NOBTS Chapel and My Meeting with Dr. Kelley

Some time after Katrina (I’m not sure when. Months maybe. Those early years are a blur to me now) I arrived back to my house from a long day of helping visiting mission teams gut homes. My wife Michelle met me at the door with a big smile. It was hard to smile then and we were very busy. Well, I was very busy. Maybe too busy. But Michelle greeted me with a smile and said, “hurry in and look at what we received today.” There on the kitchen counter was probably the prettiest bouquet of flowers I’d ever seen and on the note was something like the following,

Dear Michelle and Jay, We know how busy you are during this difficult time and just wanted to let you know that we are praying for you both. Especially you, Michelle, for the sacrifice you are making while Jay is spending all this time serving with Disaster Relief. You are both appreciated.

Signed, Chuck and Rhonda Kelley

That note was then, and remains today, one of the most thoughtful things anyone ever did for us. I can’t tell you how much we needed that kind word at that time.

I have long appreciated Dr. Kelley for his encouragement to me and his heart for evangelism. I have loved him for his love for New Orleans and his service to our school. He has been gracious to my family, including to my mom and dad (Dad served for 10 years on the Board of Trustees at NOBTS). I publicly defended him from the floor of the Convention way back during the “Sole Membership” issue. Prayed for him in the aftermath of Katrina. Disagreed with him on some administrative issues at NOBTS and then this past Tuesday was disappointed and deeply frustrated with his chapel message that opened the Fall semester at NOBTS. You can find the link to that video HERE.

In the 16 years I have known Dr. Kelley I had never seen him stick out his neck like he did this past Tuesday. He rarely engages in polarizing topics. He appears never to be rattled by the goings on around the convention. He, to my knowledge, has never publicly waded into the trite debates of social media. But there was something markedly different on Tuesday.

Admittedly, he did something he had never done before and that was to publicly offer his own personal thoughts, from his private journal, during a chapel message about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention. While many of us in the blogosphere regularly comment on SBC issues without giving it a second thought, for him, it is unusual. And it was disconcerting and uncomfortable for me to see it happen in chapel.

Most everything he said during the first half of the message (much of the second half was agreeable to me) felt to me, not angry or malicious, but rather like I was watching a deeply hurt man react to frustration and pain that has been building for some time.

I basically disagreed with almost everything he said. He spoke of communicating with people who expressed great disappointment in the meeting in Dallas and on the direction of the future of the convention. I, on the other hand, have never been more encouraged and excited about the SBC and its future. He spoke of concerns for entities and decision makers that came across as frustrating and perplexing for him, and although I have had concerns about our entities from time to time I have not once been as moved to the level of disappointment that he is experiencing.

After his message Tuesday afternoon I though about contacting him, but then I thought (or hoped) maybe folks didn’t interpret the message the way I was afraid it was going to be interpreted. So I waited, but I didn’t have to wait for long. Social media lit up and it was clear that for some, his message came across even worse than I assumed it had. So, Friday afternoon I contacted his office for a meeting and he graciously received me. What follows is not a verbatim account of our two hours but is a survey of our interaction and my thoughts. It was a private conversation with privileged information but he is aware that I was going to write about our meeting.

After a kind welcome, he asked about my dad’s health. We chatted for a moment and I began my remarks by expressing my appreciation for him, retelling him of the story of those flowers after Katrina and how important I believe, just as he does, it is for brothers to speak with one another when we have differences. I expressed my concern over his comments, how I believe they have been taken in a very negative light by a great many Southern Baptists. I expressed my concern for him and for how his remarks reflected on our school as well. I told him that it was clear to me, although others may not have seen it, that I was watching a man that was hurt and that I was surprised by his message because it was not what I was used to seeing from him. I went on to state my concern for how his words could be damaging to recruiting efforts for new students and frustrating for current seminary students who might feel as if their thoughts/opinions and their hopes for the future of the SBC have been dismissed as being off course. I spoke for quite some time on a number of concerns and he listened actively and with interest. Then it was his turn to share his thoughts.

