Today (as I write) I spoke to a noon prayer/Bible study group that meets in a local cafeteria each Wednesday. At their invitation, I talked about “the challenge of ministering in New Orleans.” Since most of the 15 people admitted they too were not native to the area, they nodded in agreement at some of my observations on the neediness of this city and the strangeness of its customs.
A few years back, a family moved here from Baptistland (that large crescent above New Orleans that extends from Texas across Arkansas and into Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and on toward Georgia and Florida, an area peopled primarily by Baptists) and after visiting a half dozen local Baptist churches, they showed up at the one I pastored. That week I sat in their living room to welcome them. The husband wasted no time getting to the point.
“Our biggest disappointment on moving to New Orleans,” he said, “has been the churches.” He paused and said, “Pastor, there are no normal Baptist churches down here!”
I knew what he was talking about. It happens all the time. People move in here from Birmingham or Memphis or Dallas and expect to find churches like the one they left back home, and it doesn’t happen.
I said, “Friend, you need to bear in mind that half our members are straight in out of paganism. They do not know the Baptist traditions or terminology. Every year we have to recreate Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong (the namesakes of our two mission offerings).” The church I served in Columbus, Mississippi, for more than a dozen years had a hundred families that could trace their ancestors back in that town and that church for over a hundred years.
That visiting family joined our church, but at the first opportunity they hightailed it to Baton Rouge, just an hour up the interstate, but much more Baptistland than where we live. I suppose they’re happy now, serving the Lord in their comfort zone.
I have a theory that each year many thousands of good conservative Bible-believing people–a large number of them Baptists–transfer into New Orleans and start visiting churches. When they are unable to find one like the large congregation they left behind, they gradually find excuses to quit going to church altogether. Soon the only time they darken the door of the Lord’s house is when they’re back at home in Mississippi or Tennessee and go to church with mama. When she says, “Son, are y’all going to church in New Orleans?” the answer comes back, “Mama, the churches down there are different.” Meanwhile, her grandchildren are being raised as pagans in one of the most worldly cities in America.
Carrying my theory a step further, I conclude there are as many as 50,000 displaced Southern Baptists who moved here and never joined a church. Check our books and you will see that 50,000 is also the number of members of the 75 Southern Baptist churches and 60 Baptist missions in this metropolitan area.
Think of it–we could have twice the members and be two or three times as strong in the Lord’s work in this city! What a shame.
I’m not certain who is to blame for this state of affairs or even if there’s any point in fixing blame. I recall saying to one of the ministers of a megachurch in the Memphis area once, “Has it ever occurred to you that your church has forever spoiled its members from being able to move to another town and join a regular Baptist church?” This is a church with 300 sports teams and resources such as entire cities dream of having!
Perhaps the “blame” is that our churches are training our members to be receivers of ministry, rather than ministers. To be customers of the church, and not the church. To expect to be fed, not to feed the hungry. To go to the church with the best program, finest buildings, sharpest staff, and cleanest nursery. To be ministered unto, not to minister.
Perhaps we have failed our members and the first places to see the fruits of our failure are the cities where they relocate and lose themselves in the worldly culture.
Some years ago, I recall a church planter who had gone from Baptistland (the Deep South) into the pioneer areas of the Northeast voice a similar complaint. He said, “Baptists will move to our city and find us in the phone book and visit once. But as soon as they see we are meeting in a vacant store front, that there are only 20 of us sitting on metal chairs, and that we don’t have a pipe organ, they never come back.”
I know, I know–forget about reaching the Baptists and start targeting the unchurched. Yes, indeed. Many churches that have done this have found it the best and quickest route to success (if you will pardon my use of that word in this context). However.
Let us not overlook the vast number of trained and capable people who could make an immediate difference by joining a small church in their new city and helping to make that church stronger.
I’m tired of hearing experts, consultants, and self-appointed authorities disparage the idea of reaching church members who move into new neighborhoods. There is much to be said for enlisting people who have already been taught to worship and pray and give and teach, the kind of people who can begin to make an immediate difference the day they join. In fact, I can take you to a dozen churches in New Orleans right this moment, where five such adults could turn those churches around.
I don’t mean five adults who would drop in on Sunday morning making their weekly charity visit to the poorer section of town, but five adults who will join in every sense of the world and devote themselves to making that little church work. To making it strong.
Francis Schaeffer once said, “There are no little churches and no big preachers.” I know what he meant, and even turned that wonderful line into one of the best cartoons I ever did. But I daresay he’s wrong, especially on the first part. I know some little churches. They are few and weak and discouraged.
My host today leaned over during lunch and said, “Joe, what Baptist churches in New Orleans are growing right now?” I said, “First Baptist and Franklin Avenue and Calvary.” I thought of naming his own church and the church I belong to, and a couple of others. “And some of our small missions are having exciting growth,” I was glad to add.
A few of our churches have dynamic leadership and are responding faithfully and are being blessed with excellent growth. Many of our churches that are not growing are nevertheless doing significant ministry for the Lord in their communities. And alas, some of our churches are on life-support, struggling just to make it through another day.
When I sat down to begin this article, I had planned to drop in some of my favorite stories about bizarre things that have occurred in New Orleans. It is like no other place on earth as far as I can tell. However, the article turned serious real quickly so I’ll save those for another time (Part 2).
Let me close with asking for your prayers for God’s people in this city. One of my burdens about our churches is that because they are isolated from one another, that results in the insulation of the members. Isolation keeps the people from knowing members of other churches and leaves everyone feeling that “we alone have the responsibility for this huge city”–a lonely and discouraging feeling. Insulation keeps them from feeling the pain and need throughout the area, and leaves them shut up in their church buildings carrying on business as usual.
Isolated church. Insulated Christians. They remind me of the levite and priest who passed the beaten and wounded victim, leaving him bleeding and hurting in the ditch, until a man we call “the good Samaritan” came by, got down into the ditch with him, and tended to his needs.
We’re looking for disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who will climb down off their church expectations and get down in the ditch with the needy of New Orleans and help them in the name of the Savior.
When you pray for us and when you pray for this city, please do not pray for God to “bless us.” Be much more specific than that. Pray for the believers in this city to take seriously their commitment to the Lord Jesus. Pray for the pastors to be bold in their faith, clear in their preaching, and strong in their leadership. Pray for believers who move here to join churches and “get into the ditch” with us as we minister in Jesus’ name.