Eye Problems and I-Problems.

I’m normally the optimist, but today’s attendance at the Wednesday pastors meeting was a good 30 or 35 more than I had expected. We counted 125 present. Not all were pastors, of course. In addition to the staff members whom we generally refer to as pastors also, a number of ministers’ wives were in attendance along with lay leaders and collegians who are serving our churches as summer missionaries. Host Joe Kay had to order more fried chicken for lunch.

“We have boxes of free books up here,” Joe Kay said. The front pew was lined with cartons filled to capacity with volumes to beef up pastors’ libraries. Later, Brantley, the manager of Lifeway Christian Stores, brought more boxes. When we broke up at 11:35, many of the pastors were loading themselves down with the gifts of books.

Mike Canady from the Louisiana Baptist Convention introduced the subject that brought everyone out today. “We’re talking about how to revitalize and rebuild our churches, and how to put in place strategies to reach people. It’s not enough to build a house or rebuild a church. This is about people, the people in your neighborhood.”

In essence, the LBC and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) are working with our association (BAGNO) to divide the metropolitan area into 27 zones, each with one or more Southern Baptist church. Soon, Mike Canady and Wayne Jenkins will meet with their counterparts in the other state conventions and offer churches, associations, and state conventions the opportunity to partner with one of our 27 zones. A large church might take a zone by itself; in some cases, an entire state may be assigned one zone. What happens then is up to the churches and pastors in that zone and the entity (church/association/convention) that takes responsibility for it. Whether the task is gutting out and rebuilding homes and churches, or doing ministry and evangelism in the neighborhoods, or a hundred other approaches, will be strictly up to the participating churches.

If it was mentioned once today, it was said ten times: “Each church is autonomous. Self-governing. You decide what you will do, and what you want done in your neighborhood.” We were not giving anyone their work assignment. We work for the churches. That’s Southern Baptist polity. It’s not always the most efficient, but it’s our way and it has served us well for 160 years.

Richard Leach, director of evangelism and ministry for NAMB, said, “We have four aims in this work. 1) To assist the LBC and BAGNO and the churches; 2) to engage volunteers; 3) to encourage the churches; and 4) to share with all of Southern Baptists and the world through the media what is happening here.”

Mike said, “Simply stated, we’re going to work with you to reach people with the gospel, to rebuild lives and homes and churches, and start or restart churches in strategic locations.”

He added, “We’re talking about a partnership with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the conventions, and the SBC. This is a grand day in the life of Southern Baptists.”

Mike introduced one of our Spanish pastors, Alberto Rivera, who is moving from the Getsemani Baptist Church on Elysian Fields Avenue into our associational office where he will serve the state convention as a regional church planting strategist.

Freddie Arnold led us through a series of maps on PowerPoint screens prepared by Bill Day of the Evangelism and World Missions Center of NOBTS, depicting the churches of the city. One map showed 913 functioning churches of every denomination, and 606 non-functioning. Freddie passed out materials showing the 27 zones of the city with lists of churches and the zone in which each is located. “We followed natural dividers,” he said, “interstates, highways, canals, and the river.”

Someone wanted to know what is a non-functioning church. Freddie said, “If your church is meeting anywhere–in a tent, in a home, in a gutted out fellowship hall, or even someone else’s church–we consider that a functioning church.”

Mike said, “We’re just now beginning the process of enlisting state conventions and associations throughout the country to adopt a zone. We will make this same presentation to the state evangelism directors soon.” He added, “We’ll be asking for a two-year commitment from the adopting groups, beginning this October.”

I told the pastors of a self-study our church did once. “The leader asked us to dream big. He said, ‘What kind of ministry would you do in this city if money were not a problem? What would you do if resources and personnel were no problem?’ That really got us thinking.”

With churches, associations, and conventions all over the country committing themselves to help you in your neighborhood, I told them, you may very well find yourself in that position. In fact, you may be limited only by your own vision, your imagination, your faith. Which is scary to most of us.

