Just over two and a half years ago, I stepped into the pulpit at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church for the first time and preached about the uncertain future we were entering together.
Like so many churches across the United States, St. Charles is a congregation with a rich history in the city of New Orleans. Across the 20th century, the pulpit and pews welcomed some of the very best preachers and thinkers in Southern Baptist life. And yet, as denominational identity changed and decades passed, much of that legacy now lives in the archives as beautiful history.
What began in the autumn of 2013 has become a season of innovation and restructuring as we anticipate what church looks like for the 21st century. On that first day, we looked at each other with hope and some butterflies and wondered if this would really all work out. We wondered if we truly believed that God might show up and give life to a new chapter in this old church’s story.
In our first 30 months together, we are slowly seeing signs of what that new chapter may look like. In myriad ways, we see growth and life and new ways forward. It’s exciting, it’s inspiring, and every week we are surprised by new faces and new stories. Every week I meet with someone and think, “How in the world did you end up here with me? How am I so lucky that I get to hear your story?” I stand before the beloveds as I serve the bread and cup of communion and am sometimes so overcome with emotion that all I can do is offer a hug of deep gratitude for the sacred moment we are sharing.
And in that very same week, sometimes even minutes apart, a new bill will arrive or an old pipe will burst and I think, “How in the world did I end up here? How do I run the shop vac? Will a baptistry heater from 1925 make the building explode overnight? If we just keep that door closed, can we ignore the asbestos and lead indefinitely?”
We are finding our way forward in fits and starts at St. Charles. It is not an easy or smooth path, and we surely do not have all of the answers. Churches, I know that you are figuring out your story, too. I know we are not alone in this journey because I regularly hear from so many of you in your settings and your congregations as you are asking the same questions. Some of you are reaching out to me by phone and email and written note to ask about our community partnerships and creative programming. You ask how we are sharing space and repurposing our facility. You want to know if what is working for us will work for you. You ask me if some of the answers we are finding will also answer the questions you are asking.
Every congregation has a slightly different story, but so many other beloved brick-and-mortar churches around the country know that circumstances and times have changed. There are empty pews everywhere, and people of faith are looking at each other and their pastors asking: “Where are we? Will we ever get back to the place where we were? How do we move forward?”
From Manhattan to New Orleans to Richmond to Louisville and even to Missisauga, Ontario, we are borrowing ideas and information, we are collaborating and partnering. We are also letting go of some old dreams and tales now left in the archives as we adjust to a new reality of church life. It is exhilarating and terrifying, inspiring and overwhelming. We are, all of us, in a season of transition that is changing our religious landscape forever. I do not have many answers, but I do know this: in this season, we churches are called to be faithful and true in the very places where we stand. That is the first, best thing we do as individuals and as communities.
On that first Sunday in my trial sermon, I read from the prophet Jeremiah: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your own.”
What will the next five years bring? The next 10? What will church look like when I’m 65? I really don’t know. What I know is that today, I will plant a garden right here in New Orleans and watch what grows. And I will root my family in this place. We will give our best selves to our city and to our church, and the good friends around me will do the very same thing. And day by day, week by week, month by month, we will continue to discover that seeking the welfare of the place in which we find ourselves is the path to discovering our new story in whatever form it may take.