First Baptist Church in Forsyth often refers to its 180-year emphasis on missions and ministry. Since it formed in 1838 as Harmony Baptist Church, the emphasis has remained where founding members’ placed it.
But on April 14, members made a dramatic change — not away from their emphasis but one they hope will help them pursue it more effectively: they replaced their 11 a.m. traditional service with a modern, contemporary service.
Now, electric and acoustic guitars, drums and other modern instruments accompany modern songs and choruses at 11 replacing piano, organ and age-old hymns.
Other changes and technology were afoot, too, such as screen and projection replacing hymnals. While not new in many churches, it was a first for the staid First Baptist in Forsyth, according to pastor Hambric Brooks.
For Brooks, it was also the first time he didn’t preach in a coat and tie in the sanctuary. Instead, he said he it was causal shirt with regular pants in a service now comfortable for those coming in jeans.
“We’re trying to make a difference in our community,” Brooks said. “The church is not the building or the style, but it’s people. Hopefully, people reaching out to others and being the hands and feet of Christ. Our slogan is “Worship, Grow, Connect and Go.” Changing service style at 11 is a way to better connect with our changing community. We’re calling the new service a bridge.”
But focusing on the new service doesn’t tell the whole story. Brooks said while the new service takes the place of the formally formal 11 a.m. traditional service, it hasn’t done away with it. The traditional service is now at 9 a.m.
And, Brooks said, it in its way is being “amped up.”
“Some are not ministered to by a contemporary service and we’re not leaving them behind,” he said.” In fact, our traditional service is more traditional than ever. The choir is going back to wearing robes and I’m even wearing one. It’s strictly hymns and high church style music with more readings and liturgy and other formal elements.”
Message remains the same
Though Brooks said he always tries to present messages relevant to listeners, he said the essential outline of message will be the same for both services, such as how to love others and live in a Christ-like way in today’s world.
“One will just be a little more relaxed and upbeat,” he said. “The new service may also feature more video and elements to help communicate.”
So how did that go the first time around?
“I was told I preached two totally different ways by people who attended both services Sunday,” he said. “If you ask me, I’d say I preached the same, so I guess it’s just a matter of perception—theirs or mine, I’m not sure which.”
And how about things over all for the new service launch?
“It was a good day even though weather-wise it was a nasty, stormy day,” Brooks said. “The kind of day people don’t like to get up and go out. As far as numbers, I’d like to have seen even more new faces but we did see quite a few. Ninety-four people came to the 9 a.m. service and 157 to the new contemporary service at 11. That’s almost 100 more than typically on a Sunday. We’re moving in the right direction and need to continue.”
Road to Forsyth
Brooks, 46, said he came to Forsyth First Baptist a year ago from First Baptist Church in Griffin, where he served 15 years, first as student pastor then as pastor of that church’s Connexion Service, a contemporary service format. Prior to that, he served in youth ministry in several southeast Georgia churches, including as intern at his home church, First Baptist Church in Statesboro. He also worked in short-term missions-related ministry in the U.S., such as helping provide labor resources for home rehabilitation and, with his wife, Teresa, in a group home for youth.
Brooks has a bachelor’s degree in science from Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, in therapeutic recreation, a master’s degree in divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a doctorate in ministry in semiotics and future studies from the Portland (Oregon) Seminary of George Fox University.
Having pastored a contemporary service in Griffin, Brooks said he believed he was a good fit to help lead change in Forsyth but wasn’t the one pushing for it. He said members were seeking it. And to the mix that his doctoral dissertation was titled “Revitalization of Moderate Baptist Churches.”
“In a sense, the church and Forsyth were built around Tift College but Tift College is long gone,” Brooks said. “The community changed but the church hadn’t. The heart for missions and ministry remained but the approach needed change. We want to change to focus more outwardly and meet needs around us.”
Though members wanted to adapt, Brooks said it’s not easy.
“Change is hard, especially in a congregation that hasn’t done much of it,” he said. “Here was a church steeped in tradition — which is not necessarily a bad thing — that wanted to change. It still has to be incremental with lots of communication and explanation. And of course, not all agree.”
But in the year Brooks has been pastor and fostered incremental change, Sunday attendance has already doubled from 80 to 160.
According to church histories, the original building of what is now First Baptist Church in Forsyth was built in 1840 at the same location as the current facility. The name changed from Harmony Baptist to First Baptist in 1841 and it became First Baptist Church in Forsyth sometime between 1913 and 1917. The present sanctuary was dedicated in 1923. During construction, baptisms were held in the Bessie Tift College swimming pool. Tift students traditionally attended worship at First Baptist Forsyth.
Brooks said the church is somewhat unusual in its Baptist associations. One association is thought of as conservative and the other more liberal or progressive.
“We are dually aligned between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” he said. “We have women deacons and will ordain women on staff. It’s the same type of church I was at in Griffin and being here is a way to put into action what I’ve studied the last three years and did my doctoral paper on. First Baptist Forsyth has decreased in recent years so it needs revitalize. It’s not dead, it just needs to be revitalized.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First Baptist Church in Forsyth
Address: 95 W. Morse St., Forsyth
Leadership: Hambric Brooks, pastor
Worship: 9 a.m. Sunday traditional service, 10 a.m. Sunday school, 11 a.m. contemporary worship, 6:15 p.m. music and prayer and 6:30 p.m. life groups Wednesday