PLAINS, Ga. — In many regards, a recent Sunday was a pretty good day for Maranatha Baptist Church.

More than 50 worshipers sat through the 11 a.m. services at the tiny church made famous by its most famous member, Jimmy Carter.

That is about twice as many people as the church usually attracts on Sunday. With the recent news of the former president’s deteriorating health, the church — and the small rural town — has seen an uptick in traffic.

But the question that worries many of the church’s long-term members: What’s next?

Plains, with only about 575 residents, is getting smaller and older. The people who live here have 11 churches in town to choose from, including Maranatha.

The Rev. Tony Lowden, who came to Maranatha in 2019 as its first Black pastor, quietly left in October of 2021. Since then, as was the case Sunday, services have been conducted by a rotating collection of visiting preachers.

Back to the question of the future, long-time church member Jane Williams, who plays piano and answers the phone, said it was too difficult to answer.

“We feel like we were a mission field and we still can be a mission field,” Williams said. “You wish you could see more people in the sanctuary and more people to help do the jobs. I pray hard for my church every day. I really do.”

Williams said that there are fewer than 30 people who come to church every Sunday. There are more people on the church rolls, “but we haven’t seen some of them in probably 30-40 years,” she added.

If anything, Maranatha is efficient. Sunday School started exactly at 10 a.m., church at 11 a.m., and everyone was walking out of the door by noon.

Carter’s niece Kim Fuller taught Sunday School, occasionally evoking the name of her uncle, and calling on students by names for brisk biblical and theological discussions.

She acknowledged that the throngs of media who had come to town in the past week were there to “plant seeds,” and to honor Carter, “because one day he is gonna meet Christ. He knows it and our hearts are heavy. But his isn’t.”

The roots of Maranatha date back to when several members of the church split from Plains Baptist Church in 1977.

In 1976, the same year Carter was elected president, Plains Baptist voted against allowing Black people to join the church. A handful of families left to form the Maranatha congregation to be more inclusive.

During his presidency, Carter would attend Sunday school at Plains Baptist and worship at Maranatha. In 1981, after he was out of office, he switched his membership to Maranatha.

For many years, Carter regularly taught Sunday School at the church, attracting up to 400 people who would line up overnight to get a seat, then wait until after the service to get a photo with Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

The Carters were also on a regular rotation of members who kept the church clean.

Because of his long affiliation with the church, the former president has long designated it as the local church that would conduct his funeral services, following ceremonies in Atlanta and Washington D.C.

Who would conduct the service is still up in the air. Everyone affiliated with the church noted that the biggest obstacle they have is finding a permanent pastor.

“Right now we are having trouble finding a pastor because there are not many pastors out there,” said church deacon L.E. “Boze” Godwin III, who is also the town’s long-time mayor. “It will be difficult if we don’t find a good leader.”

Williams said that the search is “very slow,” although a few prospects have come to look at the church.

“We can’t even find an interim pastor,” Williams said. “They are just not out there.”

Pastors want to come to big congregations with staff and assistant pastors. Maranatha doesn’t have that.

Whenever someone moves into Plains, members of the church invite them to join, but so do all of the other churches in the area.

After the Rev. Jake Revell, who was visiting from Americus, finished his sermon Sunday, church members streamed out into the recently repaved parking lot. They greeted and hugged visitors eager to tell them how far they had come to worship there and honor Carter, including one man from Germany.

Brenda Smith, 74, and her brother drove the three hours to Plains from Southwest Atlanta. As a high school student, Smith was a Capitol page when Carter was governor and got to meet him once.

“He has always been the kind of man that stood on such great principles. You could tell that he is a Christian man and raised in a Christian church,” said Smith, her eyes welling with tears. “That is why I wanted to be here, so I could be in his aura, while he is still on this side of heaven.”

Williams, with her purse on her shoulder, said her goodbyes and looked out over the parking lot at the cars, including three Sumter County Sherriff’s cars there to control the traffic and possible crowds.

“I have a fear that it is gonna be a while before we could ever increase our membership,” said the 73-year-old Williams before a long pause. “I don’t know if I will ever see that happen.”