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.

Signs of a Healthy Church? Lessons from Multiplying Churches in Asia (Don Dent)

In the summer of 2018, I joined five other Southern Baptist theological educators visiting IMB work in a specific segment of Asia. For 9 days we studied and assessed networks of reproducing churches organized in networks – 20,000 new churches in 8 years. One motivation for this assessment was to see whether such movements are producing healthy churches. Frankly, many critics in America simply do not believe healthy churches can develop so quickly. Here are vignettes I witnessed that raise the question of what really is a healthy church.

1. These churches multiply, i.e. churches plant churches that plant churches. Instead of seeing that as a problem, we should recognize this as a significant sign of spiritual vitality. In this one segment of Asia, local partners of our missionaries have started 180 streams with at least 4 generations – church starts church starts church starts church! Missionaries and their partners have assessed 20,000 new churches. Really, some say we should slow this down?

2. Evangelism is normative among these churches and a large portion of the believers are actively sharing their faith. New believers are trained to share with 20 oikos members in the first few months. Church growth and multiplication are driven by massive gospel sharing that produces fruit in a generally hostile environment.

3. There is accountability to share the gospel. I saw one church service where each adult was asked how many times they would share that week. The answers were written down and next week they will share testimonies of their efforts. How many American church members would miss church next week?

4. Almost all additions to local churches are through adult baptism following conversion from another religion. For instance, one whole network of new churches did not have a single member transfer in from another church and this is not untypical. How many adults has your church baptized in the last 2 years?

5. New churches result primarily from evangelism and baptisms instead of planning, money raising, and grand openings. In a three-year study period, one network of churches saw an average of 17 baptisms in the first year of each new church. When we remember that these churches started from the witness of approximately 2 people, then that is an astounding percentage growth. Does that seem unhealthy?

6. I met several teenagers who have already started one or more churches. They heard the gospel and believed and immediately started sharing the gospel with dozens of friends and relatives and churches resulted. So, how would your church do if we counted the number of youth who have started a church before they graduate from high school?

7. Local church leadership is almost always chosen from within the group on the basis of who is faithful in sharing their faith and training the new believers in discipleship. Unlike our Western practice, church leadership in those churches is functional before it is positional. Which sounds closer to the New Testament?

8. Intensive mentoring is a primary means of raising up quality leaders. For instance, missionaries choose faithful men and then spend 60-90 days a year mentoring them life-on-life. How many US church leaders invest that kind of time in equipping people?

9. These churches show a deep commitment to mission partnership. For instance, although the average income for many families is below $1000 per year, one network of churches gives 30% of their offerings to mission work outside their local church. How does that stack up against our SBC churches giving out of our wealth?

10. Although gospel proclamation is the priority in ministry, the believers also pray for the sick and demonized. Most networks can report several miracles that brought more attention to the gospel. Why does this make most Westerners nervous?

11. A commitment to on-the-job practical training is essential to growth. Every believer is trained to share their faith and follow-up new believers. In 2013 missionaries provided training to 1000 emerging pastors, but by 2017 they and their partners had trained 20,000+. How are we doing in equipping emerging leaders?

12. Several networks that are approximately 5 years old have planted churches in several other countries. Although they are working hard to reach their ‘Jerusalems,’ they are not waiting to go to Samaria and beyond.

13. In many networks, a majority of the leadership is between the ages of 22-40. They show both maturity and energy in their service. Truthfully, wouldn’t we like to see that pattern in our church?

14. False teachers are trying to infiltrate the church, but leaders are equipped to counter them. When God is working powerfully, then Satan will try to copy and deceive. Instead of proof of a problem, this is actually a sign of health. Groups of pastors practice interpreting Scripture, developing sermons, and writing doctrinal statements from Scripture under the watchful eyes of mature mentors.

15. This growth is taking place in a climate of persecution, where it is illegal to become a Christian. Believers can be beaten, thrown out of the village, and jailed. Yet, we heard multiple testimonies of people who heard the gospel for the first time and asked to be baptized immediately. A policeman broke into a house church meeting and told the believers to stop meeting or he would see they were punished. A grandmother stood and walked up to the officer and said, “Kill me first. We will not turn back and will continue to worship Jesus. If this is wrong, then kill me first.” The policeman has been defending the church since that day. What are we afraid of?


Don Dent has served as an IMB missionary and now works at Gateway Seminary. 

10 Predictions for the 2019 Annual Meeting

Dr. Rainer likes to devote a podcast episode or two at the end of the year to predicting current trends and their impact on churches in the coming year. He’s usually correct, and those episodes are some of my favorites.
I’d like to take a page out of Dr. Rainer’s book and offer ten predictions for the SBC Annual meeting in Birmingham.

1. The Bailey amendment—I thought about calling this the Osceola amendment, but that’s unfair to the good people of Osceola Arkansas, so it shall henceforth be known as the Bailey amendment. My prediction is that Steve Bailey of Calvary Baptist Church in Osceola Arkansas will move that SBC bylaw 10c be amended to include the percentage giving of candidates for office.

