By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
HOHENWALD — Since his arrival at First Baptist Church, Hohenwald, roughly five years ago, pastor Bert Spann said he has seen the church undergo a change in culture.
And it started with a change of clothes.
Before Spann’s arrival, FBC had essentially been operating as a white-collar church in the heart of a blue-collar town. But over the past half decade, the church has become more focused on finding ways to connect with the community — and the results have been seen, week after week, in the baptismal pool.
“Since the end of last year, I would say there has hardly been a week where we’ve not been baptizing folks,” said Spann. “The harvest is coming in.”
The evangelistic boom has been the result of the church’s desire to become more accessible to community, even in subtle ways like dressing less formally on Sundays.
The recent explosion in baptisms has also been fueled by the church’s desire to take the light of Jesus into dark places. Simply put, FBC is taking evangelism to the extreme, which is precisely what Spann had been praying would happen to a church under his leadership.
“My prayer, when I first started ministry, was, ‘Lord, I want whatever church You send me to, to be the place where we train special forces believers,” he said. “I want to bring people here so that they are thoroughly equipped to send them out there to the tough places.”
And when Spann says tough places, he means it.
In recent months, FBC Hohenwald has formed a special connection with Buffalo Valley Rehabilitation Center, and has seen approximately 100 recovering addicts come to know the Lord through the ministry.
Spann noted that clients from Buffalo Valley had occasionally been coming to church at FBC for the past several years, but the church had not been able to build any lasting relationships until recently.
“It’s always been exciting (to have them visit the church), but we’ve not really seen a whole lot of evangelistic fruit until the end of last year,” said Spain.
“We had a gentleman give his life to Christ, and when he did, everything just busted loose. This gentleman’s name is Brian, and when he came to know Christ, the lights went on with him, (and) the Lord turned the lights on at Buffalo Valley.”
Brian’s newly found passion for soul-winning — which was featured in the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s Win Tennessee video series — ignited a series of evangelistic victories.
“Everybody he came in contact with, he wanted them to hear about Jesus and what He could do in their life,” said Spann. “That kind of started the ball rolling and the gospel actually just penetrated the darkness down there.”
Spann believes the events at Buffalo Valley are a perfect illustration of the formula that needs to be used by Tennessee Baptists in their quest to reach the state for Christ. It’s the theory of perpetual growth — one person is led to the Lord, and they lead someone else, and the string continues from there.
“My heart’s passion is to build disciples,” said Spann. “You can do evangelism and never disciple somebody — but you cannot disciple somebody and miss evangelism. And so, evangelism is part of what it means to be a Christ follower. … It’s a matter of taking these guys in the church and saying, ‘Come with me. Let me show you how this is done.’ And that’s really been the culture here at our church.”
When he interviewed with the search committee at FBC in the fall of 2013, Spann was told that the church wasn’t reaching its evangelistic potential — and that the reason behind the struggles was because the church wasn’t as accessible as it needed it to be. The committee told Spann that they believed one of the keys to correcting this issue was to embrace a “come-as-you-are” type of attitude.
“They told me that there had been a culture here where people dress up nice; they get in their Sunday best (to) come to church,” said Spann. “And I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but there was a culture here where those who don’t have their best felt like they couldn’t come here. So, when I was in the interview process, one of the things that the committee said was, ‘Listen, we don’t need you to come in and always wear a shiny suit.’ ”
Spann said the committee informed him that some members of the community felt intimidated about coming to church because they believed the church was a formal gathering.
“That’s not who Hohenwald is,” said Spann. “We have a very poor economic base here. There’s no industry, so to speak, to draw folks in.” The search committee told Spann that they hoped he could help set a culture that would enable the church to “reach the people of Hohenwald and Lewis County, not just those who are like us.”
With that in mind, Spann said the church became very intentional about making connections. He said the church wanted to send the message that, “it doesn’t matter what you have, or where you’ve come from, the Jesus we worship is the Jesus that’s offered to you, also. … It’s not about how you dress to come here.”