If Dr. Kelley is anything, he is a walking encyclopedia of Southern Baptist life and history. He recounted some aspects of the history of the SBC of which I was unaware. He spoke of the histories of entities, of stories of convention work and cooperation through the years and his deeply held conviction about what is happening in the SBC.

Although he did not “double down” on his remarks from Tuesday, his conviction regarding his concerns remain steadfast. He did not say this to me but I honestly do not think he expected the kind of response his message engendered. It is clear to me he feels strongly that he is expressing the sentiments of a significant portion of people in the SBC and as evidenced by the number of people that have corresponded with him before and after his message, he appears to feel validated in most, if not all of the ideas he shared on Tuesday.

I believe he painted an unfortunate, dark and foreboding picture of the SBC on Tuesday and I could not disagree with him more. I see great hope in the future of our convention. I am very happy about the election of our new president (of whom, by the way, Dr. Kelley spoke very highly and shared his confidence in Dr. Greear’s work in evangelism and passion for the gospel). I am encouraged by the overall direction of the entities (but will continue to offer critique when I feel it is appropriate) and I am down-right excited with this current generation of pastors and young people who have a great passion for the lost and a heart for discipleship. I have argued in the past that convention entity heads ought to be allowed to speak their mind about issues in SBC life, just like the rest of us (albeit not in the area of entity servers being used for electioneering 🙂 ) … and, well… he did just that. He shared his concerns. I just wish he hadn’t done it in chapel.

It is most evident to me that his greatest concern is with the change in dialogue we have witnessed which favors spending time on secondary and tertiary issues in place of focusing on the “heart matter” of evangelism. To me, it appears that his particular critiques weren’t as much about the specific concerns he shared as it is that those things, in his mind, are the evidences that our focus is not where it should be. He offered me a helpful analogy in the form of “conversations at a party.” He noted that the tone and tenor of a party is often loud with many different conversations going on at the same time. He suggested that the reason for or theme of our party (the SBC) is for the work of evangelism. However, he notes, when the purpose of the party has been lost, people begin to hear and pay more attention to the private side conversations taking place at the party and we become distracted by the peripheral dialogues. He believes the reason for the problems, which he has pointed out, is due to our lack of focus on evangelism. I heard him loud and clear on that. In fact, I’m now rehashing his sermon through that lens. All in all, it is even more clear for me that a sort of perfect storm happened for Dr. Kelley on Tuesday with (1) his personal convictions, (2) validation from an agreeing segment of Southern Baptists, and (3) his own hurts and concerns culminated in privately-journaled thoughts that were (unfortunately, in my opinion) unveiled in a chapel message.

Dr. Kelley does not need me to defend him, nor would he want me to, and certainly, in this case, I would not do so. We not only have disagreements about the content of his message but also about some of the mode and tone of the message. However, what we ALL need is to realize that each of us are more often misunderstood than completely understood by others. I know I have been. I believe Dr. Kelley to be wrong about most of his concerns, although I now understand his concerns better than I did. I believe him to be wrong about the state of the SBC, but I now understand what he is seeing that moves him in that way, even if I disagree with his interpretation. What is NOT wrong is his heart for the lost, his love for the SBC and his willingness to stand up and say what he feels is right even if he is in the minority. I think the most important thing I took from our meeting is that we all do well to remember in these days, however you feel about the state of the SBC, there are considerable numbers of Southern Baptists who feel differently about the health of the SBC.

On a side note, I was reminded today why it is so important to interact with those with whom we disagree. Sitting down with one another does not mean, nor should it mean, that we rise in unanimous agreement. But it does mean that we are giving ourselves and the other an opportunity to listen and to be heard. I have been reminded anew that to sit on the other side of a computer screen and lob ad hominems to and fro is sinful action. It is unchristlike. I needed to remember that. We need to be better at communicating. We need to engage one another. We need to be people who will “talk with” one another rather than just “talk about” one another.

