News Articles

Luter acknowledges his transparency

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–From the time her son was a young teen, Viola Brooks knew he would be a pastor one day.

What she didn’t foresee, the mother of Fred Luter Jr. said, was that the church he would pastor would grow to more than 6,000 in worship, the largest Southern Baptist congregation in Louisiana — prior to Hurricane Katrina.

More than 4,000 people participated in Franklin Avenue Baptist Church’s two worship services April 6 in its renovated worship center in New Orleans. Where did they come from when, just 19 years earlier, only about 50 people gathered the first Sunday that Luter preached as pastor in a 500-seat auditorium?

“The church had gone through so much,” Luter said when telling the story of his arrival at the church. “It was a bad breakup when the former pastor left. I came here to preach, teach and live the Word of God, with a compassion for the people.”

When the church was started in 1932, fronting Franklin Avenue, which today is a four-lane divided thoroughfare, the community around it consisted of working-class white families. By the mid-1970s, though the community was mostly black, the church clung to its historical roots.

Calling a black pastor was a last-ditch effort by the few remaining members to do whatever it took to keep the church functioning. Calling a man with no experience as a pastor -– with just three years of street preaching to bolster his credentials — was an indication that the members didn’t have great expectations.

“I became pastor in October 1986 and in December I invited the entire membership to my house,” Luter said. “That made such a big hit with them, just to get to know them in a casual atmosphere. You’d be amazed at how something as small as that can surely make a big difference.

“I had no ideas as far as church growth methods,” Luter continued. “I just went there with a conviction of preaching the Word of God and loving the people, and God started doing a good work.”

Music under the leadership of Bryon Johnson was one thing Franklin Avenue had going for it, Luter said. Johnson, though younger than Luter, predated Luter at the church.

“He was very gifted and talented,” Luter said of Johnson, who died in November 2006. “God blessed us in a mighty way. The music ministry grew as the church grew, and before Katrina we had eight choirs and we’d recorded two live CDs.”

When 20 people joined one Sunday, Franklin Avenue’s membership roll grew to 200 people, and Luter’s wife panicked. Elizabeth Luter now says she never had been much for large groups of people, despite being involved in street ministry with the man who became her husband.

“I went home, crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head,” Elizabeth recounted. “‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘What are we going to do with 200 people?'”

She said she did the same thing a few years later when the church combined its three services for Easter at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and she realized for the first time how big the church had become.

Franklin Avenue, which had slowly increased during Luter’s first two years as pastor, began a steady increase in his third year after he attended a pastors’ conference where he heard about a simple church growth strategy that today he calls “Frangelism” -– friendship evangelism.

“The concept is that everybody in the church has an unchurched friend, relative, neighbor,” Luter explained. “You are obligated to go and invite them to the place where you are being fed, changed and challenged…. These were people you already had relationships with. They weren’t confrontational. These people might not go to church if a stranger asked them; they’d do it because of the relationship. And once they’d get them to church the first time, it was our responsibility through music, worship, fellowship and message to bring them back.

“This literally changed the church,” Luter said. “We had no publicity; we’ve never been on radio, television or a billboard. It’s all been word of mouth -– Acts 2 all over again -– the woman at the well.”

Maurice Rankins, who followed the Luters as member 86 of Franklin Avenue, today is pastor of Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss. He gives two reasons for the growth of Franklin Avenue: the genuineness of the pastor and the emphasis he places on teaching men to be men.

“The same man you see in the pulpit is the man you’ll see at the store,” Rankins said. “He taught the men in this church to love God, love your wife and be a man of the Word.

“We know where we came from, the way we used to be,” Rankins continued. “He would tell us not to belabor that. Instead, know where you’re going; that is what should be your focus.

“What you see [at the church] is God using him,” said Rankins, who was mentored by Luter. “You can see him walking out what he’s talking about. He’d tell us, in any relationship, tell the truth and God will honor that.”

Sam Young, who became the first associate pastor of Franklin Avenue after Luter was called as pastor, was the church’s executive pastor from 1993 until July 2006 when he was called as pastor of Franklin Avenue West Baptist Church in Houston.

“One thing I admire about Fred Luter is that this man has helped men to take their right role in church, at home and on the job,” Young said. “He taught us the importance of leading our families. He teaches men how to be men, and he lives it…. He’s such a wonderful family man.”

But that’s not all, Young continued.

“He’s a man of compassion,” Young said. “I think that’s one of the key reasons this church has grown. His love for people shows in everything he does, and he stands ready to help -– hospital visits, funerals for people he doesn’t even know — and he gives freely.

“He’s a good role model for those who need that, before they start looking to Christ as their role model,” Young said.

Luter’s mother Viola Brooks was his first role model, the pastor said. He was the middle child of five; his mother often worked three jobs to support them.

“I kept them in church,” said Brooks, dressed in a white church suit for the April 6 grand reopening of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “I taught him to respect people, be honest, work hard and make something of himself. He was a humble child.”

Perhaps the most visible way Katrina changed Luter is in his attire. Pre-K, he always wore a suit and tie in the pulpit. He hasn’t since the storm, fulfilling a personal pledge to not wear a tie in the pulpit until all the congregation have been moved out of FEMA trailers.

“It was my way of identifying with people going through hard times,” Luter said. “I’ve never announced it; it’s just my way of relating to those of us who are getting back on our feet.”

Luter said he believes in transparency.

“I share with them a lot of things I’ve gone through,” he said. “So many times pastors put themselves in this separate category -– like we don’t bleed. It’s been refreshing for a lot of folks that I’ve been so transparent. It’s like they think, ‘If he can go through it and make it, then I can.'”

One thing he has shared with men that he hasn’t shared with the entire congregation is his “coming of age” past. That has some significance for men, and it has helped to create a bond strengthened by similar types of experiences, Luter said.

He made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior after he’d been in a motorcycle accident, which happened because he was hanging with the wrong crowd, Luter said.

“I had a compound fracture and a hole in my head, and the senior deacon put his finger in my face and said, ‘Obedience is better than sacrifice,'” Luter recounted. “I’ll never forget that.” A sermon he heard soon after “challenged my faith and I began thinking seriously about my relationship with Christ…. I made a profession of faith that night; it was the best decision I ever made in my life. It literally changed my life. It gave me a new perspective on how to be grateful for the things God has given me, changed my habits, crowd, values, morals. It changed my life.

“I grew up in the Lower Ninth, and that was a tough area to live in,” Luter continued. “My profession of faith in Jesus Christ made me a better person, no doubt about it. I share a lot in men’s ministry and witnessing to young men: If God can change my life, he can change anybody’s life.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.