More Southern Baptist missionaries have emerged from "The Church on Brady" than just about any other church in the denomination, though the congregation is located in a poor section of East Los Angeles and has few material resources. Still officially the First Southern Baptist Church of Los Angeles, the church was on the verge of closing its doors when it called a twenty-four-year-old graduate student to be its pastor. Tom Wolf, and his wife Linda, agreed to come only if the church would call them for a minimum of seven years, an unusual request to a church used to pastors coming and quickly leaving for greener pastorates. Long before the term "seeker services" had ever rolled off any preacher's tongue, Wolf brought an innovative style to a dying congregation and turned it into a thriving church that literally reaches around the world. After twenty-three years of successful ministry, Wolf's ministry took another radically innovative turn as he voluntarily stepped down from the senior pastor role to become "teaching pastor" of The Church on Brady. He believes that every pastor should shift from an "action" role to one of mentoring young ministers, and he finds his model in the chapters of Leviticus. Ironically, Wolf and his wife first felt led to missions work, and now they have helped to train many in the current generation of Southern Baptist missionaries, plus, through Golden Gate Seminary, Wolf is now training the next generation for missions. SBC LIFE asked Wolf to share his missions strategy and to expound upon the ministry model he sees in Leviticus.
SBC LIFE You had a unique arrival at The Church on Brady. Tell our readers how you were led by God to your ministry there.
Wolf The church had already discussed closing its doors, selling the property, giving it to others. They were an older congregation, so they had a pretty clear profile of who they wanted as pastor. I used to joke that our youth group at Brady was in their 60's, and after that, the congregation became mature. They wanted someone in his mid-forties, preferably, with teenage children. Someone who was bilingual — Spanish and English — because our congregation had become largely Hispanic. Someone from a Southern Baptist seminary who had a doctor's degree.
And of course, I was twenty-four, had a degree from Fuller Seminary. I spoke only English, my son was six months old, and on top of that, my wife was from Maine.
SBC LIFE And then you told them you would only come if they called you for a long-term commitment.
Wolf When we came to The Church on Brady, I had been impacted by II Timothy 2. It deals with reproduction, and Paul writes what I call God's "Triple A": army, athletics, and agriculture. In studying those analogies, I'd been impressed with the importance of longevity — how it affects agriculture, the military, different things like that. And so I told the church that my intent would be to serve them for 20 years. If they called me for a minimum of 7 to 10 years, I'd be willing to accept. They gave a unanimous call, but assured me that the commitment wasn't necessary, but I saw it as critical to revitalizing the church.
After we arrived, a woman in the congregation, kept saying for six years, "You won't stay, Brother Tom." I said, "I am." And the sixth year she said, "You might," and the seventh year she said, "I think you will!" In the meantime, her husband became a Christian in the fifth year, and in my thirteenth year, he passed away. She came by at the funeral and nudged me, and said, "I'm glad you stayed."
I think the whole thing about longevity is that it gives the ability to innovate and to do things that many times can't otherwise be done. Often, the lay leadership's main value system is in the area of surviving and maintaining, rather than really ministering. By being in one place for a long time, people are able to trust a pastor's leadership.
SBC LIFE Early on, you tried to start a Coffee House, and met with resistance.
Wolf Exactly, it was right at the time of the Jesus Movement and all that kind of stuff. We were trying to put in a telephone line, and it became a major point of contention in the church. But it was just a trigger point. The Lord gave me the insight that this is not about putting in a telephone line: It's about issues of authority and how pastoral authority has been abused in the past. It's about unexpressed feelings of anger and fear and things like that. So I told the people, if we needed to shut the Coffee House down and not do it, I was willing to back-peddle and work it through again. But regardless of whether we were successful in this venture or if we failed, I was going to be there even if only to pick up the pieces. And it's interesting because we weren't real successful with that ministry, but the congregation saw that I meant what I said about staying, and it was a turning point for the church.
It's ironic because people have given us the reputation of being innovative, but our goal was never innovation. The goal has been to be faithful to Christ and to see people come to Christ and be matured in the Word. It's out of that faithfulness that we do all kinds of radical things in order to see that people come to Christ.
SBC LIFE Give our readers some examples of the radical things you've done.
Wolf First of all, I think we're very much premised on oikus evangelism. Your oikus is your circle of influence composed of family, neighbors, co-workers and friends. We note the fact, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – you and your household." In other words, you and your circle of influence.
Each of us can have a great evangelistic thrust, not through programs, but through the life transformation of each person, and then those around that person who are touched by their transformation. That's been the driving force of our evangelism and our impact at Brady. We follow the lines of openness throughout the city, and through contacts from people's jobs, leisure time activities and things like this.
That's really been the way that we have penetrated into Los Angeles, and into areas that aren't traditional. We've reached people out of a Catholic background, or Buddhist, or secular. In the old days, we did coffee houses, and we ministered to people in the drug culture, and at the time, all of those things were so different from traditional methods of evangelism. At different times, we've had a different emphasis, depending on where God led us — so, whether it was reaching people who were from a homosexual background or something else, we tried never to say, "Oh, we don't want to do those ministries!"
Like right now, we have an emerging ministry to Muslims. I just spoke in a Shiite mosque, the only English speaking one in the LA area, and went with a group of brothers and sisters from our church. And then, we had a man, a Mufti, who is the number two Mufti in Syria, who wanted to speak in some Christian church. There was a group of about 40 Muslims that came with him, and we spoke with them about Christ.
A lot of people say, "Wow, what do you do with Muslims?" Once you have networks and friendships, you just begin to do these things, and it leads you into such unusual opportunities. It was such a powerful time for our people, and with Muslims growing in ever larger numbers in LA, we needed to reach out and touch our Islamic neighbors.
SBC LIFE Reaching out to non- traditional groups is what led to the church's unofficial name, right?
Wolf Yes, officially we're incorporated as the First Southern Baptist Church of Los Angeles, but people in the local community, as we reached them, began calling us the church on Brady. Especially when we began to have people come to Christ from a Roman Catholic background, or a Buddhist background — people with strong family ties — they would not say to their families, "I'm going to First Southern Baptist Church." So they would refer to it as the church over on Brady Avenue. It emerged. In the newspapers, you can trace it through print: They would refer to us as First Southern Baptist, then it was First Southern Baptist (Church on Brady), then it was Church on Brady (First Southern Baptist), and then it just became Church on Brady.
SBC LIFE You have a heart for training young ministers, and your church may have put more Southern Baptist missionaries on the field than any other. What's the key to your success?
Wolf The secret is — and I don't know how to say this so it doesn't sound like I'm bragging — but it's the basic principle of pastoral vision. Over a long period of time, no congregation rises beyond the vision of their pastor. For instance, at Brady we have been going in the same direction for a long time. We believe in reaching our community and reaching to the ends of the earth. We took personal responsibility to see Christian multiplication to the ends of the earth.
So, in a small church on a side street in a nowhere place, we just said, "We must have a heritage of the nations." We chose seven target nations and began to pray for, intercede, and send our people there. We asked God to raise up ministry in those places. Eventually, we changed it to the seven worlds, but through that we gave people a vision. We had people involved and sent people on teams to different places. There was motivation, and calling, and we helped people take the practical steps to fulfill their callings.
SBC LIFE Your heart for training young ministers included a Levitical model that you believe told you to change your ministry right at a time when others might be resting on their laurels. Tell us about what you see in the Levitical model.
Wolf I see Leviticus 4 and Leviticus 8 providing a model of ministry that has three sections: One is apprenticeship, the next is action, and the last stage is advice. Most pastors would probably acknowledge that they either had a mentor or wish they would have had one. We wish we would have had a system that went beyond the academic training so that we could 'apprentice.'