Also, let me reiterate something for current and any possible future students of NOBTS. I am very proud of our seminary on a couple of fronts. As Dr. Kelley mentioned in the later part of his message, NOBTS has always been a balanced school. In my words, we have had both 5 point reformed profs and 4 point remonstrant profs. 😉 Speaking as a Pastor who holds to a reformed soteriological position, I can say that I have only and ever been appreciative of the good balance of professors at NOBTS. We are not a “reformed” seminary and we are not an “anti-Reformed” seminary. We are a Baptist Seminary holding to the tradition of “both rails” and I want to assure anyone who might view Dr. Kelly’s chapel message in contrary terms to rest assured, that will not change. His hiring philosophy has kept our school balanced and for that I am very thankful.

We left one another still in disagreement about the particulars but I hope we left with a little more respect and appreciation for one another having sat down to talk as brothers should. This is how Jesus taught us it ought to be. For the sake of our school I believe we can move past this issue and on to a mutually shared excitement for the future of the cooperative work of the SBC.

P.S. I have asked Dr. Kelley if he would be willing to consider writing something for us here at Voices that might offer more insight or help to clarify his position and he received that offer with a smile and suggested he would consider that opportunity. I hope he does.

Encouragement for Churches?

Statistical data among churches is on an up-swing.  Yes, you read that sentence correctly.  There are many key statistics that should encourage beleaguered churches and pastors.

The focus of this post is a summary of Dr. Thom Rainer’s podcast interview with Tony Morgan, head of The Unstuck Church Group.  You can find The Unstuck Group here, and you can listen to Dr. Rainer’s interview here:  NINE KEY STATISTICAL INSIGHTS FROM CHURCHES IN 2018.

Without giving away the entire podcast, here are 10 encouraging statistics for pastors and churches:

  1. CP giving:  William Thornton has documented here that CP revenues will be up for the fiscal year.  It’s encouraging to see churches giving more towards our cooperative efforts.  State CP revenues are down and local associations are struggling, but that could be just a sign of the times.
  2. Increase in worship attendance:  The Unstuck Church Group reports–in data compiled for the past twelve months–and increase in worship attendance among survey respondents.  This makes sense; if the millennial generation is beginning to come back to church, there should be a corresponding statistical bump in worship attendance.  I wonder if there was a statistical bump when the boomer generation began returning to church?
  3. Increase in participation:  The Unstuck group also reports an increase in church life participation.  Do you remember the saying, “20 percent of church members do 80 percent of the work?”  In 20 years that saying might be revised to say, “50 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.”  That statistic is very encouraging.  I’ve noticed in my church a decrease in the amount of pew sitters.  When we add a member, that member typically finds a place of service.
  4. Increase in part time staff:  There was an increase in the number of churches reporting part time ministers.  This may not feel like an encouraging statistic for many pastors, but it means that more churches are understanding the need to leverage the community involvement of part time staff for the purposes of Kingdom growth.  When I was hired, I asked my deacons, “What’s the number one priority you think I should have?”  All my deacons said, “We want you out in the community.”  They’ve allowed me to substitute teach, and participate in various community activities.  That’s meant that I have less time to visit members in their homes, but the trade off has been worthwhile.  Every church should encourage their pastor and staff to be involved in the community.  If that means less personal attention for the sake of building relationship for Kingdom growth, then that’s a sacrifice every church member should be willing to make.  I hope the increase in part time staff does not mean that more pastors are being paid a part time salary, but have full time demands.
  5. Giving is up:  Is this statistic a surprise?  It makes sense from a statistical standpoint.  If the millennial generation returns to church, and our earnings increase, then giving per-capita should increase.  Couple the giving per capita increase with the increase in part time staff, and you have more money for ministry.  This statistic may also reflect the current economic conditions in our country.
  6. More multi-site churches:  The multi-site church movement is only going to gain momentum.  Churches can do multi-site with a smart phone and high speed internet connection.  This may also mean more money for ministry and may be a reason why state CP and local association revenues are down.  Some churches are just creating their own associations and networks.
  7. Fewer plateaued or declining churches:  I don’t know the exact location of this statistic, but sometime in the past year I heard the statistic that somewhere between 66% of churches are now plateaued.  That’s down from the 85% statistic we hear.  This is probably enhanced by the recent focus on church planting and the deaths of many declining churches.
  8. Another 80 percent rule–Surveys indicate that 80 percent of non-Christians will come to church if invited by a friend.  That should encourage all of us, especially pastors, to engage with non-Christians and invite them to church.
  9. SBC Harmony–This one is for the SBC pastors.  We should be encouraged at the relative harmony that was shown at the annual meeting in Dallas.  The expected disunity did not materialize and all suspected controversial votes passed with an overwhelming majority.
  10. Jesus is Lord–I want to encourage my fellow pastors today with the profound phrase:  Jesus is Lord.

