Southern Seminary alumnus Troy Bush leads Rehoboth Baptist Church toward renewal
Harriet and Johnny Carter came to Rehoboth Baptist Church in 1956. Upon joining, they found a growing, energetic community with hundreds of worshippers each weekend. And then-pastor Lester Buice was a decade into what would become a 36-year ministry at the church.
A century earlier, Rehoboth, sitting about 10 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, began in August of 1854, when a small group of people met in what is now Tucker, Georgia — immediately the church baptized 21 new members, including two slaves, and four more people joined, one of whom was a slave. From that group, the little mission church grew. By the peak of Buice’s pastorate in the 1970s, Rehoboth included nearly 5,000 members — up from 160 members when he arrived. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, Rehoboth even produced a nationally viewed TV ministry and operated the largest church-based sports ministry in the country.
Around the turn of the century, however, things changed. Rehoboth members called two consecutive pastors who they eventually forced to resign because of the theological and methodological directions toward which those men led. And people left.
Even some of the cornerstone-type members, like John Brown, who joined in 1965 and served for 29 years as chairman of the deacons, considered leaving.
“I prayed about leaving,” he told Southern Seminary Magazine. “When the last interim pastor started, my wife and I decided we were going to stay, but we’d see who they called as pastor. If [the church] wasn’t changed, we were leaving.”
Other long-time families like the Carters — along with hundreds of similar families — watched the church steadily decline.
“It had gotten pretty bad,” said Harriet Carter during a recent conversation. “We lost a lot of people, and we were down. We did owe a lot of money over the years. And, you know, it really could’ve been a time when we lost the church.”
In the interim
Along with him was Troy Bush, who began a little earlier in the year helping out the church in administration on an interim basis. At the time, Bush taught part time at Southern Seminary — where he also earned a doctor of philosophy degree in 1999 — and consulted on church planting efforts.
Early on, Wynn encouraged some of the lay leaders of the church to pray regularly and intently for Rehoboth and her future. As a result, an intimate group of men — among them Johnny Carter, Ray Pinkerton, Larry Ross and John Brown — began meeting in the conference room at LTR Land and Development office on Main St. in Tucker, a company owned by Ross.
Around the same time, Wynn and Bush began an “honest assessment” of the long-term viability of Rehoboth. And from early December until the middle of February 2012, they studied the demographics of the community, the gap between the community and the church’s ministry engagement of the community. They also looked at the spiritual health of the body and its perceived and real possibilities of moving forward, considering financial matters, its reputation in community, existing leadership and the enormous campus.
In the end, they concluded that they “did not see a viable pathway” for Rehoboth. When they met with the prayer group, they announced that Rehoboth was on a “terminal” trajectory and only had 24 to 36 months left.
“However, in the final days before presenting our recommendation to the leadership, we believe God led us to see a pathway forward that would end the terminal decline and restore Rehoboth to being a strong, gospel-centered church in this community again,” said Bush.
Wynn and Bush presented four options for the church: (1) sell the property and relocate; (2) merge with one of the partner churches meeting on the Rehoboth property; (3) an aggressive revitalization for which the congregation would seek out a pastor to lead; or (4) a reorganization and relaunch.
“We shared that it was our conclusion that only option number four provided a viable pathway for them to again be a vibrant church that impacted the community for the kingdom of God,” said Bush.
That fourth proposal, included several elements: a partnership with First Baptist Church Woodstock; a change in worship style; a “whatever -it-takes” commitment to reach the lost; and a transition from a deacon board to a deacon body whose primary function would be to serve the church rather than manage it. Additionally, Rehoboth would transitioned its committees to ministry teams and dissolve its executive, personnel and finance committees in order to establish an advisory team in their place.
Because of a lack of trust in pastoral leadership — due in large part to the two turbulent pastorates in succession — the church drifted in a direction that minimized pastoral leadership. So a key step in the proposal emphasized restoring the pastoral leadership.
The morning of April 22, 2012, Wynn, along with other leaders from the church, presented to the church this “strategic plan.” And, as Wynn insisted earlier in the process, to call Bush as senior pastor. Immediately, they went into a special-called business meeting, where members voted 96 percent to adopt the plan.
“There was so much thought and discussion before about trying to get back where we were instead of looking ahead to where we should be going. And I think the Lord just revealed to the men of the church — and to the whole church for that matter — that Troy was the one to lead us to do that. God revealed that to us,” said Pinkerton, a member since 1987.
A sign to the community
At that time another Southern Baptist congregation, significantly larger than Rehoboth, met on the church campus. And the churches shared a temporary sign — two four by eight sheets of plywood in a V-shape. One side said “Rehoboth” and the other side displayed the other church’s name. So, depending on the direction from which an area resident saw the sign, they might think a different church met there. And, according to Bush, many people in the community thought that Rehoboth had died.
Both congregations worked toward a long-term partnership for sharing Rehoboth’s facility, but they eventually concluded that two congregations of their respective sizes could not effectively utilize the same campus. (Rehoboth currently hosts 11 smaller churches.)
And, in October of 2012, Rehoboth put up a new sign. But for many of the Rehoboth members, the bricks and lights formed much more than a signal that a church met there.
“That sign became an ‘ebenezer’ for Rehoboth again that they survived. It was the George Bailey one dollar that we made it, that we came through the hardest of storms that this church has ever known and God persevered them,” Bush said, referring to the character in the 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
All nations, all generations
Now in the summer of 2014, Bush has been at Rehoboth for a couple of years. And he insists that the church still has “a lot of work to do.” But the congregation feels and sounds different — less like the Rehoboth of the past decade and more like the Rehoboth of the past century.
Harriet Carter, one of the longest-tenured members of Rehoboth calls the recent happenings at Rehoboth a “miracle.”
“Ever since Troy’s got here, he just hit the road running,” she said. “We just thank the Lord, we just feel like we’re on a new journey now for the Lord.”
Pinkerton agreed. And, he said, more than anything, Rehoboth now knows where she’s going. “What Troy did was lay out a vision that people bought into. And then he has the will, the determination, the skill and God has led him to lead us in a direction that we support. So we’re focused on where we’re going.”
One of the primary objectives for Bush is to lead the church toward unity. When he first became pastor, the church held two worship services on Sunday mornings, one with a traditional music style and the other with a contemporary style. The structure divided the congregation, essentially, by age.
When he announced that the new director of worship ministries — Chris Fowler — would lead an “inter-generational” style of worship, Bush told the congregation that would mean all age groups deferring to each other. Right then, he called for the older members to show their support for embracing a multi-generational service by standing.
“To be here that morning and hear all the adults standing and just weeping — 55-year-old adults standing and weeping — it was unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable,” Bush said.
On that day, Jennie Ross, wife of Larry Ross, was standing.
“I’m excited about the services not being separate,” said she said. “Troy has blended the services and so now families are back together, and everyone’s going back to church at the same time. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
This move, in many ways, represents Bush’s larger goal of reaching “nations and generations” with the gospel and making Rehoboth a church that reaches every demographic, both ethnic and life-stage.
“Our vision whether we’re talking about Louisville or Lima Peru is the same: it’s that his kingdom will come that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven,” he said. “It’s that you and I would be making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and seeing them baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and that they would obey the teachings of Christ.”
The future of Rehoboth Baptist Church, according to Bush, centers on this vision, which he says was the vision of the church from her beginning. So when, on April 22, 2012, the church members voted to reorganize and relaunch, it returned the church to the missionary legacy begun by its founders — and its Founder.