Interview on Contextualization with Dr. Paige Patterson

Dr. Paige Patterson serves as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and Judge Paul Pressler are the heroes of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. There is more to him, however, than that colossal battle, and in this interview we want to focus on the days before the big brouhaha in the convention.

I posed a number of questions to Dr. Patterson, and he was gracious enough to answer them all. I thought about breaking this interview up into a series of posts, but Dr. Patterson’s answers are so gripping and instructive and challenging and fun to read that I thought it best to keep them all together. So while the interview is long, I trust that you’ll relish every word.


Dr. Patterson, thank you so much for joining us in this interview. There’s a lot of talk about the contextualization of the gospel today. I’ve heard stories that indicate that you were into contextualization before it was cool. Could you describe for us the ministries you were involved in while a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and then maybe what you did with the students at the University of Arkansas (my alma mater) in Fayetteville, Arkansas?

Always I have believed that the church has to get outside of its doors and take the gospel to the world. The venue that is chosen will depend upon the times and places where one serves. While in New Orleans, three of our churches went together with street evangelist, Leo Humphrey, to establish a coffee house ministry in the French Quarter. This was in the wild 60s when runaway kids were coming from all over America. We sent kids home to all fifty states at one time or another. The coffee house ministry provided us a great opportunity for evangelizing and provided us an opportunity to work with runaway kids, prostitutes, biker gangs, the earliest development of the gay revolution, and with other drop-outs from society. In addition there was direct ministry to members of the Louisiana mafia. The church I served as Pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, was one of the three churches involved with this ministry. In addition, we did street preaching on a regular basis and worked with Richard Land who was Pastor of the Vieux-Carre Baptist Church or French Quarter Baptist Church.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, First Baptist Church was just a few blocks away from the campus of the University of Arkansas. Several of the unusual ministries that we developed there included a coffee house ministry for college students called The EAR. It stood for “Entering Another Realm” and the way into the basement of the old warehouse where we set up was to walk through a huge ear, which we had manufactured in the place of a front door. Through that we saw many students come to Christ. While in Fayetteville, I also operated a bar ministry. I would take a layman and go to every bar in town. I would simply leave my card with the owner or manager and say, “You’re going to have someone who is talking about taking his life or is otherwise upset or causing problems. Just call me and I will come take care of them.” Eventually, we led the family of one of those bartenders to Christ. Another thing we did at the University of Arkansas was to have a Thursday night Lion’s Den in our home. This was scheduled for 10:00 p.m. every Thursday night. We told the students, “When you’re tired of studying and you want to have some homemade refreshments,” which Mrs. Patterson prepared, “come to the house and we’ll do Bible study together and have refreshments.” Normally students stayed, asking questions until well after midnight. We usually ran between thirty and a hundred of these students. In addition to that, I had a Saturday morning Table Talk session with all of my young men called into the ministry. They would bring their own lunches and the church provided their soft drinks. We sometimes talked about theology, sometimes about evangelism; sometimes we would fill the baptistry and let them practice on each other. Other times we would go to the hospital and learn how to do hospital visitation—all of the things that are involved in pastoral ministries. Eventually all of these young people became the regular preachers for Wednesday night prayer meeting and got invaluable experience doing that, although I also asked my deacons to preach occasionally on Wednesday night. In addition to that, the young people and the deacons assisted me with funerals and even weddings.

So did you own the New Orleans coffee shop or were you on friendly terms with the management? How did all that come together?

No we did not own our own coffee shop. The Way, as we called it, was in rented facilities and because it was as successful as it was, we found ourselves continually closed down by the city for failing to meet some aspect of the fire code. Of course nothing in the French Quarter met fire code, but we were targeted because we were the antithesis of what else was going on. However, even though we had to move a couple of times and come up to fire code frequently, we still managed to run the ministry for the better part of three years with some pretty amazing results.

Was there a formal relationship between the coffee shop ministry and a particular local church? Do you have thoughts on how local churches and parachurch ministries can or should relate to one another?

As I indicated above there were three of our local churches that participated officially in The Way. Evangelist Leo Humphrey, one of the greatest personal witnesses whom I ever knew, is now in heaven, having departed this present life about a year and a half ago. He was the catalyst and although there were three churches that were officially involved, many others periodically contributed anything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to coffee, tea, soft drinks, and other necessities. We didn’t really see it as a parachurch ministry, although I suppose in one sense it was. We saw it as the ministry of the local churches reaching out to people who sought entertainment in the French Quarter.