George Bush called it “that vision thing.” It’s the ability to see what others cannot see, to look beyond the present realities and obstacles and to envision a different kind of reality. When a leader in American life was assassinated some time ago, his brother, speaking at his funeral, said, “Most people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ I see things that never were and ask ‘why not?'” Leaders must be men and women of vision.

Paul said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” (Ephesians 1:18)

Our pastors must ask themselves what God wants to happen in their neighborhoods and zones. Where are the great needs? With money and personnel not being a problem, what do you want to do here? Where is God leading?

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)

A pastor said to me today, “Our people are changing. Soon we will be starting ‘FAITH.’ (The evangelism training program) We’ve already had 50 people sign up. We are not the same church we were before the storm.”

A minister’s wife e-mailed me yesterday almost in a panic. “Many of our people are leaving,” she said. “Being transferred to other cities, or just moving out of the area. What’s happening!” I tried to reassure her as much as one can do via e-mail. “This is happening in every church in town. And, as difficult as it is on the church and the leadership right now, in the long run, it’s not all bad.” I told her, “Five years from now, those churches will be back to the size they were before the storm if not greater. But they will all be different because so many people left and God sent new ones in.” Knowing how leadership of churches can become entrenched and can shut down the creative processes and the willingness to make necessary changes makes me believe that from eternity’s viewpoint, this may be the best thing that ever happened to the city and to our churches.

Let’s believe that and keep the whole matter before the Father.

As the pastors were entering today, I read to them the last three verses of Habakkuk, one of the great, great “rejoice anyway” passages in the Bible. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, though there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls–yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet (the sure-footed mountain goat), and makes me walk on my high places.”

Pray anyway. Rejoice anyway. Praise God anyway.

A modern version for many of the ministers in the church today might be something like: “Though my church’s attendance is down, though no one has joined our church in ages, though our leadership be transferred and move away, though the finances are through the basement, and the deacons are on my back. Though my kids are misbehaving and my wife is unhappy with me–yet, even in spite of all this, I will rejoice in the Lord!!”

It’s about faith. About seeing the invisible: An all-sufficient God who is Lord of all. It keeps us from despairing when members are jumping ship and volunteers are drying up and the money isn’t there. The Lord is our resource, not the insurance company, not the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, not the denomination, and not the people in the pews. “The Lord God is my strength.”

Couple more things before signing off.

We are having some unhappy campers coming to work in our city, it seems. A pastor told me this and another leader told of an unrelated incident at our new Volunteer Village in the World Trade Center. Both said, “We’re having church leaders bringing volunteers here with their own agenda. ‘I have to have this,’ one said. Otherwise, he was not going to be satisfied with their work in our city. We had the idea they were here to rebuild the city. But not all come with that kind of focus.”

Some are unhappy because the houses they are gutting out are not air-conditioned. Really, no joke. It’s hot. It is infernally hot, I grant you. But we naively assumed people knew these homes are wrecked and ruined by the floodwaters and that no electricity will be restored until the house is rewired and the new sheetrock is hung and everything passes inspection.

The Volunteer Village is not the Waldorf. It’s spartan right now. Diane Gahagan, office manager for NOAH, laughed when she heard that the men there were complaining because they had to wait in line for the few toilets. “Now they know what it’s like being a woman!” she laughed. Dare we say that men are not noted for their patience?

Tobey Pitman said, “I wish we could get it across to the volunteers coming here that this is hard work. You sweat a lot. You get dirty. It’s not a vacation. We cannot offer you the comforts of home. We have a city in desperate straits that needs the help of God’s people, but we need those people to understand we’re asking them to make a genuine commitment when they come here. Otherwise, they’re going to be unhappy campers.”

The Lord is your source. Not the North American Mission Board, not the state convention, and definitely not any of us. Eyes on Him, children. It’s the only way.

The other thing. Next week, our pastors will meet on TUESDAY, July 18, at 10 am at Oak Park Baptist Church, 1110 Kabel Street in the Algiers section of New Orleans. This will be Tuesday for that week only, in order for everyone to meet and hear the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Frank Page, pastor of the FBC of Taylors, SC. Okay to bring your guests. Help us spread the word.