DECATUR - The wait is finally over.
On Sunday, the Rev. Wes Feltner preached his first sermon as senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church.
And Feltner, at age 30, may yet be among one of the youngest ministers to serve at the church, which has more than 1,200 members.
It is also Feltner's first full-time position as a senior pastor of a church.
At first, Feltner's youthfulness was a concern for some members.
"I think until I interacted with the members, age became less of an issue," Feltner said while getting settled in to his office at the $6 million church facility built six years ago.
"I may not have all the answers, but having been in the ministry for 12 years, a lot of men my age are just now getting out of seminary with no experience," he said.
Feltner's Southern Baptist roots reach back to the little town of Big Rock, Tenn., which has a population of about 1,600 people. He said he was always active in his hometown church, and people were always encouraging him to go into the ministry.
"I struggled with that, not knowing if it was just the sweet old ladies at my church telling me or something God was calling me to do," he said.
Feltner's involvement with a camp run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during his senior year of high school turned out to be the defining moment in his life, the one that steered him into the ministry.
While attending Murray State University in Kentucky, he worked as a pastor for student services. He did the same thing after transferring to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
He has completed his master's of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and he is close to finishing his dissertation in hopes of earning a doctorate in leadership and church ministry by May.
Feltner and his wife, Stephanie, have a 2-year-old son named Caleb and welcomed a baby daughter, Audrey, on July 17.
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Shonda Reoles and husband, John, who had not been attending Tabernacle for a while, decided to come and hear the new pastor preach his first sermon.
"He seems to be biblically based, and that's important," Shonda Reoles said. "And he'll bring a lot of youth to the church."
Kylie Meador, 17, is part of the youth group at Tabernacle. "I think it's going to be good for our youth group having the new pastor here. We're all excited that he is going to be involved."
Feltner talked about his responsibilities during the more contemporary worship service at 11 a.m.
"Bible-centered teaching is becoming less and less," he told the congregation, "and I desperately want to reach this community with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I'm not for gimmick and seeing everyone gets entertained. I care more about your soul rather than if you care if I'm a good preacher."
He added: "I will take it seriously to stand before you every week with something to say."
The former long-time pastor of Tabernacle, Pat Pajak, said there is a growing new trend of younger pastors who want to grow the church without compromising the Bible, and they go about it by different methods.
Last year, Pajak took over as associate director of the church's strengthening team for the Illinois State Association of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"The days of the old-line denomination loyalty are probably passing us by," he said. "So many of our young pastors are graduating seminary and don't see the connection to the Southern Baptist Convention; they see it as the same old-fashioned church and feel disconnected."
Pajak quoted Jim Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention: "The message is from God, and the method is from man. The message never changes, but the method always can."
"The church is going to discover that Rev. Feltner is from that venue," Pajak said. "He is a young married father who is going to gear in on young married couples. And I've only met him once, but I think he is a gifted speaker and will do well. I hope Tabernacle will give him every opportunity."
Feltner said he was serious about being faithful to the text and isn't coming to Tabernacle with any set plans to change things.
"I do hope that we can be a church of evangelism and missions and continue to be a highly visible church in the community - that it becomes a church with a global vision with short-term international trips, whether we are doing service projects like building a house in Mexico or working at an orphanage in the Ukraine," Feltner said.
"In the book of Revelation, it says you will see all people gathered around the throne of God."