Changing Times

The paper says residents of the Lakeview section of New Orleans fear “mansionization.” As flooded, ruined homes are demolished, some people are buying up two or three adjacent lots and building large estates on the property. In most cases, homeowners would welcome that in their neighborhoods. All it does is skyrocket the values of existing homes. Problem is, say the Lakeviewers, the character of our beloved neighborhood would be changed. We want the casual middle-class neighborliness we had before.

And down in St. Bernard Parish, authorities are still trying to keep homeowners from renting to anyone except family members. We don’t want to lose the identity of our neighborhoods, they say. They fear outsiders buying up large sections of the city, then renting out to whoever.

Change is difficult, particularly change that involves our homes and the surrounding community. And our churches.

Every church in metro New Orleans is in the midst of monumental change. Some are embracing the change, some are fighting it, some denying it and some sleeping through it. To paraphrase II Corinthians 5:17 slightly and use it out of context completely, “Old things have passed away and everything is becoming new.” Churches are losing pastors, staffs, key leadership, Sunday School teachers, and financial supporters as they decide to move closer to family or relocate for their jobs or simply get out of Dodge.

Meanwhile, their communities are being transformed as longtime residents move away and outsiders flow in, many of them speaking Spanish or Asian tongues. New pastors are arriving, bringing new ideas and new perspectives on our situation.

There has never been a time or place when the Lord’s teachings on new wine/new wineskins were more applicable than here and now.

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out and the skins be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” (Luke 5:37-38)

Our Lord was explaining why the new thing the Holy Spirit was accomplishing through Him at that time would require new methods, new leadership, new everything. It would not be grafted onto the Judaism of that day, to the consternation of a lot of tradition-lovers and history-worshipers. Even if we did not have the Scriptures to tell what happened, human nature would assure us that the break with the old did not occur without a lot of pain and hardship.

Jesus knew this about human nature. He said: “No one, after drinking old wine wishes for new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough.'” (5:39)

I don’t recommend it, but you could paint those words, “The old is good enough,” across the front doors of thousands of churches across America. The leaders and members love the past so much–the glorious 50s, the exciting 60s, the whatever 70s–that they are hell-bent, pardon the expression, on recapturing them. Any hymn or gospel song written later that 1975 is rejected, any program not sanctioned by many years of practice is unwelcome, and any leader who does not understand this is doomed. The pastors must conform to unwritten, but unanimous, rules of dress and decorum, sermons and styles.

“Tell your people this little story,” I urge our pastors. “It will help them understand why we must change.”

Before Chuck Kelley became president of our seminary, he crossed America leading church conferences on how to reach the young adults then called variously “generation X” or “baby busters.” On one occasion, he was addressing a congregation of white-headed members. (My age, my hair color, my same resistance to the new.) As he spoke of the changes necessary to reach this group, he could see his audience closing down–folding their arms, closing their notebooks, staring out the windows, erecting inner barricades. So Chuck stopped.

“Let me take a little poll here,” he said. “How many of you have grown children who live away from home?” Almost every hand in the place went up. “Now, how many of you worry about them not going to church? And you grieve for their children who are growing up without knowing about the Lord Jesus Christ?” Hands everywhere. “How many of you would love for the churches in their area to reach them?”

Suddenly lights began to go on behind their eyes. Ooooh. This is not about me. This is about my children and my grandchildren. Ooooh. I see now.

I will state categorically that I do not believe most of the people in our churches are dead or backslidden or cold-hearted or completely self-centered. I grant you that some can create a major ruckus over the selection of new hymns or choruses and new methodologies being introduced by a young pastoral staff. They have run off some pastors who tried to change too much too fast. The problem is these lay leaders simply forgot a few things.

They forgot whose church it was.

They forgot what the purpose of the church is.

They forgot who the church was created for.

They forgot their purpose in this world.

It isn’t your church. No matter who organized the group that founded your church, if it is a church of the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s His and not yours. So, give it back to Him. “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) No matter who contributed the money; presumably, you gave it to the Lord when you dropped it into the offering plate. So, it’s His and not yours.

The purpose of the church is to glorify God by serving the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s all about obedience and devotion. “Does this glorify Christ?” is a great question to ask before attempting anything.

The church was created by Him and for Him. His name, His reputation, His character are at stake here. God is so particular about who proclaims His word that only those He calls are privileged to fulfill this duty. Thee church is not about you. It’s about Jesus. Before any church endeavor, ask: “What will this tell the community about Jesus?”

Our purpose in the world is to do God’s will. And much of that has to do with bringing the gospel of Christ to the lost of the world. The prayer every pastor and every believer ought to pray throughout the day is simply, “What will you have me do?”

It helps a little to remember that almost everyone resists change in one way or the other. When I go home to see my folks, I do not want my mother to be experimenting with some recipe she picked up from Emeril Lagasse. I’ll take the same corn and peas and fried chicken, thank you.

