Dr. Chuck Kelley – Southern Baptists are the New Methodists

Though this article is a few years old, its message is still timely and relevant. I’ve reposted this word from Dr. Chuck Kelley, President of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, with permission from the seminary.

March 6, 2009 | By Paul F. South

NEW ORLEANS — “Southern Baptists are the new Methodists,” New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley said March 3, and are in danger of following the mainline denomination into deep decline and all the problems that follow.

According to the Leavell Center for Church Health and Evangelism at NOBTS, 89 percent of Southern Baptist churches have either plateaued in their growth or are in decline. The way to reverse the downward spiral, Kelley said, is to repent and to return to the practice of evangelistic discipleship that made the SBC the largest non-Catholic religious body in America.

Kelley delivered the prepared remarks at a Tuesday morning service at Leavell Chapel. At the end of the service, Kelley eschewed his usual practice of meeting with students, staff and faculty. Instead students streamed to the altar or prayed in the pews, many weeping openly in the wake of a call to repentance.

A digital recording and PowerPoint presentation of Kelley’s chapel message is available online click here.

In 1945, Kelley noted, SBC churches baptized approximately 257,000 people into local congregations. Ten years later, SBC churches baptized a record 417,000 people. Never again have Southern Baptists experienced the dramatic growth in baptisms that typified the 1940s and 50s.

Kelley attributed the baptism explosion of that 10-year period to doing church the way a farmer operates a farm. A successful farmer obtains land, plants, cultivates, sows and reaps. He said the current generation of Southern Baptists are no longer farming their way to fruitfulness.

“For 15 years I said: ‘Southern Baptists are a harvest-oriented denomination living in the midst of an unseeded generation.’ We reduced planting, neglected cultivation, and not surprisingly have found the harvest coming up short. I now realize something more is going on,” Kelley said. “We are more like gardeners working the window boxes than farmers working the fields. We are the grandchildren of farmers keeping harvest stories alive over coffee and dessert at family reunions.”

At the heart of the decline, Kelley said, is not inadequate funding or outdated methods, but inadequate discipleship on the part of Southern Baptist churches.

Though Southern Baptists are often criticized for overemphasizing conversion, the opposite has been true.

“In the era of our greatest evangelistic growth, typical SBC churches had more discipleship activities than evangelistic activities,” Kelley said. “Aggressive evangelism was matched by aggressive discipleship.”

Churches have become “atomized” Kelley said, focusing more on particular methods of reaching people than on an integrated process of sowing and reaping.

Kelley introduced two new terms during his presentation: “discipl-istic” and “Biblelationships” The term “discipl-istic” refers to evangelistic discipleship that incorporates both evangelism and discipleship at the same time. Kelley uses the term “Biblelationships” to describe the combination of teaching Scripture and building nurturing relationships.

Kelley said that Biblelationships are “often used by the Holy Spirit to draw closer those who had heard the gospel but not yet responded.”

The genius of Southern Baptist evangelism was the integration of church planting, decisional preaching, personal evangelism, Sunday school and revivals. It was a paradigm not crafted by SBC agencies in Nashville or Atlanta, or on seminary campuses, but in the biblical practice of sowing and reaping in 1 Cor. 3:6, and its application in the local church.

… “[T]he SBC way of doing church emerged unconsciously out of a biblical worldview being preached and taught in our churches,” Kelley said.” Southern Baptists did not vote to use this approach at a convention meeting. It just seemed to be the right thing to do.”

Kelley lamented the “death” of the discipleship process in SBC life, calling its demise, “the most significant and influential death in the modern history of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am talking about the death of an SBC discipleship process, not a particular discipleship training program.”

“We neither maintained the process we had or reinvented it for a new day,” Kelley said.

Kelley praised Methodism for its role in the First and Second Great Awakenings, for taking the gospel to the American frontier with a call to holy living at its core. But the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley is no more.

“What Baptists know about evangelistic harvesting we learned from Methodists,” Kelley said.

But Methodist churches have set records for the fastest loss in membership in the history of the American church. Kelley cited several characteristics of Methodism today.

“Their efforts in evangelism and missions have greatly diminished.,” Kelley said. “The passion for holy living has been replaced by behavior blending with the culture. Most surprising, they have set new records for the fastest loss of membership in the history of the church in America.”

Southern Baptists, Kelley said, are on the same path as their Methodist brothers and sisters.

“Universalism is settling into our pews as more and more Southern Baptists believe and behave as though they believe a personal relationship with Christ is not necessary for one to be right with God,” Kelley said. “Tolerance is beginning to overtake conviction as growing numbers, particularly of younger Southern Baptists, are less comfortable with taking a firm stance on moral or doctrinal issues.  Our behavior, the way we live our lives, is blending more and more with our culture.”

By way of illustration, Kelley played samples from recordings of three well-known musicians whose voices are distinctive: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Kanye West, as well as an unknown “one-hit wonder.” The voice of this largely unknown artist, Kelley said, lacks the distinctives that make the other three memorable. Baptists are not losing their voice, but they are losing the distinctiveness of their voice in the culture, he said.

“Today, we do not know who we are,” Kelley said. “The world does not know who we are. Our lost friends and neighbors do not know who we are. In the New Testament world, believers lived differently than their neighbors. That is how they came to be called Christians, a term of derision, not respect. Our problem is not that more of us don’t witness to our neighbors. Our problem is that more of us do not look like and live like Jesus.”

