It didn’t take long for the people attending the Carver Medal Ceremony at Simpson College to understand how Pastor Fred Luter Jr. went from preaching on street corners in New Orleans to leading the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
He transformed the annual event into a revival.
“Simpson College, I promise you, if you continue to be faithful to God, God will continue to be faithful to you,” he said during Thursday night’s ceremony.
Luter, the first African-American to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is the 40th person to deliver the Carver Lecture. The annual event honors the legacy of George Washington Carver, whose education began at Simpson.
“When I see the list of incredible individuals who have received the George Washington Carver Medal in the past, I cannot help but ask the question, ‘Why me, Lord?’” Luter said.
He then described his personal spiritual journey, mixing humor, Bible verses and anecdotes with a booming voice and passionate fervor that filled Smith Chapel.
Luter was one of five children. His parents divorced when he was six, forcing his mother to perform a series of jobs, “not to make ends meet, but to kind of make ends wave at one another.”
During his youth, he “got involved in some things I should not have gotten involved, with some people I should have not gotten involved with.”
The turning point came after he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in 1977.
“For the first time in my life, I started thinking seriously about my relationship with God,” he said. “I made a decision that would literally change my life and forever change my future. I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life, I became a born-again believer and gave my life to the Lord. As a result, my life has never been the same.”
He began preaching on street corners in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. “What I had, I wanted everybody that I knew to have.”
In 1986, he was offered the chance to lead the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Church leaders told him, “Fred, you’re either going to resurrect this church or we’re going to bury it.”
He had never led a church before, never been to seminary, “but I knew God had called me, and I knew Jesus had saved me, and I knew the word of God was real.”
Inspired by Matthew 25:21 – You have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things – Luter told his tiny congregation that the church would thrive if they followed four principles.
First: “Be faithful to God.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, waving his arms in the air, “you will be amazed what can happen in your life if you’re faithful to God. You will be amazed what can happen in your life, in your home, in your marriage if you’re faithful to God.
“Notice I said faithful to God and God alone. Not God and someone else. But God alone. Not God and something else. But God alone. Not God and the lottery, not God and the casino, not God and the horoscopes, not God and the racetracks, not God and Dr. Phil, not God and Dr. Oz, not God and Oprah, not God and the Housewives of Atlanta, but be faithful to God and God alone.”
He continued: “It’s not about the pastor, it’s about the master. It’s not about the preachers, it’s about the Creator. It’s not about the singing, it’s about the Savior. It’s not about the leaders, it’s about the Lamb of God. It’s not about the members, it’s about the Messiah. It’s not about the building and the budget, it’s about the bright and morning star.”
Pastor Luter said people often ask him why he preaches with such passion – “Why do you holler and spit and scream when you preach?”
His reply: “How can you be saved, and born again, and called to pastor one of the greatest churches this side of heaven” and then give God less than your best?
“So every time I stand before you, and because of God’s faithfulness to me, I will be faithful to God, and I will preach like it’s my last time, because it must might be.”
The second challenge to his church: “We must be faithful to God’s word.”
The third: “We must be faithful to God’s ways.”
The fourth: “Let’s be faithful to God’s will.”
His church was indeed resurrected as it grew to more than 7,000 members – it had to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – and Luter was named president of the Southern Baptist Convention in June. The denomination has 16 million members in 45,000 churches across the country.
A denomination that had once defended slavery and segregation had elected an African-American pastor to lead them. And it all began with 50 members in a struggling church in a poor section of New Orleans.
“Come on church,” he told them, “let’s walk by faith, let’s talk by faith, let’s preach by faith, let’s sing by faith…let’s be about faith, let’s testify by faith. And that’s what I’m doing tonight at Simpson College.
“Ladies and gentlemen, God knows I am testifying to the goodness and grace of God. I’m not boasting, I’m not bragging, I’m testifying that if you’re faithful to God, God will, God will, God will be faithful to you. I have seen that happen in my life.”
After the event, Simpson President John Byrd said, “It’s not often you hear a talk with that much passion and power. It was spectacular.”