OLBC Pastor Rev. Etsel Riddle
BERLIN/HOLLY POND - In the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated East Cullman Baptist Association, there are 53 churches. Among the smallest is a tiny little congregation between Berlin and Holly Pond called Oak Level Baptist Church (OLBC). If you saw the statistics before you walked through the door, though, you would swear this church was much bigger.
The church was established in 1913, across from Oak Level School (which closed in 1932) on what is now County Road 1635. Several plaques and certificates around the building celebrate its 75th and 100th anniversaries. OLBC was never a large congregation, and today it suffers like so many other community churches in the shadow of the megachurch movement. There are currently no children and only two youth. Its active membership numbers only 25, and the vast majority are older than 50. But let's look at a few more numbers.
In many churches, seeing half the membership present on a Sunday morning would be considered an achievement. At OLBC it would be viewed as a disaster, since an average Sunday at this 25-member church sees 23 in attendance at worship. Not many other churches will boast a 92 percent attendance rate.
And then there are the offerings. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) sponsors two annual missions offerings, for international missions at Christmas and for mission work in North America at Easter. Additionally, the Alabama State Board of Missions and local associations do their own offering emphases for local missions.
OLBC has a habit of giving above and beyond its numbers to support these missionary endeavors. It has received awards from both SBC mission boards for being one of the top contributing churches in this area. A small congregation obviously can't contribute tons of money, but when the offering amounts are compared to the number of members in a particular church (known as "per capita giving"), OLBC becomes quite impressive.
According to Pastor Etsel Riddle, last year's international mission offering goal for the church was $1,650, more than $60 per member--a worthy goal. The actual total, though, reached nearly $2,400; more than $90 per member.
"That's not bad," Riddle said, "for a congregation that's mostly old and retired!"
This year's offering started with the same goal, and has already exceeded last year's total with another week to go. OLBC will finish the year with an international missions offering of more than $100 per member.
And this is just the international missions offering. In 2015, OLBC was the No. 1 per capita contributor to North American missions in the East Cullman Baptist Association. It's a smaller offering across the SBC, and OLBC's goal was $1,000, which the members substantially exceeded.
The church also supports other ministries and programs, including:
- Appalachian backpack ministry - more than $500 given last year to provide food and hygiene products to children in impoverished areas of southern Appalachia.
- Baby blankets for a ministry supporting teen mothers
- Its own benevolence ministry - Riddle said, "We usually would help people with the light bill or things of that nature, if it's not too excessive. We can't pay everybody's in Cullman County, but we can help some."
- Oak Level Cemetery - According to Riddle, "The cemetery actually belongs to the church, but it also belongs to the community of Oak Level. We support it, and we have been trying to make it a perpetual care. We have several thousand dollars in the Baptist Foundation, and receive a check from them every year to help keep it up."
If all the offerings were added up, they would total around $200 per member per year, in addition to their regular offerings for the support of OLBC.
Why do they do it? Riddle answered, "I think the thing that drives us mostly is the fact that our church, although they're not physically able to get out and do evangelism, they can pray and they can give. The people are just mission-minded. They can't go, but they can give; and so, they're very, very generous."
When offered the last word to tell us what Cullman County needs to know about Oak Level, Riddle concluded, "The church is a very, very loving congregation. We're old enough that we don't have the energy nor the eyesight to get out at night and do visitation, but if a person comes in, we make them feel like they're part of the family. That's kind of unique for an older congregation. Usually an older congregation, as my grandfather would say, 'We're set in our ways.' That's not true here. If anybody needs a loving congregation, come see us, because we'd love to have you. We're not large, not in number; but we're large in heart."
You can find Oak Level at 1272 County Road 1635, Cullman, AL 35058.
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