I Talk With Seminarians About Church

Today, Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, was my day to speak in chapel at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I love everything about this school and relish the times I’m invited to speak in chapel or to a class, but my only regret today was that every student did not hear the message.

Here’s a brief summary of the message entitled “You and New Orleans.”

I’m abbreviating points 1, 2, and 3, and 4 in order to emphasize the heart of the message: point 3, “Join a church.”

1. Thank you for coming to New Orleans. By your very presence, you are helping to rebuild this city.

2. Get to know New Orleans. There is so much to love about this city, from the historic districts to the great restaurants and shops to the parks and museums. Venture off campus and discover some of the delights of this incredible city.

3. Join a church. Join a church. Join a church.

This seminary was planted in New Orleans in 1917 to bring the Gospel of Christ to its people. Today, we have 92 Southern Baptist churches and missions in the metro area, and many could really use the help and encouragement your presence would bring.

In the last few days, I’ve talked to a number of seminary students who told me you don’t plan to join a local church during your stay here. When I asked ‘why not,’ you gave me four reasons.

a. “I don’t know how long I’ll be living here.”

My answer to that is: that is true, but no one does. We’re all here by the pleasure of the Father, and no one has been promised tomorrow. What the Lord does require of us is faithfulness wherever He sends, to bloom where we are planted. We are to walk by faith.

Let me make a little prediction here. The day will come when you are leading a church somewhere and you visit in the home of a family that has been visiting your church, and you will hear your words coming from their mouth: “We won’t be joining a church here because we don’t know how long we’ll be here.” Everything inside you wants to say to them, “It doesn’t matter! We’ll take you for a couple of months. And what if it’s years? Come on and join us.” But you will not say a word—because you’ve been there; you said the same thing they are saying.

God wants you and me who lead His churches to be role models for the others. Set the example and you’ll be surprised how that liberates you to motivate others.

b. “The church back home is sending money to help with my education, and I’d feel disloyal joining another church.”

My answer to that is: if you are disobeying the Lord in order not to offend the folks back home, something is out of whack. That’s not loyalty; it’s idolatry. And if you will figure up how much they’re sending you, you will know exactly the dollar value you place on your loyalty.

However, if the members of your home church are spirit-filled Christians–and I’ll bet they are, because of their kindness and generosity to you–they will want you to join a local church and serve Christ here where you are now living.

c. “I can’t find a church like the one back home.”

Friend, there’s not one. In fact, the church back home is not like the church back home. It changed when you left and it has continued to change ever since. A church is not a static thing, but a living organism and it changes every time one person leaves and changes again when another one enters.

At one time I estimated New Orleans had a hundred thousand displaced Christians from what I call “Normal-Land.” They were active members of good mostly-Baptist churches back home and then moved here for a job. They visited a number of our churches and couldn’t find one like the home church and finally quit attending altogether. Now the only time they go to church is when they’re visiting Mama back in Tupelo or Collierville or Pine Bluff or Marshall or Monroeville. When she says, “Honey, are y’all going to church in New Orleans?” they answer, “Mama, the churches in New Orleans are ‘different.'” Meanwhile, Grandma grieves because her grandchildren are growing up pagan.

What many of us fail to realize is that because God hates to be bored, He never likes to do the same thing twice in the same way. He makes every human different, each with his distinctive fingerprints and voice patterns and DNA. His churches are like His children–all different. No two are alike.

When we move to a new city, God prepares to do a new thing in our lives. But if we insist that the new church be a clone of the last one, we’ve just erected a barrier to the will of God.

It might surprise some of you to learn that members of our churches here move off to Tupelo or Collierville or Pine Bluff and write home to say they haven’t joined a local church, that they just can’t find one like the wonderful church they left in New Orleans. We write them and say, “There isn’t one! God is trying to do a new thing in your life! Cooperate with Him! Please join a church there where you are now living.”

d. “I can’t find a church with all the ministries and programs I want.”

The quick answer to this is: join one and help it to become what it ought to be! If you sit around with your list of requirements for the ideal church before you join, you’ll be a mighty lonely person for a long, long time.

