From its founding, through the 1960s, it was primarily a Caucasian church, but during the shameful turmoil of desegregation in the 70s, as many whites fled to the suburbs, the church continued with its mission and ministered to their transitioning community, becoming a primarily African-American church.
When Dr. Fred Luter was elected as pastor in 1986, the church had only 65 members, but began to grow and thrive, eventually reaching more than 8,300 in membership in 2005. Dr. Luter, who in 2012 was elected as the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, could never have predicted what would happen next. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, leaving the church flooded under nine feet of water, and it wasn’t until April 2008, that the church was able to move back into their renovated sanctuary.
However, just a few months prior to the hurricane slamming into the city, the church had purchased property in east New Orleans, because of the church outgrowing their building and their available parking.
While the devastation of the hurricane caused a setback in timing, the church’s impact in the community grew as they ministered to their membership that had now become displaced and widely scattered. The church’s decision to relocate six miles from its Ninth Ward location in New Orleans’ St. Roch neighborhood, where the vibrant congregation required three Sunday morning worship services and never had enough parking was tough. Luter notes, “Our greatest growth through the years happened at the 2515 Franklin Avenue location. We really hated to leave, because we’re so much invested in the community, however we just couldn’t expand. We had no parking spaces and it started affecting our attendance.”
Eventually the time was right to pursue the relocation project and Visioneering Studio Architecture was hired to provide the design for their new 21-acre campus. The almost 125,000-square-foot campus includes a 3,500-seat worship center, small group classrooms for preschool through adults, offices, a commercial kitchen, a 2-story fellowship hall, and a gallery that wraps around the worship center and is used as community space to encourage mingling before and after services.
The facility fronts on south side of the Interstate 10 Service Road and is a prominent landmark in east New Orleans, with its near-150-foot tall translucent glass steeple and solid cross that illuminates at night. “It is something that you just cannot miss,” Luter said. “It’s like being in St. Louis and seeing that big ole arch. If you’re on the interstate, you’re going to see it. You just can’t miss it.”
The new worship center allows the church to accommodate members and guests in a single Sunday morning worship service. Separate worship areas are provided for children and student ministry. The worship center is configured with risers and theater seating, allowing everyone to be visible in the room with great views of the stage, which helps this large room feel more communal and intimate.
Many attendees are able to walk to the site from nearby neighborhoods. “We will continue to do the things that made us who we are. Franklin Avenue is known across the city for our evangelism and for our discipleship of reaching the lost and also growing people once they come into the church,” Luter says. “And we do that by small groups, through new members’ classes and about 50 ministries that we have, geared to individuals from kids to adulthood.”
Three hours each Saturday morning, the church’s evangelism team evangelizes door to door, rotating among adjacent communities. Results are already evident, Luter notes, “People know Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. We have a good name in the city through our community outreach we’ve done for years,” Luter said, “and by God’s grace that will continue.”
While Hurricane Katrina interrupted the church’s plans in 2005, redirecting much of its outreach to Baton Rouge and Houston after Katrina’s floodwaters forced many to relocate, new congregations born from Katrina continue to meet, including Houston’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, and United Believers Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “The blessing of post-Katrina is that we’ve been able to touch lives that maybe pre-Katrina we couldn’t,” Luter explains. “Our church will never be the same because of Hurricane Katrina.”
Most churches will never face the devastating challenges and impacts to their community that are associated with a hurricane like Franklin Avenue has had to endure in New Orleans, but with faith and perseverance they chose to rise to the occasion and minister to their scattered members while pursuing a decade-long dream to reunite their community through a unique and inspiring campus design that the church is now utilizing as a fantastic new tool for ministry to better impact their community.