Take a map of the city of Atlanta, close your eyes and point to a place. Open your eyes, take note. Then, close your eyes and do it again.
Chances are, regardless of where your finger lands, you were pointing to one of the most evangelically unreached areas in the state of Georgia.
Statistics from the North American Mission Board, the evangelical missions arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, will tell you that in any given place in the 18-county metro area of Atlanta, about 80 percent of the population either has no relationship with Jesus Christ, do not belong to a Christian church family or both.
And yes, those stats extend even into the three-county area (Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties) that make up what has traditionally been called the Southern Crescent.
“We know that at least 70 percent of all three counties are not professing evangelical Christians,” said Ray Gentry, former Director of Missions for the Henry Association of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
“Close to 90 percent in this area are unchurched. It just shows us the vast number of people that need the Lord and need a church home,” he said.
It’s a huge number, considering that almost 600,000 people populate the three-county area. Which, Gentry says, kind of dispels the church-on-every-corner opposition that some bring to church planting.
“Many people say, ‘Why start another church? I see a church on every corner.’ But the average congregation size is 78. All the church buildings that exist now in Clayton, Henry and Fayette couldn’t hold half the people in this area that need the Lord.”
Hence the Convention’s fresh emphasis on planting churches.
It’s a process, Gentry said, where prospective church planters and denominational leaders find communities in the area where few, if any, evangelical churches are thriving, and will seek to start new congregations there with an emphasis on reaching people specifically in those communities.
“We believe that church planting is the most effective evangelical tool to reaching the lost for Christ,” said the Rev. Bernard Miller, who is the Director of Missions for the Southwest Atlanta Baptist Association and pastor of North Griffin Community Church in Griffin.
Miller’s association of churches comprises close to 50 congregations in seven different Atlanta metro counties. More than half of these congregations are church plants. Ten of those new congregations meet in Clayton and Henry counties.
“There is a difference in planting a new church and simply starting one,” Miller said. “When you plant a new church, you’re digging down roots for permanence and for growth and multiplication of your ministry.”
Gentry now leads a new association in the Georgia Baptist Convention called the Southside Baptist Network. It is a joint venture of the former Henry and South Metro Associations.
Ninety churches combined were a part of the old Henry and South Metro associations. Gentry said that none of the churches will be automatically forced or “grandfathered” into the new network.
Each congregation will have until May 1 to vote for inclusion.
“So far 24 churches have sent in paperwork to join as charter members, and they are joining every week,” Gentry said. “And new ones are joining every week.”
Gentry said that everything from the network’s name — Southside Baptist Network is the first of GBC’s 94 associations to not have the “association” moniker attached to it — down to its joining together new congregations, pastors and leaders will give the group of Christians a fresh perspective on reaching the lost for Jesus.
That includes the network’s plans for heavy involvement in the Convention’s church planting initiatives. The North American Mission Board has targeted metro Atlanta as one of the 30 “SEND cities” in the country that will receive priority for growth through church planting. A SEND city is one that is strategically targeted as having the most people who are without faith in Jesus Christ.
In addition to church-planting efforts, both Gentry and Miller’s associations are also planning to be involved in the revitalization of older, dying churches.
“We’re excited about it all,” Gentry said. “And Atlanta is just one of three SEND cities in the whole south. It shows how important it is to plant new churches and sort of give rebirth to older churches that will reach people for Christ in new ways.”