When God Takes Over
The first Sunday I was at Abilene Baptist Church as Pastor was on January 18, 1981. It was the beginning of a long journey which lasted thirty-one and one-half years. For me to catalog all that happened in those wonderful years would be an impossibility but one event stands out in my mind as an evidence of the presence and power of God's Holy Spirit.
The years between January 18, 1981 and February 1986 were filled with joy and also frustration. But, on the whole, they were good years worthy to be remembered. However, by 1986 I was totally wrung out and depressed by the fact that there seemed to be no spiritual vitality and energy in our people. No matter how hard I preached well prepared expository sermons nothing seemed to matter to them. Each Sunday it seemed that I was preaching to a church full of stumps. No communication. Dead. I was preaching some good well researched and studied sermons. I knew that the problem was not the sermonic material or even the environment. All seemed to be normal except that there was nothing happening spiritually. I don't think that I could have gotten someone to come forward for any kind of reason even I had been giving out one-hundred dollar bills to anyone who would come. Now, I am fully aware that someone coming forward making a decision is not always the measure of God's movement. But, there was a total lack of spiritual energy in the room during those days. This situation went on for several weeks and I was wondering just what it was that was killing the services.
One day, while raking some leaves and burning them in my back yard, I prayed a prayer in which I said: "God, if this is all that there is to it then why don't you just take me on to be with you. But, if I wake up in the morning, I am going to assume that you have something better for me and that you have a plan for the ministry that you have given to me." Well, I woke up.
A few weeks before, I, and a preacher friend of mine, had made plans to go to a Bailey Smith Bible Conference at Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, GA. Brother Bailey had put together a wonderful program of the very best preachers in the SBC along with a stellar music program. I really needed to go to that conference. I was so spiritually dry that I couldn't even spit. Dust would have come out. Readers Digest was more fulfilling to me that the Bible at that point. We have all been there and it ain't no fun! Just before the leaf burning event in my back yard, I had decided that going to that conference was too much trouble and that I was going to cancel my hotel reservations. As it turned out, I did not do that but, to keep from disappointing my preacher friend, I determined to go ahead. God wanted me in that meeting and I almost missed it.
On the main evening of the conference I was sitting in the balcony which flows down on each side to the level of the platform. We were seated about half way up that slanted side of the balcony on the left side. We heard Bill Stafford, one of my favorite preachers. Then we heard Charles Stanley from First Baptist Atlanta and also a favorite of many people. Mixed in between preachers, the Eastside Baptist Choir and Orchestra presented some heavenly music with the main number being the premier performance of "All Rise" by Babbie Mason. It was glorious. Several times the chorus was sung because the crowd wouldn't move on from it. Each time it was more glorious than the time before. A good-ole-boy preacher from North Carolina who was sitting on the main floor began shouting and running the aisles. Others shouted with him. Someone else joined him in "running the aisles"all over the church. All this while Babbie Mason was singing the "All Rise" chorus for about the fifth time. The atmosphere grew electric. Something was happening in that room that no one expected. All of a sudden I realized that something was happening to me that was not expected either. You see, when I sat down in that service, I had said: "All right, bless me if you can." "I need it, but I don't think you can." But, something began to happen. All of a sudden I realized my hands were in the air. Me. Bill Harrell....hands in the air!! Something was really happening! People were shouting. Many were crying. I was crying. Never suspected this. I felt clean. I felt washed out from the inside. I had a personal revival and recommitment of my life to Him and the ministry He entrusted to me.
Well, the service went on for a good long while, but no one wanted it to end. We could have stayed much longer. I can honestly say that I had heard about such things happening but I had never been a part of one. I had been in many, many very good worship services but never one like this! Sunday came. I was preaching through the book of Hebrews and had done a lot of word study and sermonizing on a particular passage. When I stood to preach that morning, I was thinking that the people were going to love what I had prepared. Room full of stumps! Right after I finished the introduction and was in the middle of the first point of the sermon, the Lord spoke to me very plainly. I was standing on the left side of the pulpit with my right hand on the corner of it when the Lord said: "Bill, put that sermon down and tell these people what happened to you!" So, I immediately said: "Folks, the Lord has just told me to put this sermon down and tell you what happened to me this week." So, I began by telling them about my dryness. I next recounted my prayer at the trash fire in my back yard. I then gave a blow by blow description of what happened in the meeting in Roswell Street Church and how the Spirit moved in the people and especially in me. I spoke of the fact that I felt clean on the inside like I had been washed out with a fire hose, and I ended the message ninety minutes later with an invitation as usual but it turned out to be anything but usual! No one could have predicted what would happen! Twenty nine people responded with nineteen of them being for salvation. The others moved a letter to be a part of Abilene. We left church that day at nearly two o'clock. No one complained. Everyone was happy. That same kind of spirit that we experienced in Marietta invaded out church without my doing anything but obeying the Lord. That evening there was a large crowd at the worship service. Things were obviously different. It can't be explained. Things seemed to be washed clean. When the invitation was given nineteen people responded with twelve of them coming on profession of faith. This kind of activity continued for about two and one-half years before it began to subside somewhat. During that span of time, one never knew what was going to happen or how many people would respond. The word quickly got around Augusta that something supernatural was going on at Abilene. The news travelled like lightning by word of mouth and many people came to see just what was happening. It was a delightful and frightful time to some degree. There was a Godly fear that fell in our midst which made us aware of the fact that God was present and that He was the one to be worshipped and satisfied.
Abilene grew rapidly during those days but it was not due to me as the pastor or any other thing that man could do by himself. It was because God did a sovereign work among us. He fell in our midst because He wanted to. But, he did use the revival of the pastor in a meeting in Marietta to be the catalyst in getting it all started. People still refer to "the turnaround sermon." It certainly was a turnaround and it was the crucial point at which God began to do a marvelous work among us. It also launched me into a new dimension of being a pastor and it was the main event which ultimately led me into a ministry at Abilene which lasted thirty one and one-half years.
William F. Harrell