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Little Rock Pastors Recall Ministry at Crossroads of History

Former pastors, ministers and staff members at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock gathered there recently on the church’s 125th anniversary to dialogue about ministry.

Their discussion not only illuminated how one downtown church has survived in the same location through the twists and turns of 125 years of history, but it also shed light on core principles of how churches can adapt to and challenge culture.

The way to the future is always two generations down, said Bill White, currently a pastor in Coral Gables, Fla. If the church has a future, the people must use the language of their grandchildren. The church should keep asking, ˜How do we missionally hand the torch two generations down?’ I prefer not to drive looking in the rear-view mirror. Our present tense is God’s future tense.

People don’t want to listen to the same old words, said John Lockhart, now a minister in the Houston area. They want a dynamic approach that puts them on edge. The freedom of the word is freedom to the ear of the worshiper.

This church’s focus has been intentionally incarnational, White added. If it’s not relevant, it’s not real.

History’s cross-currents and a downtown location meant ministry at Second Baptist has often involved major risks — from holding dances for soldiers in the World War I era that resulted in the church building being burned, to taking a stand for racial equality during the Little Rock School Crisis of 1957, to accepting women and African-American ministers and deacons more than three decades ago.

When God calls you, act out of that and keep taking risks, said Carolyn Staley, an associate minister at Pulaski Heights Baptist and a former minister at Second Baptist. We’re all looking for examples of what the church should be.

It’s the realization God is never short of resources, said Ray Higgins, former pastor and currently the executive director of CBF of Arkansas. In little individual opportunities, God’s kingdom comes.

It’s a sense of family that is more than a sense of community, said Al Fasol, a retired professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth who served 18 months as interim pastor at the church. It’s saying your personal agenda is subservient to the church’s agenda. What is good for the church as a whole is good for the cause of Christ.

Larry Maddox, another former pastor who teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, said, Never stop being an agent for change.

Even if it defies tradition, he said, do what is new and innovative to meet the needs of the people.

Change is scary, Higgins added, but you can trust God in change.

Never lose a sense of humor and being able to laugh, said Tom Wideman, minister of worship at a church in the St. Louis area and a former minister of music at Second Baptist. Never lose a ministry of grace. Live with a sense of thanksgiving. And don’t allow yourself to be defined by what happens on Sunday morning.

I’ve learned that music is not necessarily synonymous with worship, Wideman added. I came to the realization in this church that I was worshiping music rather than using music to worship God. You shouldn’t break fellowship over a song or style of music.

Fasol recalled a memory from when he was interim pastor at Second Baptist. He was preparing for a routine baptism before the service began when he heard a voice to the side of the baptistry. It came from an 11-year-old boy with a severe disability who was confined to a wheelchair.

I’m gonna be baptized this morning, the youngster shouted to him.

We hadn’t made arrangements for a special type of baptism, Fasol recalled, so I told him let’s wait until we can make the arrangements.

No sir! said the boy. I’m gonna be baptized this morning!

Fasol phoned the audio-visual booth and said, I need two hardy men here, now!

Two men, dressed in coats and ties, quickly came to the baptistry.

You need to change clothes and take off your shoes, Fasol told them. No sir, they said. Let’s go.

The two men then took the youngster out of the wheelchair and helped in the baptism.

That happened 20 years ago, and I’ll never forget it, Fasol said. It taught me something about the church. Here were a couple of guys who were willing to come to the rescue if needed and didn’t care if it meant messing up their coats and slacks or ruining an expensive pair of shoes. It was the attitude, ˜We don’t care. We’ll be there when God needs us.’

It illustrated one of the core themes of the dialogue: Discipleship doesn’t just mean washing others’ feet, but getting yours wet also.

David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.