KATHLEEN -- Five years ago, the leadership of Kathleen Baptist Church went to leaders at Southside Baptist Church in Warner Robins asking for help.
The Kathleen church was dwindling in numbers -- to about 20 -- and the end of the congregation was in sight.
They asked Southside to help them stay alive.
And Southside did.
“They told us their church was struggling -- dying,” said Matt Walls, who now pastors what has become the Kathleen campus of Southside: Southside Baptist Church Kathleen.
“We had some conversations, prayed and talked some more,” Walls said. “We told them we’d come on the condition we’d have freedom to do what we felt we needed to do to help the church thrive. The group from Kathleen said, ‘Absolutely, that’s what we want. We want a church here.’ When we heard that, we knew it was a go.”
Walls said Southside leadership saw the venture as a call from God to be faithful to their core values, which include challenging the status quo and taking risks if it adds greater glory to God.
For them, helping revitalize a congregation was new ground and the investment in Kathleen meant a step of faith.
The agreement came in April 2010. The church began fresh as Southside Kathleen in September 2010.
Walls said the intervening months saw a $200,000 sprucing up of the Kathleen facility, including transforming the church’s family life center into a modern worship space.
Throughout the complex, old carpet came out and new carpet went in.
Some walls got torn down; most got new paint. New sound and light equipment was installed with other modernizations.
Including the church’s worship style. Old hymns went out and new, higher volume choruses and anthems became the norm. Southside’s overall commitment to small groups serving others was embraced along with the new authentic, contemporary worship.
“We started the new work with about 100-120 people,” Walls said. “That included the faithful from Kathleen Baptist and a group from Warner Robins who committed to a year to help launch things. After that first year, about half of those stayed and half returned to Warner Robins.”
Walls said that though there were struggles, the new congregation moved forward in unity and grew.
“You have to decide if it’s going to be about me and what style I prefer or if it’s going to be about Jesus and working to further his kingdom in the way he’s directing,” Walls said. “It’s just strategy. There are lots different, good ways of doing things, even though there’s only one Jesus, one core truth of the Bible and ultimately one mission to reach out to others. This is the way God has given us to operate and Kathleen embraced it.”
Walls said the average age of that small Kathleen congregation was about 65, so change was a challenge.
“But you know, one of the biggest encouragers in my life is Mary Ann Daniels,” Walls said. “She was in that Kathleen bunch and sits right behind me singing those new songs louder than anybody. She hugs me all the time saying how grateful she is for what God has done -- is doing. They’ve been so gracious, there’s not been one moment of disunity.”
Opening the Kathleen congregations also meant change for Walls, the son of Jerry Walls, longtime pastor of Southside.
The younger Walls said he was called to preach as a freshman attending Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He interned summers at Southside and joined the staff in 2000 as student pastor. He later became family pastor and then took over the role of pastor at Kathleen.
“Still, when I’m at the Warner Robins campus, I get introduced a lot as, ‘This is Matt, our pastor’s son.’ I don’t resent that, because I’ve been there since I was 12 and I’m proud to be my dad’s son, but in Kathleen I’m just me, Matt.”
The move let Walls grow in his own style and leadership without the pressure to be just like his father, though the church is still under the overall Southside umbrella.
Walls said activity in Kathleen is geared toward Sunday mornings and various small group meetings with church offices and other ministries centered at the Warner Robins campus. For example, men at Kathleen were part of a recent men’s conference hosted in Warner Robins and announcements in Kathleen include the abundant weekday activities at the larger Warner Robins campus.
Walls happily reports the Kathleen risk has paid off.
“We’re growing,” he said. “We average about 425 attending and even though we have two morning services now, we need another -- or we need to expand our facility. That would be more likely. But most important, we’re doing what we believe God told us to do and we’re reaching out. Every Sunday we have the chance to not only teach the Bible but offer practical instruction how to live it out and honor our Savior.”
And after five years, Walls said another change is creeping into -- or back into -- the church.
“It’s funny, but things are coming full circle and now we’re back to including hymns along with modern songs,” he said. “They’ve gotten a bit of an update in style but the truth of those old hymns carries on.”