When Reid Guy left his church in Mississippi to become pastor of First Baptist Church, Chickasaw, he had one main prayer request — that the church would still be open in six months.
Decades ago, the church’s massive sanctuary held around 1,200 people on Sundays. But when Guy preached his first sermon there in August 2019, he preached it to 28 people gathered in the fellowship hall.
“I had studied the church, I had studied the community, and I knew what I was walking into for the most part,” Guy said.
Before accepting the call, Guy talked extensively with Thomas Wright, executive director of missions for Mobile Association, who had been assisting the small congregation’s pastoral search committee. Wright and the committee had looked at the church’s long legacy, the deep need of the community, the dwindling size of the church and the massive cost of keeping up their existing building.
And they had weighed all their options and decided to stay, Wright said. “The leaders sought the Spirit and confirmed their central location still needed a congregation with effective evangelistic ministry. They accepted revitalization would be an intentional and difficult process.”
At around the same time — “just the right time,” Wright said — God led Guy to reach out to Mobile Association to learn more about the possibility of planting a church in the area. His wife, Lori, had been commuting from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to her job as a professor at the University of Mobile for five years, and they had just had a baby.
That made her nearly two-hour one-way commute even tougher, Guy said. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to sustain that.”
So she started looking for work in Hattiesburg, and he started looking for opportunities in Mobile, and they “left it up to God,” he said.
That’s when Wright told Guy he had something in mind for him, and it wasn’t a church plant — it was a revitalization. And really, that fit — Guy was just wrapping up his doctorate at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and had done extensive research on reviving struggling congregations. He’d just always thought he’d do consulting — he hadn’t imagined becoming a pastor of a church right on the verge of closing its doors.
If he said yes, he wasn’t sure they’d be open in six months. The overhead for the massive building was overwhelming. The pool of aging members who could give was getting smaller. And outside the church, 60 percent of the neighborhood lived below the poverty line.
“We knew it would be difficult,” Guy said. “Honestly, we did everything we could to say no.”
But God just kept throwing the doors wide open, and one night in tears, he and his wife realized they could only say yes.
“We knew this is what God had for us,” he said. “He’s been with us, and He’s been with the church every step of the way.”
Guy and his family moved there in August 2019, and by the time COVID-19 restrictions happened in March, the church was running about 70 on a Sunday morning. As they moved to meeting online, it gave them a new opportunity to reach out. They even baptized a young woman who heard the gospel through their ministry on Facebook. Guy baptized her one day at the church in a small group setting, then they played the video back during the church’s livestreamed Sunday service.
And now that they’ve been meeting in person again over the past several weeks, they’ve had new guests coming every Sunday. The church has been consistently working to find ways to reach out to its neighbors, like offering GED classes and job education workshops for single parents in the area, as well as tutoring and music lessons for their children.
“It’s been incredible to see what the Lord has done in our church, in the people’s lives in our community,” he said. “It’s just been a lot of stepping out and faith and seeing what God has planned.”
Those steps of faith have happened as the church has had to make tough decisions about their massive facilities, Guy said.
“For our church campus, they began a huge building campaign that started in 1952 and ran until the mid 1980s,” he said. “At that particular time when they began, the church was running 1,200 on a Sunday. That was right in the height of the Sunday School era. We had facilities galore.”
And over the past 30 years, those facilities have slowly gotten emptier and in a greater state of disrepair.
“Our biggest issue was the roof on our sanctuary,” Guy said. “It’s a beautiful sanctuary built for 1,400 people, and the roof was leaking, and part of it was caving in.”
The estimate to fix it was more than $400,000, and he was looking at the faces of a congregation of several dozen aging members who would have to foot that bill.
“At that point, our trustees sat down and said, ‘OK, if we’re going to have to pay this, then we need to step back and figure out what the future of our church is going to be,’” Guy said.
He reached out for help, and the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions got him in touch with an architect who could consult with them about what to do.
“Essentially we looked at all our options,” Guy said.
Should they demolish the campus and start over? If they repaired everything they had, how would they pay for it?
After much prayer and conversation, they arrived at a next step — demolish the office and fellowship hall. That one move would save $80,000 on roofing costs, and it would cut the utility bills down.
They started that in early August.
Now they’re looking at ways to pay for the sanctuary roof.
Guy has applied for grants and pinched pennies every way he knows how.
And for now, they’re just taking a step of faith, believing that God still has a purpose for First, Chickasaw.
“We’ve more than doubled attendance on Sundays, we’re baptizing people and reaching our community in ways that haven’t been done in years and years and years,” he said. “We’ve had the opportunity to just sit back and be amazed at what God is doing. And we know He still has more to do here.”
For more information on the church, visit fbcchickasaw.com.