Big Job, Little Me, Great God

Tuesday evening, one of our television news programs which conducts an internet poll each week on topics of local interest announced the results of their latest question: “Are you thinking of moving away from this area?” Of the 2,000 people who responded, 60 percent said “Yes” and 40 percent “No.”

From time to time, I hear pastors say their key leaders are moving away. One sat in my office earlier this week and said his church was about to lose a number of veteran leaders.

Then, Wednesday morning’s Times-Picayune reported a University of New Orleans survey which found that one-third of the population of both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes are considering leaving over the next two years. Professor Susan Howell was surprised at this finding, she says, because the people who were called were the very ones you would expect to stay. The phone survey used land lines, which ruled out cell phones which are the life-lines, so to speak, of residents in FEMA trailers.

How does that line go? “I feel like all the ships are deserting a sinking rat.”

There is plenty of good news from our churches, although it seems to be mixed in with less welcome news.

Dennis Watson, pastor of Metairie’s Celebration Church, told me this week that November is normally a “down” month for them, but they have averaged over 1700 in their weekend services, and are running 50 percent of that in their cell groups. All their activities are currently being held on the Transcontinental campus, formerly the Crescent City Baptist Church. Their Katrina-devastated Airline Drive campus has a long way to go before being usable again.

Parking and seating for their several services each weekend at Celebration-Transcontinental is a nightmare, Dennis says. This led him to do something which every pastor has dreamed of doing but only one in a hundred ever attempts. He told his people, “If you aren’t interested in getting involved in service and ministry through our church, please find another church because we need your seat and your parking space.” He thinks a few took him up on it.

His call to involvement sounds a lot like our Lord who told His followers, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

So what’s the downside of Celebration’s news? They anticipate that bringing the Airline Drive worship facility up to speed is going to cost $5 million. Pastor Dennis says, “We’ve already raised $2 million for rebuilding (above the $3 million we’ve raised for disaster recovery), but we had to spend $1 million of that on the rebuild of our Transcontinental campus.” They have commitments from two agencies for up to $2 million, which leaves them having to come up with $2 million. The question is how to go about coming up with that much money?

For one thing, Celebration has a number of partnering churches that have been committed to them from the beginning. Their leaders see the vision Pastor Dennis Watson has for reaching the unchurched of this area, and want to help make it a reality. Beyond the help these churches can give, the remainder will be up to the members of Celebration. They will be launching a capital funds campaign this Spring.

As if these were not challenges enough, Celebration has adopted the Woodland Baptist Mission in LaPlace and taken responsibility for beginning a new church in St. Bernard Parish on the site of what was the First Baptist Church of Arabi. Craig Ratliff reported at Wednesday’s pastors meeting that the new Arabi building is going up rapidly. All of this will require a great deal of funding and strong visionary leadership.

I keep thinking about a message I received on the internet last night. “I’m 19 years old,” the young man wrote, “and am headed to Bible college this January to become a minister.” He told how he was surfing the net looking for ministry sites and found mine. At, he clicked on the right side where I’ve written to pastors, specifically “what you’re going to be needing” to make it in the ministry.

The young man said, “I was struck by a paragraph from one of your articles. I’ve printed it out and plan to laminate it and carry in my billfold for the rest of my life.”

Under the article, “You’re going to be needing the Holy Spirit,” this caught his attention:

“If I could say one thing to every young pastor in the land, it would be this: you don’t have what it takes to be a pastor. You’re not smart enough, strong enough, mature enough, patient enough, wise enough, godly enough, or gifted enough. The job is too much for you. The only way you’re going to have any success at all is by throwing yourself on the Lord in total dependence.”

Now, having written that over two years ago, I had to go back and re-read it. The paragraph immediately following that one reads: “Fortunately, that’s His plan. That is precisely how God intends His people to be shepherded. That’s why He has made His Holy Spirit available to us.”

Thank you, James, for that gift.

We write these things and post them on the web without a clue whether anyone will ever read them, or rarely knowing if they make a difference in anyone’s life.

In one of his books, John Piper writes something to the effect that, “Books do not change lives; paragraphs do. Sometimes a single sentence is used of God to speak to us, or even a word.”

