My oldest son, Jay Adkins, moved to New Orleans 14 years ago to attend New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and to serve as Lead Pastor of First Baptist Church of Westwego, just across the Mississippi River from the beautiful Audubon Park in the Crescent City. Through Jay's contacts, and in the three or four years before Hurricane Katrina, I began to become acquainted with several of his fellow pastors in the New Orleans Baptist Association (or NOBA as it is called now). After Katrina, along with many other volunteers, I made other trips to New Orleans to assist Jay's church and others as part of the SBC Disaster Relief ministry. That experience led to meeting more NOBA pastors through the work of the Director of Missions at that critical time, Joe McKeever. Joe, who is a talented cartoonist, and a long time pastor, himself, helped hold things together for those pastors and their families and churches in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy.
The next year, 2006, I was blessed to be elected by the SBC to serve as a Trustee at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in that beautiful city. I have now just finished up my second five year term on the Board at NOBTS and was privileged to see many great improvements to the campus and to its ministry over the past ten years. During that decade, I was also blessed to come to know more and more of the pastors of local churches there in metro New Orleans.
I have always been impressed with the challenges involved in doing ministry in that great city. It is a mission field in America! New Orleans is certainly not part of the Bible Belt, and is well known for wickedness, and even violence in some areas of "The Big Easy". Many pastors labor there full time. Others are bi-vocational. Even some of the professors and administrators at NOBTS also do extra duty as pastors, in that great city and its outlying areas.
The churches they serve are as diverse as the culture. There are the large, well known Congregations like Fred Luter's Franklin Avenue Baptist and David Crosby's First Baptist Church of New Orleans. There are church plants like Ryan Melson's West Bank Baptist in Marrero and Vintage Church in the Garden District where Rob Wilton serves. There is the beautiful FBC Kenner where Mike Miller ministers, and Dennis Watson's multi campus Celebration Church. Ken Taylor's Gentilly Baptist came back after Katrina, merging with another congregation whose building had been destroyed. Jeffrey Quentin Friend shepherds the Suburban Baptist flock., a primarily African American congregation. Mid sized churches like Jay's Weswego congregation, and Ames Boulevard Baptist where Bob Steward and Rhyne Putman serve, dot the landscape up and down both sides of the Mississippi River. One church, Canal Street Mosaic is pastored by NOBTS professor Page Brooks, who is also a US Army Chaplain.
I could go on and on, but hopefully you get the idea. The pastors in NOBA are an ethnically, culturally, and theologically diverse group. Some are reformed, others are not. The large church pastors are as involved in the local association as much the smaller churches are - and that is truly unusual. At least it is from my personal experience in other associations around the country.
These pastors do not minister in a "homogonized" culture as do many SBC Shepherds. New Orleans is a "gumbo" of various cultures, and the NOBA pastors have had to learn how to focus their ministries very differently than most of us other Baptist pastors have had to do. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about them teaching anything heretical, but some of their methods might be a bit unusual sometimes, and to succeed in that cultural crossroads they have had to learn to "be all things to all men that by all means they may win some."
The thing that makes NOBA special to me - observing from 900 miles away in the Ohio River valley of West Virginia, is the fact that in spite of the many differences between pastors, their personalities, and the peculiarities of their respective churches, they seem to work so well together to get the job done. The goal is to reduce the lostness of their area, and they don't seem to let "labels" hinder their work. "Calvinists" and "Traditionalists" alike, working hand in hand are laboring to fulfill the Great Commission, without falling out over it. They don't seem to let secondary and tertiary issues keep them from fellowship in the ministry. As I once heard Frank Page describe himself several years ago, they are "conservatives, but they're not mad at anybody!"
Jay has referred to their cooperative efforts as "unity through their diversity".
Don't you wish Southern Baptists all over the USA would view our work in that same way?
Some of the leadership in the Louisiana Baptist Convention seem to look upon the pastors and leaders of NOBA with disapproval as they don't always "fit the mold". In fact, Jay has jokingly told his colleagues that the NOBA guys are sort of the "island of misfit toys" in the Louisiana Baptist Convention. There has been some obvious tension, and some behind the scenes political wrangling toward NOBA, all over "non essential" doctrinal issues, and that is sad. One of my colleagues here in the Mountain State recently said, "Well, the SBC won the battle for the Bible in the Conservative Resurgence several decades ago. But instead of putting our guns down, now we're pointing them at one another!"
Jack Hunter (a very gifted layman) leads the pastors and churches of NOBA. as their Director of Missions. Jack, along with seven pastors who make up the Association Administrative Team, have written and published a most interesting blog post calling upon Louisiana Baptists - as well as all of the rest of us - to work together in the Kingdom Business that we have been called to by Christ. The call is to avoid contention and needless criticism, name calling and mud slinging, and to keep the main thing the main thing.
The article can be found by clicking this link. Which Way Forward: Toward Unity or Division?
I know five of the seven men who have signed this post. They come from all over the spectrum of conservative, born again, Bible believing, Bible teaching pastors. They are men of integrity. They are men with big shoulders and tough skin, but hearts of compassion. I know that they love God, they love His Word, His church, they love lost people, and they are committed to looking past small differences of opinion and extrabiblical traditions to seek unity in ministry and to accomplish the mission.
We should go and do likewise!