Southern Baptists are no longer anointed, Kelley said.

“The conversion of a soul to Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. The stirring of a church and community in revival and awakening is a work of the Holy Spirit. Neither of these works of the Spirit is typical in SBC churches today. We are not anointed. That ‘we’ would be you, me and all of us at work in places with little evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit. We are so not anointed we have come to accept not being anointed as normal.”

At the close of the service, Kelley wept as he called his audience to repentance. As the campus prepares for its annual revival, Kelley showed his audience a picture of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Only a portion at the base of the wall, a piece of the wall’s former architectural majesty, remains from Jesus’ day.

Said Kelley: “In times past God has worked through our Southern Baptist churches in a mighty way. In times present God is not working in a mighty way through our churches. Is this acceptable to you? To me? How are you going to respond to this? How am I going to respond to this?”

He added,” If we as a people do not repent now, only one question remains: To what wall, will our children return to weep and remember the glory of what the SBC was?”

Kelley encouraged those who may wonder what difference one person can make, given the momentous challenges facing the denomination.

“Only one river carved out the Grand Canyon, only one river makes the most magnificent waterfall in the world. Only one Savior died for our sins,” he said.

He added, “I don’t know what God will do with any one of us. But I know that all God needs is any one of us to make a great difference.

Kelley closed with a story from the Normandy invasion. On June 6, 1944, a descendant of  Theodore Roosevelt led troops  who landed on the wrong beach on the French coast. When asked if they should recall the boats to reach the planned landing area, Roosevelt said no.

“‘For us,’ Roosevelt said, ‘the war starts here,'” Kelley said. “Finding someone to blame is a waste of time. Wishing things were different and better is a waste of time. As for me, the war starts here.”

2 thoughts on “Dr. Chuck Kelley – Southern Baptists are the New Methodists

  1. “I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating”-Jean-Paul Satre in “Being and Nothingness”

    Pastor Catt, what a startling revelation! During the many years i spent in church, the one aspect of my Christian experience that i never got was discipleship. it is true that without being properly discipled by someone mature in the faith, you cannot experience the type of spiritual growth you should. Of even greater concern, without proper discipleship, the odds of backsliding-falling back to your old life and habits will almost always, without fail occur!
    When i accepted Christ as my personal saviour,an inward act of faith, the reality was that i was still sleeping on the same bed, attending the same school. I was still doing most of the things i did before the act of faith. To grow in faith, you not only have to be changed on the inside, the change has to be manifested in all aspects of your life! A long and arduous process. Without proper guidance and discipleship, how is one supposed to know what to do?
    The Church as a whole EVERYWHERE has failed miserably in this area. The Church today, has become a place of fellowship, teaching and social/entertainment, quite different from the early church. Whatever happened to discipling new believers in the faith? Herein lies the problem. We are all so busy! Discipleship requires commitment of time, both on the person being discipled as well as the person who is helping the new believer. I am not making excuses, i still take full responsibility, but had i been properly discipled, my faith would not have faltered like a broken flight after so many years in the faith.
    Those who have been saved for many years should get involved in the life of new believers. It is all a part of God’s plan to help them grow in the new faith. As a believer, it was impossible for me to find a mature Christian to help me in my new walk. No one became a part of my life to help me with my Christian journey.
    I thank you Pastor Catt, it is time we get serious about sharing our lives with others to help them along the way, so they in turn can help others down the road. That was the very essence of the early church; passing the torch of their faith from one generation to the next. It is time to storm the beaches of Normandy like how the Allied forces did, the war starts here! God bless you.

    From Africa,
    Langat Kibet,
    Nairobi,Kenya(East Africa).

  2. “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.”

    Though I am not a southern Baptist by membership, I am in the family
    nontheless. Praise the Lord for leaders who first look questionably
    inward at themselves, so as see more clearly those whom are in their charge. I am also one born into the family of God in my early twenties
    (now sixty eight yrs.) I also was not discipled by someone mature in
    the faith. My praise is for the Word of God that liveth and abideth forever, In the first couple of weeks after my conversion I was encouraged to buy a Bible and read daily, which I did, and though it was
    Greek to a southern farm boy at first, a sweetness inside began to interpet some of the goodness it contained.
    Needless to say, I became full of wonder and questions, many of which I
    approached my pastor with, a loving and truthful man, he would tell if he could not satisfy the question with an answer, but advised me to search the scriptures for an answer to some hard questions.
    As a babe I became stunted in my walk with the Lord, but not defeated!
    I soon discovered the Ethopian who desired some man to teach him, and I began to read other books along with the Bible, and found I had begun to grow. Looking back on my life, I was a breast fed infant and my mother told me how she would take table food in her mouth, chew it thouroughly, and then feed it to me. O how relevant the physcial is to the spiritual. This practice of women of old would seem repulsive to modern women, could it be that this would be on the spiritual plane as well in our fast food cultural.
    It is my prayer, that as our great God shakes us in America to our very roots, that we would have eyes to see and ears to hear what The Spirit is saying to the Church!
    God bless us all as we yearn after Him.

    In Him and for Him,
    Warren Hires

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