CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. - For once, said Darrell Henry, the Baptists didn't beat the Methodists to the restaurants after Sunday services.
Instead, on a recent Sunday at Oakwood Baptist Church, the congregation held fast to its pews and applauded after 177 people came forward in two services to be baptized.
"It was amazing," Henry, the church's longtime senior pastor, said of the Aug. 15 services. "People have continued to talk about it. I've never seen God move like that."
Henry said the mass baptism was accomplished, in part, by making things easy on people who wanted to be immersed.
Forgot a change of clothes? No problem. The church provided gym shorts, sports bras and underwear.
Worried about getting wet hair? Solved. The church bought blow dryers.
Fretful that family members were not present? Not to worry. The church had a professional photographer to capture the moment.
Last Sunday, Henry baptized 95 more people at the church's Gateway campus, bringing the total for the church to 302 in eight days. This Sunday, he will conduct a similar service at the church's Germantown Road campus.
The Oakwood pastor said his 3,000-member church usually baptizes 90 to 110 people a year.
Jud Davis, chairman of biblical studies at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., said while a planned mass baptism wouldn't be his way of doing things, the mode and method of baptism have been debated for 2,000 years.
"It's an issue where there is Christian diversity," he said. "I would feel it is a little manipulative" to say one way of baptism "is right" and that those who don't follow it are "not in the favor of God."
In the final analysis, Davis said, the mode and method of baptism are a nonessential issue.
Christians are like families, he said. They may argue tooth and nail over specific issues, but at the end of the day they're still brothers.
Nicki Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said it doesn't keep records for one-time baptisms by individual congregations. Rebecca Morris, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Baptist Convention Historical Archive and Museum, said records don't exist there for baptisms in one day by an individual congregation, either.
However, 228 people were baptized on Feb. 1, 2009, in five services at 7,700-member Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., according to The Christian Index, a biweekly newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention reported a slight increase in baptisms for 2009 after four straight years of declines.
Dr. Eddy Rushing, associational missionary for the Northwest Georgia and Lookout Valley Baptist Associations, said evangelism is vital for Baptist churches.
"There's always a push to get people baptized," he said. "If someone accepts Christ, that's the next logical step."
Henry said he first heard of a spontaneous baptismal service about four years ago at 4,500-member Hebron Baptist in Dacula, Ga. Some 50 people came forward to be baptized, he said.
At first, he said, he didn't think it was something Oakwood would do. But eventually, he warmed to the idea and determined it was supported by the Bible. Only a lack of belief in Christ, he contended the Scriptures said, should separate someone from being baptized.
To prepare for the service, Henry said he wanted to do everything possible to eliminate common excuses for failure to be baptized. He even sent some staff members to Johnson Ferry to get advice.
Henry said he told those who desired to be baptized that they need not feel obligated to join Oakwood officially as members.
"We made it where everybody could be comfortable," he said.
Henry said he figured the early service might yield 25 baptisms and the second service 50.
The response [44 in the early service and 133 in the late service] was overwhelming, he said. "It exceeded our expectations."
Henry said the recent baptisms included many first-time immersions and others who had been baptized as children but who wanted to repeat the act as adults.
"I made the gospel real clear," he said. "The New Testament speaks of believing and then being baptized."
Those who came forward ranged in age from pre-teenagers to those in their 70s. Among those who were immersed in the church's baptismal pool were the senior pastor's sister, son-in-law and several Oakwood deacons.
Kenny Hale, 51, a deacon in the church, was the first one to respond. He said had been baptized when he was young, had heard Dr. Henry talk before about the importance of a repeat "believer's baptism" and had been considering coming forward for several years.
"I wanted to do it to make sure it was right," said the Rossville resident, who wound up helping the senior pastor with the baptisms. "It was a pretty awesome day."
Henry's sister, Dale Donaldson, of Chattanooga, 53, also was baptized. She had been baptized by her father, also a Baptist pastor, 45 years earlier.
"I felt like it was time to do it again," she said. "I've had some things happen in my adult life, [and] I wanted to reconfirm my baptism."
Henry said 302 baptisms are heartening to a pastor, but the number is secondary to the outpouring of faith.
"It's really great to see what it means to the people being baptized [and] to the congregation," he said, "and to see the sense of revival that swept over the place."