A couple of generations ago, Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, put together a little volume on “The Ordeal of Change.” He told about the time during the Depression when he was picking peas with migrant workers in the vast fields of California. One day, the foreman called everyone together and announced that the next morning, they would be trucked to another field where they would be picking green beans. Hoffer says he lay awake all night wondering if he would be able to pick green beans.

Change is hard on everyone. But in most cases, you change or die. For Christians, we must never change our message. However, we must always be fine-tuning and adapting our methods. And if we don’t know the difference, we’re in a lot of trouble.

Sunday morning, Margaret and I visited with Pontchartrain Baptist Church at the intersection of Robert E. Lee Boulevard and the 17th Street Canal. This canal breached a day or so after Katrina, one block south of the church, and did unbelievable damage to every structure for miles around.

Pastor Jerry Smith has been hard at work for many months trying to get the church back in business. They’ve been meeting in homes, but today they met for the first time inside their sanctuary.

Several churches have assisted them in gutting out and rebuilding, but particularly Grace Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, the church that took Pastor Smith and his family in during their evacuation.

It’s a smaller sanctuary. They tore down the two-story block educational building that had stood alongside for many years. That building was erected before codes required pilings, and the shifting soil had caused the building to crack and twist. All Katrina did was force the issue.

Inside the sanctuary, they’ve reconfigured everything. The worship portion of the building is now crossways, with three rooms along the north and south sides, giving them classroom and nursery and office space.

Perhaps 25 people made it to worship today, almost all of them pre-Katrina members. We sat in a circle and the pastor preached from his chair. His text was the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17. He particularly emphasized how Jesus prayed for Himself, something we do not see Him doing anywhere else. In other places, His concern was that the Father be glorified. Here, He prays for Himself. He’s getting ready to go to the cross, Jerry said. “This is prep time.”

“We don’t look upon Katrina as the end,” Jerry Smith told the congregation. “It was the end for some churches, but not for us, thank the Lord. For us, it was a new beginning.”

“We’re going into our neighborhood and distributing these prayer cards, telling people that someone cares for them and is praying for them. We have a new neighborhood now.”

A new opportunity, new starting place. The board cleared off, the old things erased. Great opportunity, great challenge, huge responsibility.

We will appreciate your prayers for Pastor Jerry Smith and Pontchartrain Baptist Church of New Orleans.

I spoke Friday to a senior adult group at FBC of Deridder, some 4 and a half hours west of New Orleans. Among the group of a hundred or so was a New Orleans barber, Lonzell, and his wife. “We took them in when they evacuated from Katrina,” said senior adult pastor Doyle Cooper. Lonzell was sporting a beard down to his chest, and interestingly, told me he had been a barber on Loyola Street near the bus station. “But they’re ours now,” said a Deridderite. “They’re not moving back to New Orleans.”

Lots of that going on these days.

Tuesday morning early (October 31), I’m driving toward Lebanon, Missouri, for the annual Global Focus event at the First Baptist Church to be held Wednesday through Sunday. Other than their former interim pastor, my old buddy, Dr. Granville Watson of Southwest Baptist University, I don’t think I know a soul in that part of the world. However, I’ll still issue the invitation to attend, in case anyone reading this resides in that part of the world. My understanding is there will be several missionaries displaying photos and materials from their work. It ought to be a special time.

As always, we will appreciate the prayers for safety in travel and effectiveness in speaking.

2 thoughts on “Changing Times

  1. Dr. McKeever,

    I served with Ken Schroeder at First Baptist Church of Mandeville as Discipleship Pastor for 3 and 1/2 years. I worked alongside Freddie Arnold for a couple of those of years with Ridgecrest on the River. I am now in Ellisville, MO, which is in West St. Louis county, in the metro St. Louis area. I serve as Minister of Discipleship at First Baptist Church Ellisville.

    It was encouraging to read your post.

    I had only been to MO once, before September of last year. However, God was moving even bofore the storm, as the Pastor up here called me in early August of last year. However, all I heard were the words St. Louis, MO, and I said an affirmative NO!

    Nevertheless, God used the turmoil and tragedy of Katrina to get my attention…If asked a year and a half ago, I would have said I’ll probably never serve north of 1-20. However, God has been faithful, in spite of my faithlessness. He is so good.

    I faithfully remember you, the folks of N.O., the Northshore, and the folks on the MS Gulf Coast in my prayers!

    By the Way – While I was a refugee from the storm, I was with my sister in Columbus, MS. She is actively involved in FBC Columbus, I understood we just missed each other couple of times, the 2-3 weeks I was in Columbus.

    I pray God’s provisions for you and your special work in the Greater New Orleans area. Tell Freddie Arnold I said hi!


    Rich Smith

  2. I did a seach on my fathers church (Jerry Smith) and the words you said about him and the church we very touching. Just wanted to let you know that they are having there “homecoming” on april 1st. He was told he was a fool for rebuilding, so what better day to have the reopening on? Just letting people know. God Bless

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