I had just graduated from seminary and had been called to pastor a church in Greenville, Mississippi. The night before our first Sunday, we were given a reception at the home of our lead deacon. A young man walked over and said, “Pastor, my name is John Pake. Let me tell you how we came to join this church.”

Two years earlier, John and Gloria had moved to Greenville with their daughters and started visiting churches. He said, “The Sunday we visited this church, the auditorium was half-filled, the choir was poor, and the sermon was mediocre. And yet the Lord spoke to my heart that this was our place.”

“The next Sunday, we went to Calvary Baptist Church on Highway 82 East. It was the opposite in every way: packed house, great choir, excellent sermon. And yet, there was no leadership from the Lord to join.”

So, the next Sunday they were back. “It was the same story: poor congregation, poor choir, poor sermon. And once again, the Lord told us to join. We did, and within a year, the pastor had left for another church and they made me the Sunday School director. And now we’ve called you as our new pastor.”

We had an incredible next few years together in Emmanuel Baptist Church on Highway One South in Greenville.

John makes a great point for everyone looking for a church. Do not tell the Lord where you will join. Don’t tell Him the kind of church you require. Do not give instructions to the Almighty. Lay your pride aside, and….

4. Ask the Father. The defining trademark of every believer should be this constant prayer, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” I assume you asked that question about seminary and God led you here. You who are married no doubt prayed that concerning your future spouse. Now, pray it about the church where you should join and the ministry God wants you involved in.

When John and Melanie Jones moved to this seminary from another state, they visited various churches and ended up joining ours across town in Kenner. Melanie joined the choir and John taught Sunday School. When we got without a minister of youth, John served as the interim director. They graduated from seminary and moved to the FBC of Van Cleave, Mississippi, where John served as student minister for five or six years. When a large church in North Mississippi came open, one I was familiar with, I wrote a letter and recommended John. He’s been there two years and is doing a terrific job.

Please note, seminary students: the pastor of John and Melanie’s seminary church recommended them to that big church where they are now serving. If for no other reason than that, you should consider joining a local church while in seminary.

Mitch Mares moved to this seminary from Columbus, Georgia, and started visiting churches. He ended up at our church in Kenner, and before long, he had met Traci Powell who became the love of his life. I did their wedding, and recently Traci bore Mitch their second son. Mitch learned about our trailer park ministry just beyond the airport, a work that was started, please note, by a seminary student a few years earlier. Before long, he was visiting the kids in that sad little community and bringing them to church. We made him the pastor of our mission there, and the work thrived as it had never done before.

In time, we and the association went in together and bought a double-wide trailer so Mitch and Traci would have a bigger place for ministry there. Every year they worked there, we were baptizing 15 or 20 people from that park. It was an incredible ministry, a success story in every way. Katrina put an end to it with a huge tree across the trailer, and the owner shut down the park.

Over the years, thousands of seminary students have come to this city and even though they knew they would be here for only a short time, joined a church and went to work and made an everlasting difference.

They did not insist the churches be perfect or like the ones back home, but simply asked the Father to lead them.

5. Trust the Father. No one knows you like the One who has loved you from the beginning, and who gave His life on the cross for you. You can trust Him.

The Church is called by many names in the Bible, among them: the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the Household of Faith. Paul tells a group of pastors to “shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

We should not lightly esteem what God has so highly prized and dearly bought.

Bernice Nicely asked her deacon nephew to see if the pastor would visit her. Something was on her mind. I knew her. She was not a church member, but we would visit her in the hospitals during her frequent illnesses and pray with her. As she was in advancing years and declining health, I thought perhaps she wanted to talk about preparing for the end of her life.

She said, “I know I’m saved, pastor. But something else is troubling me. I haven’t done right by the church.” Over the years, she had neglected going to church and supporting the Lord’s work, and now she was unable to attend at all. She wanted to place her membership in our church and to send her tithe and pray for us.

I drove back to the office that afternoon asking myself Miss Bernice’s question: “Have I done right by the church?”

