By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JACKSON — When Richard Bragg was called as pastor of Poplar Heights Baptist Church in Jackson in October of 2019, he was joining a congregation that had experienced some struggles in recent years.
In 2002, Poplar Heights reported an average worship attendance of 640. Seventeen years later, the average attendance had dropped to 84.
Bragg hit the ground running and was beginning to see progress six months into his ministry. The church had started to average around 130 in attendance and then, COVID-19 hit, bringing things to a grinding halt.
The church has yet to reach the attendance it had before COVID. “It was the oddest year in ministry I’ve ever had,” acknowledged Bragg, who began his ministry in 1998.
After the church had to shut down for several weeks, the church spent the next 10 months livestreaming services (along with in-person services after churches could reopen) and “figuring out what to do next,” he said.
The “momentum and excitement” that had been generated in his first six months at Poplar Heights “was blown out of the water,” he acknowledged.
Despite everything that has happened, however, “God has been good,” Bragg affirmed. He noted the church has seen 56 decisions in the two years he has been there.
The church set a goal of 20 baptisms in 2020, and despite not having in-person services for weeks, the church reached its goal on Bragg’s one-year anniversary in 2020. The church doubled its goal for 2021.
“If God can do 20 with a COVID shutdown, surely He can do 40,” Bragg reasoned. Prior to its recent revival held Oct. 24-27, the church had 42 total decisions, with 25 professions of faith, he noted. During the revival, two individuals came forward to accept Christ and to be baptized for a total of 44 decisions.
While in one sense, COVID made ministry harder and forced churches to adapt, in another sense it was not hard as long “as we keep preaching the gospel,” Bragg said.
“What better time has there been to preach hope because that is what people are looking for,” he continued. “As the church, we have the message that tells the world there is more than the present pandemic. There is hope.”
Bragg observed that sometimes churches try to overcomplicate things. “God made it simple. It’s about one person telling another person about Jesus. … If we tell others about Jesus, God will do what He does.”
Bragg noted that just because a worldwide pandemic began last year, it did not mean God was no longer in control. “In a very unusual time, the gospel still holds value. We just have to get that message to the people.”
Poplar Heights has actively engaged in local ministry, the pastor said. The church partnered with an organization this past year to hold day camps and the effort saw seven young people come to accept Christ as Savior, he noted.
The church also has initiated a ministry at a hotel adjacent to Interstate 40, about a mile from the church.
When Bragg arrived at Poplar Heights, its gymnasium was hardly being used. Now, the gym is being used to reach college students and others in the community through basketball and volleyball. “Our college students are manning the facility and they are sharing their faith with those who come.” The church has seen people join the congregation because of that ministry, he said.
Bragg observed that churches should not let their facilities go unused. “We are trying to use what we have for God’s kingdom.”
The pastor is keenly aware that prayer is a part of any church revitalization process.
He noted the church has been praying for revival and that God “would put lost people in our path.”
Though the pandemic has not gone away, Bragg said the church is back to the place where it can clarify its vision. “Because of COVID, we had to use a shotgun approach to ministry while continuing to preach the gospel,” he said. He said he believes members are now seeing what needs to be done to reach the community for Christ not only now but in the long term as well.
“Ministry is not sitting in a Bible study,” he stressed. “Ministry is seeing a need and then meeting that need so we can develop a relationship with people in order to share the gospel.”
Bragg recently began meeting with Larry Murphy, director of missions for Madison-Chester, Crockett Baptist Association, to discuss church revitalization and plans for Poplar Heights to begin working through the revitalization process.
Murphy once served on staff at Poplar Heights and has worked with pastors during the years he has served as DOM. “I have seen the church’s ups and downs,” he said.
He noted that church leaders are open to doing what it takes to revitalize the church. “In three to five years, I can see Poplar Heights growing and doing well and getting back to the point they were in years past,” Murphy affirmed. B&R