Ok, I am as thrilled as the next guy about fire safety… but who died and left the FIRE MARSHALL in charge of chapel services? It’s one thing for these guys to check exit-ways, stairwells, and sprinkler systems but who is he to say how a chapel service can be conducted? Oh, by the way, if you ask that question he will rip open his jacket and flash his bright, shiny official badge that is pinned to his crisp, official uniform shirt and remind you that he is the Fire Marshall and that he has the authority to vacate and close your building. I got the impression that he meant it.
You have to know this Fire Marshall became a huge bone of contention for a group of Baptist missionaries operating an historic ministry center that had always had chapel services every night. We were mad and did not understand what was happening. I smile now as I tell the story knowing it was a Romans 8:28 moment. It was not funny at all on that day!
Fire inspectors take their jobs seriously, very seriously! I have had plenty of encounters with these heralds of bad news as I served a career missionary assignment in downtown New Orleans for more than 25 years. I dreaded the days each year that this man, or men, would show up, unannounced, and find pages of things wrong (shock) with our 100 year old building. Mind you that the things wrong this year were somehow not violations last year and some violations this year would not be violations next year. It all seemed too arbitrary for me. I recall that one visit noted 261 violations! But they were always very generous in giving the perfunctory 15 days to correct any violations.
This incredible chapel violation involved the Courts Redford Chapel at the Brantley Center. Preaching was one of our very important elements of outreach to homeless people in our City. Nine preaching services were conducted each week. Attendance in the service was not optional for those overnight guests of the Center. The chapel was furnished with pews to seat about 100. Typically we had 120 or more in attendance.
The Fire Marshall came in one evening during the service. He blew a gasket when he saw the room filled with people. His order was that we would cease conducting such chapel services and that without compliance he would padlock the door and the ministry would no longer exist. The topic was not open for discussion. His word was final. Everyone involved was angry (except for the shelter guests). We were to meet with him the next day to fully discuss the matter. Then he was gone.
There was wisdom in waiting until the next day. By then the initial anger was gone. But it had been replaced with absolute incredulity. What gives this guy any say-so about a preaching service in a rescue mission? What axe does he have to grind? What is his agenda? I had been told many times by native Orleanians that a few Grants dropped along the way fixed Fire and Health violations. I never went that direction.
Our violation turned out to be simple. The fix would create a real struggle as our Baptist partners, both local and national, became deeply involved in solving the dilemma. Our violation… too many people in the Courts Redford Chapel. The question became how to fix it.
If you know the traditional model for rescue ministries then you know that chapel attendance is mandatory. If you eat our food and sleep in our bunks then you must hear our gospel. This outreach model allowed us to report 225-275 decisions for Christ each year. These were good numbers and we were proud of them. Furthermore, we agreed that it was important for as many people as possible to at least be exposed to the gospel. As Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” 1CO3:6.
The Fire Marshall, as it turned out, was no gospel-hater. He had nothing but admiration for the work done by Baptists through the Brantley Center. He had no stake in how the problem was resolved but we could not allow us to continue overcrowding the Chapel. His concern was simple… He did not want to see people burned up in our building… Not on his watch!
Our staff spent many days seeking an answer. We sought advice from local supporters. No one was happy at the thought of making chapel attendance voluntary but there was no more room. We could not expand. Our hearts were broken at the notion of people under our roof without the gospel message. With deep sadness and feeling like we were forced into a corner, voluntary attendance became our new reality.
Disappointment. That first night only 15 people came to the service. Some of our preachers stopped coming since we could no longer guarantee a roomful. Then God began to reveal Himself in this process. God had used this Fire Marshall to introduce and accomplish the greatest evangelistic days of that historic ministry!
Suddenly I realized that our homeless guests felt manipulated as we required them to attend chapel service. They, in exchange, had returned the favor and manipulated us. They had learned, for example, how to respond to an evangelistic invitation. Never go down on the first verse because it will lead to a longer invitation. Do not go on the second either. But if a third verse was offered, someone would go forward and the preacher would be happy to have just one decision. Now we understood why, throughout all the years, the numbers had stagnated within a certain narrow range. The truth, even if someone has a desire to hear and respond, the incessant coughing contest and the shuffle of newspapers made it impossible to hear.
Everything changed. The 15 were a great disappointment. But God placed a question upon our hearts, “Would you rather share the gospel with 15 who voluntarily desire to hear or with a roomful that do not?” We began to pray that God would do His work among those 15. We began to pray for those preachers who remained faithful in preaching to our meager crowd. God caused us to set a prayer goal for that first year of one soul for each day of the year. We ended that year at 356… a few short of the prayer goal… but up 42% from the year before. These decisions were real, genuine, not coerced. The responses were not made in an effort to end the service so they could go to bed. These people simply recognized their spiritual need. They attended voluntarily, heard voluntarily, responded voluntarily with nothing to gain apart from peace with God! The simplicity of the gospel was working beautifully and making a difference in the lives of hearers.
It did not end there. Each year the attendance went up. Each year the salvations went up, 385, 405, 454, etc, finally up over 1000 each year. The greatest number was 1856 decisions from the street in one year! These were shouting days for Baptists and for our Brantley Center staff as we had front row seats to how God was bringing salvation into the lives of these very special social outcasts. I was there.
God forced change into our ministry model. He used the Fire Marshall to do it. What we thought was bad He used for good. This Fire Marshall, in the end, became an instrument of spiritual change in the lives of thousands of men and women as they came to faith in Christ.
That shiny badge and aggressive bark were used to keep homeless men and women from burning up in the eternal fire of hell. Talk about fire prevention… not on his watch. His words became the watch-word for our work and ought to be so for preachers, churches, and believers across the world… May they not go to hell on our watch.