By TONY REID - H&R Staff Writer
"And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." - Mark, 16:15.
DECATUR - In this, the year of our Lord 2009, all the world comes to you.
The Rev. Jerry Shirley, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Decatur, makes a few mouse clicks and opens a portal that allows him to go forth into cyberspace and preach the Gospel. And, going one better than even the chosen disciples touched with the Holy Spirit could manage 2,000 years ago, all the world now e-mails Shirley right back.
"I rejoice over the fact that you dare to stand for the truth, without any compromise. Not many in our times do so. I enjoy your sermons very much and praise God for your ministry," writes "Pastor Sam" in India.
"Have you ever visited India? Please do think and pray about the possibilities of your visiting India ... I humbly request you to pray about your sermons being translated and printed in Hindi and other Indian languages. I count your messages as treasure that needs to be exposed to the masses."
The masses are in fact already getting plenty of exposure because Shirley's sermons are read all over the planet by tens of thousands of people and quite possibly millions of them. Posted on the Internet, his Baptist brand of fire and witty writing is pulling in lots of readers, many of them pastors who want to use his material in their own sermons and, in some cases, just want to preach his sermons wholesale.
It all started humbly enough five years ago, when Shirley began posting sermons online in both audio versions and a text version for the deaf. The idea was to reach members of the church's own congregation, now 200 strong, who missed the service. The pastor, who is pretty tech savvy, enhanced everything with PowerPoint slides and soon noticed he was attracting the attention of an audience far beyond his own pews.
"Within just a few months, I began hearing from a large number of sermon seekers worldwide who said, 'This is great. Do you have more?' " said Shirley, 38, who came to Grace Baptist in 2001. "How were they finding my stuff? I guess they were Googling sermons or PowerPoints or probably just punched in 'Baptist sermons.' I was getting e-mails from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, Australia, from all around the world."
Here is a bit of the sermonizing that got Shirley noticed. In this wide-ranging piece themed on Halloween, he urges the faithful to be alive in the Lord, and not "spiritual corpses." He says they should be "thermostats, not thermometers," because thermostats are proactive and set the temperature around them, whereas thermometers are passive registers of what's already going on.
"That's right, you will affect those around you," Shirley preached. "So, if you've been born again, and the breath-like Spirit of God has entered your bones and resurrected your spiritual corpse � please notify your face � say 'Amen' sometimes � sing out � raise a hand to the Lord.
"Don't let others around you drag you down � set the temperature and pick up those nearby. And make sure it's real, not just 'put on' � Turn the Spirit loose � don't just sit there like dry bones!"
And they're not just sitting there, either. Six months after his gbcdecatur.org Web site was launched, he had 300 subscribers. Now he's got 4,000 worldwide who get weekly updates and "tens of thousands more" who drop in periodically to see what he's been talking about. "Some 20,000 sermons are being downloaded every week," said Shirley, who looks a little taken aback by his popularity.
"That would be an unbelievable thing to me, if I didn't see it with my own eyes."
But it gets more unbelievable, as God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. One of those wonders turns out to be a California-based Web site called sermoncentral.com where the Decatur pastor has been posting sermons since 2003.
Think of sermoncentral.com as a giant clearinghouse of sermons sent in by pastors all over the world. It's free, although it offers some more sophisticated services for which there is a small charge, but basically it forms a free repository of half a million pages of Bible commentary on just about every subject under the sun. To give an idea of its traffic, the site has had 7.8 million visitors since 2006 from 232 of the 238 countries recognized by Google.
Out of 19,000 contributors ranked in popularity by the amount of times their sermons get looked at, Shirley consistently hits the top bracket and currently is ranked in the No. 2 spot. His statistics are staggering: the 496 sermons he has posted to sermoncentral.com have received more than 264,000 multiple page views so far.
"That represents two football stadiums full of people coming to his words," said Ron Forseth, the general editor of sermoncentral.com. "And when you think about the pastors utilizing Jerry's materials and preaching to their congregations, you are talking millions of people being reached."
Why is Shirley so popular? "I think he is very clear in his preaching and very committed to the Bible," Forseth said. "There is just a lot of energy in his participation in our community, and people have discovered that."
Sermoncentral.com wants pastors to use contributors such as Shirley as a resource but not to simply take his work and recycle it as their own. It even asks visiting pastors to sign the "Preacher's Pledge" which commits them to using "Web sites to enhance, not replace, my personal interaction with Scripture."
Shirley feels the same way. The pastor said his bubbling Web attention has brought him lucrative offers to become a fisher of men elsewhere, but he prefers to continue casting his nets in Decatur, rather than head to some bigger church where someone else already has done the groundwork.
"The Bible says not to build on another man's foundation," he said. "And I feel called to actually help make it happen here rather than go somewhere where it's already been made to happen."
Shirley and wife Kimberly arrived here eight years ago from Missouri, where he had helped develop a church from 200 to 600 in two years and said he was voted in by 30 people at Grace Baptist "who could barely keep the lights on" and were considering selling the building.
Growth has been a lot slower than he would like, Shirley saying his brand of Independent Baptist faith is a little harder sell in an area keener on more charismatic, more progressive preaching.
And yet he's happy to keep plugging away locally to win small victories, convinced that is what God wants him to do. But while he's preaching to his typical congregation of 150 or so on Sunday, he can't help but think of that vast army of souls awaiting his words far beyond the sanctuary walls.
"It's obvious that God is in what is going on here," he said. "And it's not my message that's being heard, it's God's message, and I'm just honored my words are being used."