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FIRST-PERSON: Making evangelism good news again

METAIRIE, La. (BP)–On the weekend of Aug. 26-28, the Celebration Congregation of New Orleans was planning to add a fifth weekend service. In a city often referred to as “the graveyard of churches,” our church was experiencing significant growth spiritually and numerically.

Then Hurricane Katrina suddenly appeared on the horizon, dramatically changing the whole scenario for Celebration Church and other churches. Our people have moved to other cities and states, our primary campus remains under water and most of our records and resources have been lost forever. We are going to have to rebuild a congregation, almost entirely.

When people think of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, they often think of the wind damage, the flooding, the violence and looting, the deaths and the sometimes needless suffering experienced by many. Perhaps the most tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, however, is that the New Orleans area has been for the time being depopulated, with individuals, families, educational institutions and businesses moving to other locations -– many with no plans to ever return to New Orleans. It is conceivable that a city of 1.3 million people may be reduced to one third or one-half her former population, which would be devastating not only for our city but for our state as well (one third of the jobs in Louisiana were in the New Orleans area).

While the future appears to be quite bleak, I believe that there is yet much hope on the horizon for the Crescent City.

For the first time ever, it appears that the Christian church has the opportunity to be on a “level playing field” with the world in New Orleans. When the Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, one of its three primary goals was to reach and evangelize New Orleans, which at that time already had a well-deserved reputation for ungodliness. Churches, ministries and denominations have worked hard over the years to reach New Orleans but achieved minimal success when compared with the growth of Christianity in other cities.

A new day is dawning.

New Orleans eventually will be repopulated, and the churches that survive, existing without offerings for a number of months, will be positioned as never before to reach and minister to the people who come to inhabit the Crescent City -– and those people will be more receptive than ever to the Gospel.

When people ask, “What can we do to in response to Katrina’s devastation?” I give the following responses:

— First, please pray for the people who have been devastated and displaced. They have to find new homes, new jobs and new schools -– and sometimes cope with the loss of significant possessions and people in their lives.

— Second, send all of the humanitarian aid you can through the SBC Disaster Relief effort. It’s still desperately needed — and will be for months to come — by people remaining in the New Orleans area, and by people in shelters.

— Third, plan to send teams of workers to help in the clean-up of and rebuilding of homes and churches.

— And fourth, join the SBC initiative of adopting one or more churches in New Orleans through your budget and missions efforts, and support them for the next 12 to 18 months so they can survive financially until the people return to our city (information is available at www.namb.net). As one wise pastor said, “What good is it to repopulate New Orleans if there are not going to be any churches to reach the people that come to the Crescent City?”

People who live and will live in New Orleans will be more receptive than ever to the Gospel message. In one shelter, over 700 people prayed to receive Jesus in one service.

I believe what has been a day of devastation can become the day of destiny for Christianity in New Orleans. With the spirit of New Orleans being broken, and a new population coming to our city, it is now possible for “the city that care forgot” to become “the city that cares for God.”

We know the Lord can take every tragedy and turn it around and use it for our good and His glory. That will happen in New Orleans as Southern Baptists and other Christian groups rise up and say, “We will battle for New Orleans!”
Dennis Watson is senior pastor of Celebration Church of New Orleans.

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  • Dennis Watson