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Former Navy officer advances from ‘Trivial Pursuit’ to ministry

SUFFOLK, Va. (BP)–Of all the free-time options Louis Venable had aboard the USS Trippe, his favorite was playing “Trivial Pursuit.” He was so good at it that he unhesitatingly gambled on the game and took his peers’ money. When a Bible question stumped him, Venable determined to study the Bible so he’d never be stumped again.
“By the time I got to Numbers, I was so bored,” said Venable. “I really didn’t care who begat whom or which tribe did what.”
Venable later visited a USO station in Italy. There he found a small book titled, “How to Study the Bible.” He thought it was a sort of “Cliffs Notes” to the Bible. But the little book recommended reading 1 John seven times.
“I thought that was useless, but by the time I got through the second reading I was on my knees in the state room of our ship, praying, ‘God, I don’t know how to pray, but I want you in my life.’”
Venable became a Christian in 1985 and soon began reading all the theology books he could get his hands on. “Even then, I was impressed that what God was teaching me was to be used for others,” he said.
At every opportunity, Venable visited churches of all denominations. He started in a Roman Catholic church, the church of his upbringing, where he heard aberrant theology on creationism, universalism and the like. “I confronted the priest and told him he was contradicting the Bible,” said Venable.
“‘Who gave you permission to read the Bible?’ the priest asked me,” Venable recalled. “‘Do you know Greek or Hebrew? It’s the [Roman Catholic] Church’s job to interpret the Scriptures,’ claimed the priest.’”
In 1989 Venable completed his six-year stint with the Navy, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. That’s the year his continuing search for a church that preached the truth led him to Midway Baptist Church in Goose Creek, S.C.
The pastor offered a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message, which had a profound effect on Venable’s life. “Reading the Baptist Faith and Message convinced me to be a Baptist. I thought, ‘This is what a Christian should believe, not just Baptists,’” said Venable, who became a Southern Baptist and the youth minister at the Goose Creek church.
Four years later, Venable moved to Suffolk, Va., for a job, where he and his family also looked for a conservative church home. A visit to a prominent Southern Baptist church in the area — where the pastor wore vestments, didn’t use the Bible in his sermon and encouraged the congregation to draw inspiration for life from a John Steinbeck novel — led the Venables to another Southern Baptist church. He became so active there that his pastor asked Venable to preach.
Venable did not know what to think of this, and neither did his Roman Catholic parents. They ridiculed him mercilessly when he became a Southern Baptist. But he invited them to hear his first sermon — a sermon in which his parents would hear the gospel without a chance to interrupt or rebut.
After the sermon and during the invitation hymn, a commotion grabbed Venable’s attention. There was his father, crawling on all fours, sobbing uncontrollably, espousing repentance, begging God for forgiveness.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Venable said.
Venable’s reputation as a preacher grew, and he did more supply preaching in the area. All the while, God was working on him about the pastorate. Venable even had a dream in which he was preaching to five or six old people. “In my dream, God said, ‘They need love, too,’” Venable said.
In 1996, a deacon from South Quay (pronounced key) Baptist Church in Suffolk asked Venable to supply preach. He arrived on the appointed day to find nine people in Sunday school. Only 13 attended the worship service.
“Six sat on one back pew, and seven on the other,” he said. “So I just left the pulpit and stood way down the aisle and preached to them.”
After preaching a second Sunday, Venable learned that the church was about to close its doors.
“One of the members told me, ‘I’ve seen preachers come and go, but you’re the first one I’ve heard that I believe is called by God to preach. Will you come help us?’” Venable did, as an unpaid interim pastor.
God finally lowered the boom after Venable preached at South Quay the second time. “I had that dream again, where I was preaching to a handful of older people. Only this time, I recognized their faces.” Venable explained the faces belonged to South Quay members.
Venable accepted the bivocational (and later, the full-time) pastorate of a 225-year-old church that had split 42 times. Its finances were dismal, and members were few. The youngest deacon was 75 years old. Venable said it was a textbook example of the kind of church every pastor ought to avoid — except for one thing: love. Venable loves the people. They love him.
God has blessed that love. What was once 13 in worship service now averages 135. And the nine in Sunday school averages in the low 70s. South Quay members bought a bus, hired a youth minister who is reaching those that others would consider the dregs of teen society, participated in interracial worship services, had 24 people volunteer for eight Sunday school jobs, remodeled a nursery that was once used as a storage room and has secret ballot votes that come out unanimous, including a vote to uniquely align itself with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.
“I’m not in control here,” Venable reflected. “I’m just enjoying it.”
Venable does, however, challenge the congregation to weigh tradition against Scripture, and where the two disagree, Scripture wins, he said.
“I took this pastorate to help these folks cooperate, not manipulate,” Venable said. “If the Holy Spirit is in all of us, then there will be a unity of purpose in our ideas and actions.
“The old and the young — everybody at South Quay is excited about what God is doing,” said Venable, who notes a long-awaited peace pervades the church with a history of splitting every five years.
“I know I can’t keep all the people happy all the time, but I’ve never seen it written anywhere that God can’t do that.”

    About the Author

  • Norm Miller