What steps did you take to “become all things to all men” as you sought to share the gospel in those contexts? In particular, how did it affect your clothing and your hairstyle? Was there a difference between what you did in New Orleans as compared to Fayetteville?

Regarding the contextualization of the gospel as it concerns clothing and hairstyle, I have never felt that had much to do with the success of the gospel. Most lost people I’ve known are looking for someone who is real, who has integrity, and who they thought they could trust. Your hairstyle or your dress didn’t matter much. I usually didn’t go down to the French Quarter to work in the coffee house in coat and tie, although occasionally I found it unavoidable. I never felt that I needed to apologize for that, and I was not conscious of anybody turning away because of it. Of course, it was a much more informal atmosphere, so more often than not, I was down there in my jeans, western shirt, cowboy hat, and boots, which has sort of been my signature dress as a Texan. That probably attracted a certain amount of attention, especially when people came through from the west and thought they had found somebody who shared a bit of their background. But again I say that there is nothing like integrity of spirit and a genuine love and friendliness to break through barriers. Dress just doesn’t have much to do with it one way or the other.

Do you think that certain style issues can lead to people crossing the lines of what is appropriate? For instance, how would you counsel someone today thinking about getting a tattoo in order to pursue contextualization? Are there other factors we should consider today as we think about what clothes to wear or how to style our hair?

Yes there is no question in my mind that there are style issues that can lead people to cross the line for what is appropriate for a believer. I have been accused of being the opponent of contemporary music. That one always strikes me as strange, since by definition that would mean I was opposed to anyone writing music in the present era. Of course, I’m happy to have good contemporary music and I’m opposed to bad music, whether it’s from the Middle Ages, fifty years ago, or contemporary. But when I go to some churches and watch a performance on the platform that is not infrequently tainted by rather “physical displays” that elicit anything but an attitude of holiness, then I suspect the line has been crossed. Regarding tattoos, I cannot imagine that any Christian would believe that it was necessary for him to get a tattoo in order to blend in to the group to whom he wishes to witness. From the sixties to the present, I have worked with biker gangs and a host of other people who were often covered with tattoos, and the fact that I didn’t have one of any kind seemed not to be problematic. Again, almost everyone responds to genuine friendliness, love, the sense that the person with whom they are talking is real. I have my doubts as to whether a very good case can be made from Scripture for the use of tattoos, and in fact I think that a case could be made against them. I am not hung up in any legalism. I just don’t think that you have to act like the world acts in order to have a witness to the world.

Related to the last question, how did the efforts to reach people in New Orleans and Fayetteville influence the music you listened to personally? Was there music playing in/at the coffee shop? How should we think about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of music when we think about reaching people where they are?

My experience with music has been a rather eclectic one. I grew up listening to the metropolitan opera on Saturday morning because my sister, who was nine years older than I, was deeply into opera. At first, I didn’t like it, but I reached the place that I loved it, and until this day I love opera and symphonies. On the other hand, partly because of where I grew up and partly because it is a unique genre to the American outback and partly because it’s brim full of sermon illustrations, I love country-western music. In fact, I have noted that there is really no difference between country music and opera except a small difference in the genre of the music. It’s all “crying, loving, and leaving.” Nevertheless, country music regularly illustrates the bankruptcy of the human soul and the desperate need that we all have for Christ.

As for the appropriateness or inappropriateness of music, I am again concerned that the music we use in church meets three standards. First, it has to be theologically orthodox. Second, it should be singable, and third it should be memorable. Much of contemporary music doesn’t meet that standard for one or all of those reasons. However, some of the music we used to sing in church as kids would not either, and so I don’t blame it on the present generation but on inadequate attention to such issues on the part of the leaders in the church. On the other hand, in the coffee house ministries in both New Orleans and Fayetteville, some modern churchmen would not have been happy with what they would have heard there. We watched it pretty carefully to be sure that it was never music that would lead to immoral thought or action in any way, and we tried to be sure that it reflected orthodox theology, but it certainly made heavy use of guitars, trap sets, and other things that would be common to those venues. I actually think that you can use music there that you wouldn’t want to use in the regular worship of the church. In church, the choice of music needs to reflect the needs of the entire congregation.

