In its unmistakable cadence Johnny Hunt‘s voice echoed across the sanctuary at First Baptist Church Woodstock, Ga., Dec. 1, saying the world wanted to know how to find “the way.”
“I believe there’s a question the whole world is asking,” Hunt declared to the crowd filling the 7,500-seat worship center. “You’ll say, ‘Oh preacher, you’re being narrow. There’s people who just aren’t interested in knowing about Christ.’
“Oh, friend, you’re mistaken. They really are. They just really don’t know how to ask. It is our duty to go and tell.”
In this instance, the voice came from a recording of Hunt’s first Sunday as pastor at the church in 1986. However, it mirrored what has been proclaimed ever since by the 67-year-old, a simple message of salvation found only in Christ and the urgency to share it with others.
That general message didn’t change during his final sermon as the congregation’s pastor. In fact, Hunt’s first appearance at the service wasn’t on stage, but in the baptismal pool above the choir. There, he baptized five of the six individuals taking part, including a mother and her young son, both of whom Hunt had prayed with as they received Christ last week in his office.
“One of the greatest privileges of my life is to have been the pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock the last 33 years,” said Hunt, standing on the stage later. “But I balanced the privilege with the responsibility that in Acts 20:28 … the Bible says I am to shepherd the church of God that He purchased with His blood.
“Privilege balances responsibility when you realize the price that God paid for you to be part of the body of Christ. I pray that I always take that seriously.”
Welcome and honors
In late August 2018 Hunt announced to First Baptist there would be an upcoming time of transition to a new pastor as he felt led to accept the position as senior vice president of mobilization and evangelism at the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Soon, his successor was named – Jeremy Morton, who at the time was pastor of Cartersville First Baptist Church in neighboring Bartow County. Since then, the two have served as co-pastors at the church of nearly 19,000 members, according to the 2018 Annual Church Profile.
Following Sunday’s final sermon from Hunt as pastor, next week will bring a day of celebration. On Dec. 8, several guests – including Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, and longtime friend and evangelist Junior Hill – will join Morton and others to honor Hunt for his service. A public reception will take place from 2-5 p.m.
Prior to Hunt’s message, Morton thanked him for his mentorship, and Woodstock Mayor Donnie Henriques presented Hunt with a key to the city. It was the thankful words of Janet Hunt, though, that particularly caught the crowd’s attention.
“You, the congregation, make this a wonderful church, one that any pastor would be honored to minister with,” said the one affectionately known as “Miss Janet.”
At the onset of her address, she made it clear it wasn’t a “farewell” address, but one of “thank you.” She thanked the congregation for supporting her in ministry and especially for their support of her daughters.
“So many of you have poured into their lives during these years,” Janet Hunt said. “Sunday school, youth group, youth camp … all have helped my girls to always look forward to church and church activities and not hold resentment toward the church in any way. For that, I am thankful.”
Knowing a pastor vs. knowing the King
“A farewell is used to express good wishes in parting,” Johnny Hunt said in beginning his message out of Acts 20:17-24, a farewell by Paul to the Ephesian church prior to his journey to Jerusalem and subsequent martyrdom.
In pondering his own “farewell” to First Baptist, Hunt admitted he’s been introspective on his time there, but eager for what is to come. “I’m extremely excited for … my church and my pastor, First Baptist Woodstock and Pastor Jeremy,” he said.
Morton made it clear that while it was Hunt’s last sermon as pastor, he would certainly return in the future not only as a guest preacher but in roles such as leading the Johnny Hunt Men’s Conference.
Hunt spoke to the challenges of serving as pastor of a church the size of First Woodstock.
“It’s hard to get to know everyone,” he said. “There’s so many of you. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we look forward to eternity, because we will have forever to get to know each other. And to be honest with you, it will take forever to get to know this large of a congregation.
“In my early days when the church began to explode people would say stuff like, ‘I’d never want to be in a church so big. The pastor can’t even get to know all the people.’
“I want you to hear something that has never changed and is a theological truth in my heart. Jesus did not send me here for you to get to know me or for me to get to know you. Jesus sent me here to make sure that before you check out, you get to know Him.”
The clarity of the call
Minutes later Hunt would reiterate that stance he established 33 years ago, citing the apostle Paul’s own devotion to sharing the news of Christ.
“If the man who’s the most prolific writer of the New Testament … is willing to die to get this message to us, God forbid we not preach the message he died for and be true to the gospel! It is not my message! It is His message, and I am just a messenger.
“Workers die. God’s work will never die, so keep your focus on the work instead of the worker!”
“Pastor Johnny” recounted his time as a pastor before coming to Woodstock. Most notably, he talked about a church in Texas that seemed like a natural fit, but he and the church didn’t feel God was in the calling. His time meeting with leaders at First Woodstock appeared to be going the same way.
Staying at the Woodstock Days Inn while visiting First Baptist, he went to bed thinking God wasn’t calling him there, either.
“I told Janet before we went to bed to call her parents and say we’re not going [to First Woodstock]. These are nice people, but God’s not in it.”
But, he said, God gave him a verse out of Proverbs 6.
“He said, ‘I will give you conversation in the morning,'” Hunt recalled. “When I woke up, the conversation was this: ‘You’re the pastor.'”
Before Hunt relayed the message, his wife confirmed the calling. So did his in-laws before he could say a word over the phone.
“The staying power of being at Woodstock for 33 years is the clarity of my call,” he said. “I know that God called me here.”
Over the years, larger ministries had talked to Hunt about leaving Woodstock, but that connection to his church was one he couldn’t break, he said.
“The only reason I could say ‘no’ was I could never get away from the clarity of my calling.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Scott Barkley is editor of The Christian Index, news journal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.)