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Cross & steeple of Luter’s new church grace skyline

[SLIDESHOW=50595]NEW ORLEANS (BP) — The near-150-foot glass steeple and solid cross mark the new home of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church led by pastor Fred Luter Jr.

“It is something that you just cannot miss,” Luter told Baptist Press. “It’s like being in St. Louis and seeing that big ole arch. If you’re on the interstate, you’re going to see it. You just can’t miss it.”

The church relocated from its Ninth Ward location in New Orleans’ St. Roch neighborhood, where the vibrant congregation required three Sunday morning worship services and never had enough parking. But leaving was tough, said Luter, who was elected as the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention while leading his church at its former location.

“Our greatest growth through the years happened at the 2515 Franklin Ave. location,” Luter said. “We really hated to leave because we’re so much invested in the community, however we just couldn’t expand. We had no parking spaces and it started affecting our attendance.”

The new $35 million facility sits on 25 acres about six miles away. A 3,500-seat sanctuary allows Franklin Avenue Baptist Church (FABC) to accommodate members and guests in a single Sunday morning worship service. Separate worship areas are dedicated for children and youth, with the entire church family worshipping in the sanctuary for the Lord’s Supper each first Sunday.

Many are able to walk to the 125,000-square-foot complex from nearby neighborhoods. Luter baptized 14 new believers the fourth Sunday in March, he said, a high mark since the congregation relocated in December 2018. Each fourth Sunday is dedicated to baptisms.

“We will continue to do the things that made us who we are. Franklin Avenue is known across the city for our evangelism and for our discipleship of reaching the lost and also growing people once they come into the church,” Luter said. “And we do that by small groups, through new members’ classes and about 50 ministries that we have, geared to individuals from kids to adulthood.”

Three hours each Saturday morning, the church’s evangelism team evangelizes door to door, rotating among adjacent communities. Results are already evident, Luter said.

“People know Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. We have a good name in the city through our community outreach we’ve done for years,” Luter said, “and by God’s grace that will continue.”

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 interrupted the church, redirecting much of its outreach to Baton Rouge, La., and Houston after Katrina’s floodwaters rushed many to relocate. The storm struck when the membership exceeded 8,300, having grown from the 65 members FABC had when Luter began his pastorate in 1986.

First Baptist Church of New Orleans, under then-senior pastor David Crosby, integrated the church into First Baptist’s worship and activities, allowing FABC to recover and rebuild.

In 2008, Luter danced in the pulpit of the rebuilt sanctuary on its same Ninth Ward lot in the St. Roch community. New congregations born from Katrina continue to meet — Houston’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, led by S. Lachlin Verrett, and United Believers Baptist Church in Baton Rouge under the pastorate of Manuel Pigee III.

“The blessing of post-Katrina is that we’ve been able to touch lives that maybe pre-Katrina we couldn’t,” Luter said. “Our church will never be the same because of Hurricane Katrina.”

In FABC’s new home in New Orleans East, Luter still expects an overflow crowd this Easter. The new cross will serve as an apt object lesson amid concentrated community outreach in advance of Good Friday and Easter. Seven preachers will present the “Last Seven Words on the Cross” during Good Friday worship.

“Hopefully it will be a draw that people will want to continue to come,” Luter said of the weekend.

The church’s 6,000-plus members are excited to be in the new location, Luter said, despite the sadness over leaving their old neighborhood.

“The only thing difficult,” he said, “is trying to decide where they’re going to sit.”