Those are my encouragements for today.  If I have erred in any of the statistical data, please share your corrections and insights, and I encourage you to go listen to Dr. Rainer’s podcast.

Evangelism or Compassion?

I’m excited about the recent upswing in public words of affirmation for local baptist associations. I love hearing about the good things happening all around our convention related to the very important (I’d even say pivotal) role that the association can play in permeating the larger local area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My heart aches for my pastor friends serving areas in which the association does not have the support and strength it could (and should) have. Let me just remind you, pastors, YOU have the power to make the association be what it can be.

The New Orleans Baptist Association of Churches (NOBA) is at the forefront of what I think is groundbreaking work. We have specialized ministry sites, a blessing of a fantastic office complex, a great relationship with the city, and have pastors of all sizes of churches attending meetings and serving in leadership roles. We have also launched medical clinics that are serving under-served areas of New Orleans in a way no one else is doing. We function with a small but gifted staff and do what we do well – with good stewardship. We do not all always agree on things but we disagree with love and patience, without accusations and suspicion knowing that hearts can be right while particulars can be debated.

The men that lead us, lead us well. Jack, Leroy and Alex serve with humility and devotion. I am thankful for them. I am particularly thankful for a great article that Alex penned and posted today. I asked him if I could post it here for you. You can find that original posting here. I’d like to encourage you to go take a look at our NOBA site and peruse the work going on in the metro area of New Orleans. Have a said how much I love serving here? 😉

 

To Such as These: Evangelism or Compassion?
by Alex Brian

How many times, as Southern Baptists, have we heard compassion ministries pitted against evangelism—as though the two are separate, as though the two are contradictory?

One of my favorite things about Jesus is the way he answers the questions people ask him—or rather, he doesn’t. He answers the question which should have been asked; he responds to people’s motivations. We see it again and again throughout Scripture:

“Who is my neighbor?” You’ve kept the law, but you don’t have love, so you have nothing. You’re rich, but you’re destitute.

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” God’s salvation won’t save you from trouble in this world, but it is good.

“Should we worship in the high places or in Jerusalem?” You’re worried that you are too sinful to ascend to heaven, but I have come down to you.

Christ still responds to us in this way. We ask, “Lord, in our interactions with the world, should we focus on evangelism; or compassion and justice?” The reason so many brothers and sisters in Christ can debate this question and never arrive at a clear answer from the Lord is because the Lord is not answering this question. He never will, because he will respond to the question we should have asked, and he will respond to our motivations.

One of my favorite examples of Jesus answering the question that should have been asked is in Joshua, when he asks the angel of the Lord, “Are you for us or our enemies?” and he responds, “No, but I am the commander of the Lord’s army.” Then the angel reveals the world’s worst-ever battle plan to conquer Jericho, which was an impossible task even with the best strategies and methods. You see, the question they should have asked is, “Lord, how will you establish your kingdom here?”

When we ask the Lord whether we should invest our church resources and time in evangelism or in compassion ministries, he answers, “No, but I will establish my kingdom with the least of these.” Then he lays out the world’s worst-ever church growth strategy: go to those who have no money, no influence, and no societal standing; shout God’s praises, watch the walls fall, and keep none of the spoils.

