Dr. Chuck Kelley at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary spoke this week on the problems with Southern Baptist Evangelism and our churches in general. It’s a heartfelt, quite moving and well-thought out talk; a mixture of our revivalistic side and the scholarly, historical side. You can and should listen here. The message starts after the music (maybe ten minutes) but the music’s great.
(My comments should be understood as the positive engagement of one Southern Baptist, and nothing more.)
I appreciate Dr. Kelley’s passionate engagement with the issues that are troubling Southern Baptists right now. He represents a constructive voice and I would encourage other Southern Baptists to listen to him.
I agree with some of what Dr. Kelley is saying in this message.
1) I agree that the SBC is in decline. By his own numbers 89% of our churches are not growing. Most of those churches are facing a generational horizon and many are not going to see 2025.
2) The task of growth by conversion evangelism and new church planting is paramount. It must be a priority at every level of Southern Baptist life.
3) Discipleship is a key component in repairing the breach and regrowing the church. I was effectively discipled by my Southern Baptist Church as a teenager. I am grateful for that investment in my life and Christian experience.
4) There is a spiritual crisis within the SBC, and we should pray that the Holy Spirit would revisit this great denomination. The lessons of the mainline churches should be on our mind.
5) In the past, the SBC did many things that were effective. We should learn from those things.
Having said this, I would like to take issue with a good bit of what Dr. Kelley says. I am supportive of his concerns, but I am concerned about his presentation of the SBC, both past, present and future.
A. The current SBC has the opportunity to leave some things behind that are not Biblical. No matter how much we associate those things with the “golden age” of the SBC, non-Biblical practices shouldn’t be looked back on as somehow important in our future.
B. Dr. Kelley seems enamored with an SBC that was more unified and evangelistic, but doesn’t mention that this same SBC was proudly segregationist, fundamentalistic in many quarters and arrogantly separatist toward the rest of the Christian world. If the Holy Spirit visits us, we will see that these things were not his work at all.
C. The SBC’s “golden age” produced larger numbers of baptisms, but it also produced a denomination with 8 million members no one can find, a complete disengagement with church discipline, “inactive members,” child baptisms, a continual stream of rebaptisms, a cabal of large church pastors running the denomination and an uncritical acceptance of culture as normative. God save us from all of this and all that brought these things upon us.
D. The success of the SBC in the post-war era was a mixture of factors. Sociology, church growth pragmatics, the configuration of economics and family, denominationalism and the growth of the rural south all played an important role. These factors won’t be duplicated. New factors will be in play in different settings.
E. Dr. Kelley is impressed with the SBC’s flagship programs of Sunday School and Discipleship Training. It is rather amazing, however, to hear that he believes a return to virtual duplications of these programs are the SBC’s best bet. I am thinking about those vast “education buildings” of the 60’s and 70’s, full of tiny Sunday School rooms, with organization, records and literature right down to the smallest detail. Training leaders and workers for the demands of these programs was endless. This corporate model of Christian education- with classes at the church for every age group every time the doors opened- is seriously out of sync with the culture around us.
Going backward only appears the right way to go when you are safely within the confines of the time machine.
F. Dr. Kelley claims that the SBC’s emphasis on personal discipleship and personal evangelism were the keys to its golden age. My own experience of Southern Baptists is that the windows of success for church-based programs like Church Training was small. By the 1970’s, I rarely saw any evidence that church training programs were effectively discipling more than a tiny minority in most churches. Such programs were “loyalty” programs that gave a few core members the opportunity to be “more involved” than others.
SBC Sunday School was the backbone of the denomination for many years and still plays a significant role. There is no reason, however, that everything we believe about those “small groups” can’t be incorporated into methods that are more flexible and appropriate for today’s culture.
I was always far more impressed with the potential of the SBC’s missions educations programs to actually “disciple” its participants in a holistic way, but that potential was very unevenly realized.
The most effective discipleship program I experienced in the SBC was preaching. The most influential program was a “What Baptists Believe” course for teenagers that surveyed a major doctrine or practice each month. I still have the book.
G. Dr. Kelley has an admiration for aspects of fundamentalism and revivalism that many younger Southern Baptists are never going to share. The ironic reason is that the conservative resurgence actually got these younger leaders reading the Bible.
H. It would have been good to hear something about the missional approach to evangelism and not hear a recommendation we return to door-knocking one night a week. Many younger Southern Baptists believe our approach to evangelism can no longer be synonymous with our approach to church programming.
I. We need a critical engagement with our past, not an imitation of that past. Dr. Kelley’s presentation leaves me concerned that non-fundamentalistic, non-revivalist, non-enculturated Southern Baptists wil soon be told they aren’t passing the “tests of loyalty” that come from a less than critical analysis of how we became what we are.
J. The issue for Southern Baptists is “What is the Gospel?” As this question has more influence on our future, our worship, our missional outreach, our discipleship and our prayers, the SBC will see better days again.
I agree with Tom Ascol that we are now seeing a fragmentation of rhetoric along the lines of “Great Commission Resurgence” Baptists and “Baptist Identity” Baptists. The issues are “believing” like us and “doing church” like us, or in shorter form, “us.” Who are “us” seems to be the question.
Who would have believed that the conservative resurgence would be followed by ecumenical anxieties between Baptists who would both check “inerrancy” as an essential? This takes talent.
Dr. Kelley’s message shows how these lines run through the heart of Southern Baptists. His great concern is evangelism on the largest possible scale….as done by Southern Baptists, of course. His anxiety is that Baptists no longer sufficiently stand out. While he mentions discipleship, more prominent in this diagnosis are the various external perceptions of Baptists as a denomination separate from other Christians.
The anxiety of Southern Baptists in this post-evangelical era are fully on display. How can we maintain denominationalism and its various kinds of security and certainty in the face of a growing consensus that the Great Commission demands ecumenical efforts with those who share a concern for that mandate.
It’s quite ironic that Southern Baptists, who pride themselves on understanding cooperation for the cause of missions, are showing signs of being torn apart by that very possibility.