Did you have children in those years? How do you recommend we balance the importance of family time, the demands of being a student, and the feeling of urgency that comes from knowing that every day lost people are dying?

Yes, I did have children in those years. They were very young. If a person intends to be in the ministry, he must make time for his family. The idea that “I spend quality time with my family even though I don’t spend a large quantity of time” is absurd. You need both quantity and quality to make it work. This was particularly difficult for me because I’ve always, in addition to the local church ministry, been asked to speak widely in distant places. I don’t know why that is, but I took it to be an area that God had opened to me for ministry. In order to do that, I had to make special provision for time with my wife and my family. We have been a lot poorer than we would have been otherwise, but I used a fair amount of the money I made on outside speaking to guarantee that my wife could go with me as much as possible. Not only that, but no matter where I am in the world, if I am away from her, I call her every single night. You could probably count less than 50 times when I have been in a situation where I could not do so. It was just my way of telling her that she was on my mind and my heart. As for my children, I found special things to do with them. Often they traveled with us. While my son was playing football I was frequently preaching revivals and I’m certain that some would think it a worldly deed, but I informed the church that if they wanted me to come, they would have to get a substitute for Friday night. I wouldn’t be there. I would fly home at my expense to see my son play football and fly back on Saturday morning. I wasn’t doing that just because I love football, although I certainly do. I was doing that to build a bridge with my son, which has continued until the present time.

As you ministered to people in New Orleans and Fayetteville in those years, did you find that people were aware of their guilt before God, or, as seems to be the case today, was the concept of sin separated from the idea of offending God’s holiness?

Personally, for the most part, I have seldom found people who were profoundly aware of their guilt before God. The attitude I usually get from people is that if they are not in prison it must be that they’re good people, and any sense of the holiness of God and the tragic depravity of the human heart is far removed. I suppose this is one reason why I love doing the Sportsmen banquets. Most of the lost men who come to these sportsmen’s banquets may have never thought about it in terms of holiness and depravity, but they don’t take much convincing to admit that they are twenty-one karat sinners. I have found it unnecessary to spend a lot of time convincing them of such. You just tell them and they see it quickly. That’s quite different than most of polite society where we tend to evaluate our acceptability to God on whether or not we are of a somewhat philanthropic and eleemosynary spirit. Of course, post-modern influence has only worsened this problem.

What do you find most helpful to keep in mind as you seek to share the gospel? Is there an aspect of it that you think should be particularly emphasized in our cultural context today? Or, is it only the messenger who needs to be contextualized, while the message itself is what we might describe as trans-contextual?

The message of the gospel never changes. The messenger of the gospel may need to be contextualized to some degree; but if the message needs to be changed itself, then that can only mean that God failed to figure out a way to be universally communicative to a lost world. If that’s the case, then He really isn’t qualified to be God. We won the battle for the inerrancy and the infallibility of the Scripture, I fear, only to have lost the battle on the question of the sufficiency of the Scripture. There is an approach that I have found myself utilizing more and more. Looking at the disastrous results of much of the shallow evangelism that I have seen, I have come to the conclusion that one of the most important passages of Scripture in God’s Word is 2 Corinthians 7:10, which says “Godly sorrow works repentance unto salvation.” I really do not believe that anyone can ever experience the new birth until he is ashamed and sorrowful about his sin. Only the Holy Spirit can bring about that sense of shame, but it is my belief that He is willing to do so if the hearer is willing to contemplate the situation honestly. Unless a person experiences that shame for his sin, then he does not come to repentance and if he does not come to repentance, he cannot come to faith. I don’t mean to assign temporal order to those events since I believe they often occur virtually simultaneously, I just mean to say that one of the reasons we have so much of the world in the church today is that we have so many lost people who are part of the church who have never been ashamed of their sins and hence have never genuinely repented or exercised actual faith in Christ.

If you were striking out in our culture today, would you go for a coffee shop ministry or some other venue? What creative outreach strategies would you recommend for the current scene?

