By Grace Thornton/The Alabama Baptist
In 1995, Joey Hanner was a trucker who was about to give up on his marriage -- and he was one Sunday service away from giving up on church too.
"We were going to give church one more try and then we were going to end our marriage," he said. They were so mad at each other they hadn't even realized that day was their 12th wedding anniversary, Hanner said. And they had no idea it was about to become an even more significant date. During the altar call, Hanner and wife Connie both separately ran down the aisle, only to look up from tearful, broken prayers and see the other one kneeling there too. "We both got saved that day," Hanner said. "God healed me and He got me out of my truck and into ministry." And ever since then, he's had no problems telling anybody and everybody about the hope that Jesus offers.
Something missing But when Hanner became pastor of Union No. 3 Baptist Church near Gadsden, Ala., six years ago, he knew he and his church were missing something important. He went to an event in North Carolina where discipleship was emphasized, and with a burdened heart he came back and asked a question to the congregation of about 130 people. "I asked them to stand if they had been discipled one on one before and only two people stood up," he said. That lit a fire in Hanner and it kicked off a movement toward discipleship in the rural church, which sits on 82 acres "15 minutes from everything," he said. They've seen 900 baptized in the past six years and grown from averaging 130 to 700 on a Sunday morning. And they've moved from one service to two. "We're a very strong evangelistic church," Hanner said, noting that about 50 people go out every Sunday and Thursday from the church to make visits in the community.
One on one But not only that -- they follow it up with discipleship, he said. Hundreds have been discipled one on one by other members of Union No. 3 Baptist since he asked that question years ago. "Since we started discipling, our church has matured. We've caught the vision of what a true Acts 1:8 church should look like," Hanner said. "When you cross those borders, when you begin to really get into God's Word, you get to the point where you will go anywhere, say anything and talk to anyone for the sake of the Gospel."
That's why Dan Garland, director of pastoral ministries and church consulting for LifeWay Christian Resources, said he recommended Union No. 3 Baptist to be featured in a video at the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 13–14 in Phoenix, Ariz. "I was impressed with the number of young men who are being discipled at the church," Garland said. "We're talking about a church in the middle of nowhere ... and some people drive more than a half hour to be a part. It's a great church and God is doing amazing things there." The key to all of it has been the church growing and maturing in Christ, Hanner said. "It's been humbling and phenomenal to see what God has done. We're just trying to stay out of His way."