jake and Stephen, wonderful daughters-in-law and grandchildren, and I get all the love and glory a man could ever want from my family. But again, that’s God. He’s just blessed me.”
Originally from Alabama — and a die-hard University of Alabama fan as his office décor attests — Walls graduated from Tennessee Temple in 1976 and served as youth pastor in Florida and pastor in Alabama before coming to Southside.
He said he first served in a large church where he learned a lot and then in a small one where he learned to be a pastor in a way that helps him keep priorities straight at his large church.
“On staff at the large church I was always busy,” he has said. “At the small church in Bay Minette, Alabama, I had time for my family and for people. The people there helped me learn that people have priority over paper. People are the reason for all the ministries, not the other way around. Being a pastor is far more than being able to preach. It’s being a shepherd and caring for people.”
He said keeping in mind that a “shepherd should smell like sheep” has helped keep Southside people-focused. All, he said, follow the Great Shepherd.
Walls said it was the people-focus that brought on the 2014 expansion that was 40 percent paid for when the church moved in. It allowed growth for Celebrate Recovery and expanded children’s ministry into the former sanctuary, including AWANA children’s ministry which the church has done since the 1980s.
And growing didn’t stop Southside from helping other outreaches beyond itself.
“I can’t say enough about our worship ministry, they’re very important to what we do here in the church, but we look outside, too,” Walls said. “We have major missions projects like church planting in Togo, East Africa, a church plant in Kenya, one in Boston, missions to the Dominican Republic and support of Sujo John and You Can Free Us, his anti-human trafficking work done in places like India and Poland.”
Above tithes and offerings, Walls said the church gives about $400,000-plus annually for such projects. And, he said, special giving goes to hurricane relief and as well as letting Southside be used to house those fleeing Hurricane Irma.
“It’s all part and there’s so much more,” Walls said. “But the thing is sticking close to God and his word. If you get away from God’s word you lose your compass. We believe in teaching the Bible but not just educating — it’s living what you learn. I suppose that’s a big factor in who we are. That and getting involved in things that if God isn’t involved in them, we will fail miserably.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.
Southside Baptist Church
Address: 1040 S Houston Lake Rd., Warner Robins, Ga. 31088
Leadership: Jerry Walls, senior pastor
Worship: Sunday worship 9 & 10:45 a.m., Thursday Celebrate Recovery 7 p.m.