Jim Baldwin is pastor of the fastest growing church in America.
I don’t have firm statistics to back this claim, but a common-sense assessment of the man and his remarkable ministry.
The facts are these: Baldwin began preaching at the North American Church in Galatia, Ill., on the first Sunday of January 2002. Three people were present, plus Baldwin. On Easter Sunday, there were 67 people in attendance, plus Baldwin.
That constitutes an increase of more than 2000 percent. If there is a church in the land that has exceeded this rate of growth, I want to hear about it.
This is not Baldwin’s first tenure as pastor of this congregation. In fact, he began his ministerial career in this very church, commuting between southern Illinois and central Kentucky in pursuit of his education at Georgetown College.
The college has been so impressed with his work, then and now and in between, that it not only awarded him his rightly-earned degree but also, earlier this year, presented him with its annual award for excellence in ministry.
“I don’t deserve this, but I’ll take it,” he said with his winsome mixture of humility and humor.
For the next 20 minutes of story-telling, scripture-quoting and advice-giving, Baldwin created a priceless memory for the banquet crowd gathered to celebrate his success.
This humility and humor (with an impressive dose of intelligence and personality) made Baldwin a natural choice when, in the fall of 2001, church leaders in Illinois sought someone to resurrect the North American congregation that had died four years earlier.
Only one problem: Baldwin already had a church and a pulpit, and thus a regular Sunday morning gig.
It was the Long Branch Church, a congregation of some 125 souls.
The Long Branch meetinghouse sits five miles from Galatia but is named for a Tennessee creek from which its founders came in 1860. In those days, the new congregation was also known as “Emancipation Church” because it would not permit slaveholders to take communion.
When Sunday rolls around these days, Baldwin climbs behind the wheel of his big, silver Cadillac and drives to his reserved parking spot on the north side of the 1892 building. At precisely 11:00 a.m., he carries every bit of his 5-foot-5-inch frame into the pulpit and extends the welcome. Thus begins the worship of God, as it has every Sunday since 1979.
That was the year the Long Branch people called Baldwin as their interim pastor. They stayed with that title for five years, until he left the state for a religious convention, returning to discover that the congregation had voted in his absence to drop the “interim” part and keep the “pastor” part. That was 18 years ago.
But such Sunday morning commitments did not dissuade the folks of the North American church from extending their call; nor the Long Branch people from giving their blessing; nor Baldwin himself from embracing the new opportunity, even if it meant delivering his sermon twice on the first day of every week.
So it was that Jim Baldwin became the pastor of the fastest growing church in America—not that such statistical summary ranks high on Baldwin’s “list of leading spiritual indicators.”
What does count with Baldwin, as it does with his people in both congregations, is infectious delight in life itself, steady faithfulness to a vocation of significance, and authentic and abiding love for people.
When I see Jim Baldwin, I recall the sermon I heard in seminary chapel 20-some-odd years ago, entitled, “Having Zest for Life.” The preacher was Gaines Dobbins; he was 90 years old!
Oh, did I mention that Baldwin is 89 years old? Slipped my mind, as it often does when we are together.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.