Pastor Dennis Watson is at a demanding point in his ministry which has already seen a lifetime of mostly-highs and one huge Katrina-low over the last few months and years. He will give Celebration the leadership it is going to require not in his own strength, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. Fortunately, no one knows that better than he.

Our Wednesday morning pastors’ meeting gathered for the first time since Katrina in our Baptist Center, the meeting room next door to our associational offices. I made no attempt to count those attending–a few always come and go at these meetings–but there seemed to be 30 or 35. Dr. Jean White of the North American Mission Board came for the first time, with Larry Miguez of the Rachel Sims Center.

The emphasis was on fellowship today. Our “new” policy, now that we’re meeting at “my” house, in a manner of speaking, is that we will have snacks each week except for the first Wednesday when we will combine our meeting with a monthly “Executive Committee” meeting of the association and serve lunch, too. The seating arrangement is round tables, six seats per, with room for perhaps a hundred. Ideal for visiting and praying in small groups.

I’ve invited two or three of the pastors to e-mail me with more details about the good things happening in their churches so I could post them here.

After we ended, no one left, but stood around for nearly an hour visiting with each other, praying together, laughing, enjoying fellowship.

“They’re meeting at John McDonogh School tonight,” an African-American pastor said, “to discuss the housing projects.” A group demanding that our locked-down and sad-beyond-description housing developments be re-opened because “New Orleans needs housing and there are thousands of apartments ready for use” has a lawsuit before the courts now that would halt plans to tear down these old buildings and replace them with multi-income modern housing.

I said to that pastor and another he had been chatting with, both of whom I know to be heavily involved in and committed to inner city ministry, “Which side are you on?” They looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, “We want those projects down. They were nothing in the world but breeding grounds for crime and misery.”

I said, “Good. That’s exactly how I feel, but I can’t say that publicly. I live in River Ridge. You can say that.” They laughed together and said almost in unison, “We can’t say it either! They’ll beat us up, too!”

We stood there for 10 minutes as they described what it was like serving as drug counselors, project chaplains, and employment consultants in the projects in the 1990s when Marc Morial ran City Hall. One said, “I found three kinds of people in the projects. One group was highly motivated to work and take care of their families. The second group needed a little nudge to get them out looking for a job. And the third group you had to drive over and pick them up and take to their jobs!”

The other said, “The government wanted the people to have their G.E.D.s. And employers wanted them to be able to function on a ninth grade level before they would hire them. But many of them read and wrote and figured on a first or second grade level, and bringing them up to the ninth grade in a few weeks was literally impossible.”

I found myself wishing we could get them to have this very same discussion in front of all our pastors. Not only would it be educational for us, but the respect of everyone for these two front-line warriors would go through the roof. Thank you, Kemp Johnson and Thomas Glover.

Warren Jones of New Salem Church in the Upper Ninth Ward said, “People are moving back into our area. And believe me, anyone who rebuilds and moves in down where we live is not planning on moving away. They’re here to stay.” Several other pastors agreed with him.

We will meet at the Baptist Center (2222 Lakeshore Drive, New Orleans) on Wednesday, December 6 and 13, then break for the Christmas holidays. We’re urging all our ministers (not just senior pastors) to get their reservations in for themselves and their spouses for the Christmas Dinner to be held Tuesday, December 12, at 6:30 pm at the Ormond Plantation on River Road in Destrehan. Call the associational office (504/282-1428) for reservations, details, and child care information.

2 thoughts on “Big Job, Little Me, Great God

  1. Joe, tears of joy fill my eyes as I think of the surrender that many of you in New Orleans have made to the only One Who can establish the city anew. I praise Him and thank Him for you, and I pray that He may send you laborers for the great and ready harvest He has given. It may be that God will use you men to show the rest of the country what we must do if we are again to be a great nation.

  2. To all of God’s people who have had the courage to obey His call and stick it out on one of the most challenging mission fields in history, I commend you. You put the rest of us to shame. I can almost hear ‘the cloud of witnesses’ applauding and cheering you on. You are the modern day heros of our faith.

    Thank you, Joe, for the running record that encourages to continue to run the race.

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