In addition to pulpit and personal witnessing, my particular major evangelistic outreach right now has been the Outdoorsmen’s banquets for men and boys. It scratches where I itch. It enables me to present a hard line evangelistic message and appeal and at the same time address the problem of the absent father from so many American homes. I still think there is probably a place for a coffee house ministry, especially in University settings like across the street from the University of Houston, or the University of Texas or Texas A&M. I know some pastors who do an annual banquet based on collecting old automobiles. Several others are doing NASCAR rallies. On a more sophisticated note, in the past Larry Dyke has been successful in exhibiting his artwork in public places and using that as a venue for evangelism. There is no doubt in my mind that churches can find such venues. I have always believed that genuinely New Testament churches maintained outreach ministries to people who nobody else loves. It seems to me that every genuinely New Testament church ought to have a jail ministry, a ministry to the hearing impaired, a ministry to the blind, or a special education ministry of some kind. Some years ago Nelson Price, pastor in Atlanta, Georgia wrote a little book that I thought never did get as much attention as it deserved. It is entitled, “I’ve Got to Play on Their Court.” This book simply took note of the fact that a good basketball team doesn’t play all its games on the home court. It has to play half of them on the road; and if it’s going to be a great basketball team, it has to be able to win on the road. By the same token, some people find the Lord coming to church but just as many and maybe more, find the Lord because we meet them somewhere in a context in which they are comfortable and in which we can provide constructive witness.

Thank you so much for answering all these questions. Here’s the last one for this interview: The triumph of the gospel is always encouraging, and in their own way, stories of the ways the Lord sustains his people through discouraging aspects of ministry can be encouraging. Could you bless us with some of the sorrows and triumphs from your time in New Orleans and Fayetteville?

Regarding sorrows and triumphs in New Orleans and Fayetteville: The sorrows pale with the passing of the years as they always do, and the triumphs remain significant in your mind as the gracious acts of God honoring the witness that you give. In New Orleans, we faced regular physical threats of various kinds from inebriated or drugged individuals and periodically from racists who took exception to the fact that we welcomed people from all ethnic backgrounds. There were also the disappointments when people who made professions of faith and you thought were going to do very well, seemingly “fell away.” Although we know that what actually happened is, as the Scripture says, “They went out from us because they were never really a part of us.” The triumphs however, were far more vivid. I remember kids who were hooked on drugs or alcohol or had been sexually abused or become prostitutes coming to Christ on a regular basis. Some biker gang members from the Rancid Riders, the Banditos, or the Glory Stompers, who found the Lord, had their lives significantly changed. First Baptist, Fayetteville, was a church of the aristocracy with more than seventy faculty members from the University of Arkansas. Most everybody that wasn’t Dr. Somebody was President of a bank, a physician, an attorney, or a manager of a major facility of some kind. Consequently it was a little like trying to drive a whole herd of jack rabbits across an open prairie. I was so young at the time—twenty six years old—when I went to the church to be as sympathetic as I should have been with the senior citizens. I frankly don’t think I was a very good pastor to them, and they sometimes gave indication of that by being less than happy with me. Looking back on it from the years, I fault myself a great deal more than I do them. Nevertheless it hurt and it bothered me that I was never able to get the First Baptist Church of Fayetteville, Arkansas, to get into a significant growth pattern that I’d hoped I would see. On the other hand, all of that pales into insignificance in that in a five-year ministry more than fifty of our young people accepted the call of God to church-related vocations and better than half of them are still in such ministries until this day. In addition to that, using our high school young people and a Continental Trailways Silver Eagle that we bought, we were able to establish new churches—one in New York City and about seven in three different provinces of Canada. Of course there were the ministries to which I already alluded. One of the most unusual things I remember in Fayetteville was my morning Bible Study, which I did for awhile for pagans. No Christian was allowed. You had to be a confessing pagan to be allowed to come to it. In a way, it was funny because whenever somebody would be saved they would have to stand in front of the group and explain this and tell them how much they had enjoyed being a part of it, but now they were going to move on into the church and so they wouldn’t be coming to the group any more. Those are the kinds of blessings from God that you always remember and can never forget.


Hearty thanks to Dr. Patterson for taking the time to bless us all with this interview!

Join the Conversation


  1. Excellent interview… very helpful.. my church is across the road from the conservatorium of music within the University…
    Know any good ocffee shop workers wanting ministry in Australia?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *