BLOG 12/10/16. A REMARKABLE CHURCH REBIRTH, BUT THE HARD WAY
Let me tell you a true and remarkable story about a church of my acquaintance that has undergone a dramatic and remarkable rebirth, … but not the way any would have chosen. It is the story of Canal Street Church in New Orleans. New Orleans, of course, is a very unique city, and a culture unto itself. It is small and confined by waterways, founded several centuries ago as a seaport, not at all a southern city, its roots being Spanish and French, and then many minority ethnic groups such as African-American, German, and Chinese. Religiously, it is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. So, it was unique that a Presbyterian mission was founded in the French Quarter early in the 19th century, which mission became a church and moved just out of the French Quarter a few years later. Then as the city grew away from the river, the church moved out into a new developing neighborhood in mid-city. For several decades, it was decidedly a neighborhood church, but its history would indicate that it was a less-than-missional and traditional church institution, holding services, weathering some crises, but un-exciting.
Then, after World War II it became more and more of a commuter church as its membership moved out into the fringes of the city. It ceased to be a neighborhood church, and became pretty static, conservative, and with no clear focus on its mission—except to survive. I became pastor of that church in the early 1970s. A decade before my arrival the church had for a brief period a very entrepreneurial pastor, who swept in a wave of rambunctious new members, but didn’t do much about their formation in discipleship. They had become quite troublesome by the time I arrived. With me arrived, also, the social disruptions caused by the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam war and the restless youth culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For me it was challenging and formative, as we attracted a fairly large participation by spiritually hungry university students from Tulane and the University of New Orleans. I rather fell in love with New Orleans.
But the lack of clear missional focus, the lack of any vital contact with the neighborhood, the presence of disruptive interest groups vying for power within the congregation, and an on-going restlessness with denominational interference made it an uneasy period. I was called away (against my better desires) to accept a denominational post in evangelism, and there followed decades of ups-and-downs, with a few bright spots, but a certain internal division that diminished its witness. (Are you still with me? Here’s where it gets interesting.)
In August of 2005, one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to hit this country moved in on New Orleans with unbelievable damage. The city lives behind levees because parts of it are below sea-level anyhow, but when the levees broke, and the wind damage escalated it was sheer chaos. For all of the years since my tenure there, I followed Canal Street Church, did a retreat once for its members a few years before Katrina, and maintained a strong affection for it. So, I followed the satellite pictures on the web and was blown away by what I saw. Canal Street Church lost 65% of its members’ homes, the church building had two feet of water in the sanctuary, there was roof damage, the church went into dispersion, … but then: what no one could have predicted or planned. The small core of those remaining came together with a very strong sense of mission. With their first insurance monies, they created the semi-attached fellowship hall of the church into a community center to coordinate restoration efforts in the neighborhood. They resumed worship services. All ties to the Presbyterian church ceased to exist. Committed and gifted Christian leadership emerged with particular gifts. Ergo! Canal Street Church had emerged as a dynamic and neighborhood-focused community once again, advertising on its web-site that Canal Street Church is a mosaic community. It is alive, dynamic, missionally focused, Christ-exalting, bearing fruit. Its past was all washed away by the disaster, and it was dramatically reborn. But not the way anyone would have chosen. God works in mysterious ways.