I will tell you without fear of contradiction that there are thousands of church members in congregations across this land with little love for the Lord’s Body and no fear whatsoever in disrupting its fellowship or subverting its ministries. They remind us of Diotrephes in III John who was throwing his weight around and hindering the work of godly disciples. “He loves to have the preeminence,” John said.

We shudder to think of what will happen when those wicked people stand before the Savior to give an account.

But I suggest that not far behind that group of troublemakers will be another sad cluster waiting to account for their behavior: those who gave proper lip service to the church, but when the chips were down, when it was inconvenient or demanding or difficult, stood back passively and let the church of the Lord Jesus Christ decline in health and numbers and witness and influence.

That is one number I do not want to be counted among when the Saints go marchin’ in.

God help us to do right by the Church.

7 thoughts on “I Talk With Seminarians About Church

  1. Bro. Joe,

    Once again, thank you for the time and effort you put into your “dailies”. It’s the next best thing I can get to hearing you preach once again.

    Today’s report took me back to when I attended FBC, Kenner (while in seminary) at the invitation of my good friend (and co-DJ at WBSN) Ed Waller. You single seminary students take note…he introduced me to the best thing that ever happened to me and we celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in a couple of months. Don’t underestimate what God can do by getting plugged into a New Orleans church.

    Bro. Joe, I hope to see you in March while there with Operation NOAH.

    Mike McDaniel

  2. Nice job Joe. Points well taken. I attended seminary in the mid 80s and heard the same thing from fellow students. Most of them felt they were too good for the little struggling churches located around the Seminary. Most people do not know how widespread this is –among SBC college students and seminarians– of all people. In fact i would presume today it is even worse.

    As an area missionary who works with Pastors I would not consider recommending a young Pastor for a church if I discovered he fit one of the 4 reasons mentioned.

    Thnaks for saying this to the students. It is one more evidence how we are failing to disciple folks at the local church level before they reach seminary– and correcting it in Seminary if need be before they hit the field.

    Dave Snyder


  3. Your message is so true. You can change, but more important, a church can change you.

    During our first year of marriage with Judy, my new bride, I accepted a transfer from Greensboro, NC to Nashville. During our six months in Nashville, we visited over twelve churches, never finding a

  4. I second Dr. Joe’s comments about plugging in to a local church while in seminary. We attended FBC-Kenner for our first two years in N.O.(ironically, we joined on Dr. Joe’s first day as pastor), and while it was as great church we found that all the time we spent driving across town to attend kept us from getting as plugged in as we would have liked. So we went back and revisited some of those “struggling” little churches near the seminary, joined one, and spent seven incredible years working alongside those precious folks. Some of our most memorable experiences of New Orleans occured in that tiny congregation, and we made friends that we still keep in touch with, nearly a decade later and several states removed. While the seminary taught me a lot of right answers, it was through serving as a deacon, teacher, and committee member in that urban New Orleans church that I learned the right questions, and my seminary training would have been poorer without the experience.

  5. Joe,

    This reminds me of our experience at Midwestern. I served a church about 100 miles from Kansas City. During the winter, we would dig out and drive to the church. Upon our return home late Sunday night, we would notice far too many campus neighbors with piles of snow still in front of their cars. No way they had gone anywhere that day.


  6. Joe,

    Great Points! As I told you recently we could sure use some help out at 1st Baptist of St Rose. Many folks have moved out here after Katrina so ministering out here would be to some extent like post Katrina Relief (spiritually). If you want to help see folks grow in and come to know the Lord, there’s no better place than out here with us. There’s plenty of room to practice for your future ministry.

    J Larry Pittman, Pastor

  7. Joe,

    Great Points! As I told you recently we could sure use some help out at 1st Baptist of St Rose. Many folks have moved out here after Katrina so ministering out here would be to some extent like post Katrina Relief (spiritually). If you want to help see folks grow in and come to know the Lord, there’s no better place than out here with us. There’s plenty of room to practice for your future ministry.

    J Larry Pittman, Pastor

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