WARNER ROBINS -- Shirley Hills Baptist Church is facing something rare in its history: At the end of August, the church will be without a pastor.
Andy Cook, who has led the church for 18 years, is leaving.
Shirley Hills was begun as a mission church in 1963 by Second Baptist Church of Warner Robins. In its 52-year history it has only had three lead pastors.
“Frank Hinzman was the first,” Cook said. “He served until 1969. Then Napp Granade served for 26 years until 1996. I came in 1997.”
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Cook said the church has enjoyed near continual growth through its history. About 700 adults and children gather each weekend to worship.
“A key for our church was in the fall of 1963 when an Air Force base in Mobile closed and people from there moved here to work at Robins (Air Force Base),” Cook said. “All the new housing was around Shirley Hills, so we grew rapidly and got the strong foundation we still benefit from.”
With added numerical and spiritual growth under Granade’s leadership, Cook said the church has established, and altered, ministries to serve members and the community. It has a range of ministries to serve the oldest to the youngest and includes the usual and the not-so-usual, from age-based Sunday School classes and small groups to groups like Parents of Prodigals, a community support group for those whose children face drug, alcohol and other problems.
Cook said since it began as mission church itself, Shirley Hills has remained conscious of supporting local and world missions and helping other churches, ministries and the community.
“For example, we’re very involved in mission trips for our people,” he said. “We also have an expanding prison ministry that includes support of the national Bill Glass Prison Ministry as well as our own ministry in jails. We’re part of the local Family Promise ministry helping homeless families. I suppose if someone asked about our church I could tell them what we believe and about our denomination. That’s important. But if they say what kind of people are you, really, I’d have to say Shirley Hills is the friendliest, hardest working church you may ever find -- a place people really love one another.”
Walk Through Bethlehem
For years, Shirley Hills was known as the “Walk Through Bethlehem church.”
Walk Through Bethlehem was a massive, volunteer-intensive, walk-through Christmas experience presenting the sights, sounds and smells of Bethlehem on the night Christ was born -- spread out over Shirley Hills’ facilities and parking lot.
Cook said it exemplified the church’s willingness to work hard. It took about 100 volunteers working five months of the year, 300 working one month and 500 or more working one weekend to present the event for the 14 years the church produced it. They estimate more than 150,000 attended over the years.
And Cook said it showed Shirley Hills’ desire to do anything they believe God asked them to do.
Scott Boyd, chairman of deacons at Shirley Hills, said Walk Through Bethlehem is also indicative of Cook’s leadership.
“Within Andy’s first year the church was faced with the big opportunity to do Walk Through Bethlehem,” he said. “It was a big, big step of faith. The church stepped up and organized something that became well-known, a great blessing to the community. Then, 14 years later, we felt God was leading to end it. In a way it was our identity and it was very emotional for the church to let go, but we felt it was the right thing to do. Going through that is a testimony to God’s faithfulness and Andy’s leadership.”
And, in a way, it planted the seed of Cook’s leaving.
In conjunction with presenting Walk Through Bethlehem, Cook took his first trip to Israel to see how the church might make their presentation better. It birthed a love for the Holy Land and he started learning more and teaching more about it. He began taking others on trips with him.
Focus on Israel
As Cook leaves Shirley Hills, he leaves to expand the ministry of bringing a greater knowledge of Israel to others, particularly its geographical and historical realities which he says confirms other Biblical truths. His ministry is called Experience Israel Now (www.experienceisraelnow.com).
“I hope to be busy speaking in churches and going back and forth to Israel,” he said. “I’ve written books on Israel and will be expanding my writing and multimedia work. Israel is the cutting edge of Christian education. Israel transforms the Bible from grainy black and white TV to high definition color.”
Cook said he could never thank Shirley Hills enough for giving him the freedom and support as the Israel ministry has developed.
In a sense, his leaving is example of the church’s mission to go beyond its walls to impact the community as committed followers of Christ. And, Cook said, of being more interested in fulfilling that mission than hanging on to tradition.
Cook said he hopes to remain in Middle Georgia and in the life of Shirley Hills, but said he hopes to wisely “become invisible” rather than exert influence as its former leader.
“Shirley Hills is healthy and will be fine in the days ahead,” he said. “God has the right person to lead it. It’s scary, but we can trust God and that makes it exciting, too. Success in ministry doesn’t have anything to do with numbers or in salary or security. It has to do with obedience.”
Boyd said the church’s search for a new pastor will be slow and deliberate and they will be helped by the local Rehoboth Baptist Association.
“The church went through this 18 years ago when Napp left and then we were blessed to have Andy,” he said. “We wouldn’t trade anything for Andy’s time here, but as a body we go back to the fact the leader isn’t Andy, it’s the Lord Jesus Christ. After the shock and emotions of Andy’s departure we just continue following Christ.”
Boyd called Cook “an excellent, natural-born communicator” which served him well as a journalist, then in the pulpit and now in bringing the message of Israel and the Bible to others.
A Macon native, Cook, 53, graduated Northeast High School then got a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia. He was The Telegraph’s sports editor when he left journalism to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He continues to write occasional columns for The Telegraph.
He and his wife, Melody, have three daughters and two grandchildren. He said that will change to three grandchildren “anytime now” as a daughter is expecting.
“A highlight of my time at Shirley Hills? The joke is I only dropped the Lord’s Super once -- the juice tray,” Cook said. “But I think my favorite memory is we had a lot of fun together. We laughed a lot, we tried new things, we enjoyed the journey and it’s been an amazing experience. I’ll never retire from telling this story and I’m overwhelmed this church let me do it with them. They’ll be fine, they’ll be better off because it’s time for a change. I don’t really have anything personal to offer anybody anyway, but the Bible’s truth has been changing lives for centuries. The message of what God’s grace does for us is still amazing and it always will be.”