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At the heart of the decline, Kelley said, is not inadequate funding or outdated methods, but inadequate discipleship on the part of Southern Baptist churches.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