After the apprenticeship, I see an 'action' period of about 20 years. In Leviticus 8:24 and following, it says that at the age of 50 a person should retire and not do the work anymore, but to assist. So from that general direction, I set my mind that I would minister 20 years in one place, which I feel then gives a proof of character in the individual. It gives the context, the community context for multiplication and integrity with the congregation. It gives the kind of wisdom and balance over the years that shears away other things, so that you know the principles to multiply, rather than just the oddities that are yourself or your situation.
At the 20-year mark, I was all ready for it, and I even shared and reminded the congregation of that. By year 23, a brother in our congregation came to California to join our church, and he has become our new senior pastor, Irwin McMannis. He is from El Salvador, was the Director of Evangelism for the Dallas (Texas) Association, and a graduate from Southwestern. I stepped aside and became 'teaching pastor.'
SBC LIFE How does that relationship work?
Wolf Part of my assignment has been to learn to live out of Philippians 2, the giving away, the voluntary yielding. And from the model of John the Baptist, I must decrease, so that, as senior pastor, he increases. Irwin has learned to live out of Romans 12, where we're told to out-do one another in showing honor.
And he is building on the things that are there. He did not come into a vacuum, obviously, but he did bring his own gifting and vision. He is taking us to the next stage of what God has for us. For myself, as teaching pastor, we're learning that we don't have models to draw from — we're kind of bumming around.
SBC LIFE You are the model, particularly for a long-term successful pastor yielding his mantle to the newcomer.
Wolf But it is a very joyful thing because, again, Philippians 2, "Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus." So we're asking the Lord to teach us the mind of Christ, and we're learning to walk in it. Nothing we do is in isolation. The days of trying to solve our congregation and our pastoral problems by just going to another church or going somewhere else are over. The world sees, and the world knows that sometimes we're walking away from troubles, rather than solving problems. So, it's important to stay put and to work it out.
Irwin can obviously lead and make it by himself. But, quite frankly, I could too. So it's not as though we don't have something to do or that we couldn't do it by ourselves. We feel that there is a power in mutual submission and in servanthood and using our gifts together. There's real power in that. We tell others to do it. We tell our people to do it, so we are setting an example. We feel the responsibility of that and we feel it's wonderful.
And when I stepped aside to become 'teaching pastor,' Golden Gate Seminary contacted me and asked me to chair the missions department. I've never been a missionary, but they said, "You are multiplying and producing leadership. Can you do that with young men?" My answer is, "Yes, I can. I know I can. I know I can radicalize their thinking. I know that I can encourage them in their walk with the Lord and give them principles for pastoring and for multiplying their lives, whether here or abroad."
SBC LIFE What are ways you radicalize their thinking?
Wolf I think that the local church is key to what God does in kingdom ministry. Until we have vibrancy and servanthood, the joy of Christ, the penetration of our culture from our local churches — everything else is largely irrelevant. We only have healthy denominational structures and institutional life whenever we have healthy church life. That's why I have great compassion and great concern for the difficulties faced in the local church.
To me, Christian leaders need a vision that helps them understand that all the resources of God are there in any local church, and that it is God Who does the work, not their resources or circumstances. Brady is a testimony to that. Brady is not in the suburbs, it's not wealthy, it's not everything that people often associate with what you need to grow a church.
I think that most of the time, when people come to see our facilities, they're amazed, but facilities aren't what makes it happen. It's what we do with vision. We get captured by things that we think are important, so we have to just continually re-evaluate ourselves in the light of the Word, and let the Word break out, and let the Holy Spirit lead us to do whatever is necessary to become a servant to our people. Then we can lead them to reach the people of their cultural area.
To lift up our eyes and to see that this church, these people right here, must be involved to the ends of the earth. That is not the responsibility of the denomination, that is not the responsibility of someone else. It is the responsibility of God's people in this church right here. When that is done properly, then we're going to be contributors to our denomination and our fellowship. We're going to be contributors to networking and training and everything like that. All the other will take care of itself. By being uniquely The Church on Brady, we're a better Southern Baptist church because we dropped the cultural things that bound us in order to be free to be God's people on mission right where we are in Los Angeles.