My point is this: compassion and evangelism are necessarily tied. We are quick to remind those who seek to meet physical needs that every person’s greatest need is his or her need for Christ, and this is true; it’s just not a reason to fail in compassion. As a denomination, we are less ready to remind all those who seek to evangelize that evangelism without compassion is hypocrisy. It’s saying “be warm and well fed” without giving a coat or a meal. It’s praying for the Samaritan as we pass by him on our way to temple.

Jesus’ answer to us is that we must have both, that we can’t separate evangelism and compassion—in our churches or in our individual lives.

This article is rooted in central city; it sprung from a recent nola.com article and documentary following a football coach who has seen 28 of his former players killed in the neighborhood. Ask yourself, what does the life and death of Jesus Christ mean for that neighborhood today? How should the people of God in this place respond to such violence? We should bring the gospel, and peace with it. Attempting to do either without the other is vanity.

Your context may be similar, or it may be vastly different—our association ranges from churches meeting in the projects to those nestled in affluent bedroom communities—but everyone has need, first of Jesus, but also of other things, be they material or relational. (Some of the wealthiest communities in our nation fester with a violent loneliness.) Part of the work of ministry is to find the needs where you are and systematically, wisely, sustainably, begin to meet those needs alongside a compassionate, bold, direct sharing of the gospel; both. Shout God’s praises, watch the walls fall, and keep none of the spoils.

Finally, Chaucer Makes Voices…and Other Recent Notables

Melissa Eddington gets a gold star for working Chaucer into an article. I think I’ve read a bit of old Chuck Chaucer, guy from Alabama, right?

SWBTS trustees are instructed to meet a self-selected group of big donors “forthwith” sayeth the wealthy former donors to the seminary. Money talks. Sometimes it barks out orders, even in Southern Baptist life. Guess we will see who jumps.

Brent Hobbs is doing a lot of the editing and admin stuff here now. He is responsible for finding all of these neat photos that come with articles. What goes on in his mind when he matches them up, I don’t know, but they look good.

How shall the Cooperative Program be described? “Sacred cow” say some. “Sacred how” say others. Scott Hildreth in his new book says, “genius tool!” I’ll go with him.

I try to be modest but anyone who finds a way to put an armadillo in an article here has some kind of intellect. My wife has been saying for a long time I have some kind of intellect. I’m counting that as a compliment.

Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game when I was 14 years old. Those golden 2 hours and 19 minutes where he got 27 consecutive outs with 90 pitches made his obituary. Thank you, Jay Atkins, for bringing his name to Voices so I could have a nostalgic moment.

While playing baseball, I once took a third strike. When I went back to the bench, the coach said, “You looked like he pitched a zombie at you.” It was an important game and I had just made a critical out, but that line cracked me up. I got in trouble for laughing. I still laugh about it. Zombies have since gone mainstream. I was ahead of the curve but flummoxed by the zombie fastball.

Word was, the surgeon was to remove Dave Miller’s spleen while he was slicing around down there but I hear, HIPPA notwithstanding, that it will survive to be vented again.

So Voices is a group of clones who think the same thoughts? Think again. Brent Hobbs and Bart Barber disagree on immigration and both are able to share their views here, sans rancor. What’s the internet coming to? Next thing ya know, Cals and Trads will be talking to each other.

Augie Boto used an elaborate metaphor for the SBC in his Executive Committee address. The SBC is a ship, adrift but still slogging ahead. The most notable metric on the Old Ship SBC is that national CP revenues are slightly increasing while state CP funds are declining. More on this later. It’s important.

My pastor is just getting off a non-megachurch type of sabbatical (he was gone all of last month). I am happy for him. At the one decade mark, the church he started is doing well. It’s a tough road. Though I never had a sabbatical, I recommend them for pastors who serve long and faithfully.

My July 4th means a drive over to Colbert, GA to watch a small town parade and pick up some BBQ that the Baptist church there always makes. Don’t tell GuideStone, but if I get there early enough I can drop five bucks for a sack of pork skins right off of the whole hog bbq rack. Very tasty. Have to hide them from the food police when I get home.

Have a nice 4th.