2. Wiley Drake returns—Noticeably absent from this year’s convention proceedings was Mr. Wiley Drake. Did you know he was a candidate for Vice President in 2008? That’s beside the point. I predict Mr. Drake will make a return to the annual meeting in Birmingham.

3. Pastors’ Conference—I predict there will be talk of another small church run for the Pastors conference. We all had so much fun in Phoenix and the conference was well received. Maybe it’s time to gear up for another round.

4. Four new entity heads—We all expect the IMB, Executive Committee, and SWBTS to have new leadership by the time Birmingham 2019 rolls around, but I predict there will be another Southern Baptist entity with new leadership; one we do not expect. In all seriousness, I pray this prediction comes true because one entity head moved on to lead one of the three openings we know of right now, and not because of a scandal.

5. Better time slot for IMB Commissioning—I think the outcry this year was loud enough for the committee on the order of business to consider giving the IMB commissioning service a time slot before 9:30 pm on Tuesday night.

6. Dr. Paige Patterson returns—Yes, he will be back, and he’s probably not finished fighting for his legacy. He will be back and he will have something to say at the annual meeting. I pray for God’s wisdom and guidance as J.D. Greear navigates what is sure to be a contentious few minutes in one of the business sessions.

7. Social Media Hype—Twitter and the blogosphere will once again be set ablaze with talks of controversial motions and resolutions, leading some of us to believe that the annual meeting will be one of the most divisive in history. Oh wait, that was last year, and what happened? The controversial motions were defeated by overwhelming majorities (think Reagan beating Carter). It will happen again this year and Southern Baptist will prove, once again, that we are generally united.

8. 8,000 messengers—There will be over 8,000 messengers at the 2019 annual meeting. It’s an off election year, but Birmingham is still relatively easy to reach for most Southern Baptists. There will be fewer messengers than there were at Dallas, but still more than we would have in some other cities.

9. Something unexpected—I don’t think any of us expected the events that occurred in the run-up to this year’s meeting. There will be other events this year that, as we sit here today, none of us expect to have to deal with. I pray this unexpected event is not as high profile as Dr. Patterson’s saga, but I predict something will happen that will rock our convention.

10. William Thornton’s autograph—I would have gotten the venerable William Thornton to sign my Bible in Dallas, but I did not bring it to dinner. I won’t be making that mistake again. In Birmingham, I predict I will get William Thornton to sign my Bible.

There they are; my predictions for Birmingham 2019. I’m probably wrong on almost all of them. I’m looking forward to being in Birmingham at our annual meeting. Which predictions do you think I am right or wrong about? Do you have any you’d like to add to my list?

Book Review: Together on God’s Mission, How Southern Baptists Cooperate to Fulfill the Great Commission by Scott Hildreth

Is our main channel of cooperation, the Cooperative Program, best viewed as (a) a tax on churches, (b) dues for membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, (c) an efficient and practical way of spending our money, or, (d) the primary means of expressing cooperation among churches, an important theological value and teaching?

Scott Hildreth, Assistant Professor of Global Studies George Liele director of the Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, advocates for (d) in his new book, Together on God’s Mission, How Southern Baptists Cooperate to Fulfill the Great Commission.

In 1985, early in my years as a pastor, “Cooperation: The Baptist Way to a Lost World” by Cecil and Susan Ray was published as a main stewardship resource for the SBC. Although still close to ten percent, the Cooperative Program was beginning its long decline as a percentage of church undesignated offerings. About twenty years later, when David Hankins and Chad Brand published their book, “One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists” , that percentage had declined to under seven percent. Now it is just under five percent. Given this steady decline, it is not surprising that Hildreth’s book is described as “a plea to all Southern Baptists to reclaim the power of cooperation.” The target audience is “a new generation” of Southern Baptists. It is an effort to bring up to date these previous, similar books on the Cooperative Program and is hoped to be the tool that helps educate seminarians and others about the system we have had for almost a century.

The book is brief, 94 pages, clear and concise while covering the subject matter. It is divided into three sections. The first covers the historical development of the SBC itself along with the historical development of the CP. The second section explores “several key biblical themes to show how the mission of God determines the mission of the church with cooperation being a key component,” and the final section includes “observations about the current state of Southern Baptist cooperation” along with encouragement, “especially among younger Southern Baptists, to embrace the cooperative efforts of the convention.”

The author covers at length and in detail an aspect of cooperation usually ignored by most of us: cooperation has been viewed by Southern Baptists as such an important  component of our shared biblical beliefs that it is included in our common statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. “Cooperation” is one of the main articles along with the traditional ones on “God,” Salvation,” “The Church,” and others.

Hildreth recommends that

“we discuss cooperation theologically, not structurally or pragmatically.”

The point is made that before we declare how much more efficient it is to have a common funding stream for distribution to our entities, we should grasp that God’s mission for his churches is impossible to achieve apart from cooperative efforts.

Two other recommendations for cooperation:

“Let’s not base the label ‘Cooperating Churches’ exclusively on financial contributions.”

Thank you, Dr. Hildreth, for plainly stating that “some Southern Baptists…seem to limit cooperation to financial contribution[s] through the Cooperative Program.” While taking a position of unapologetic advocacy for the CP, he doesn’t ignore the fact that being in “friendly cooperation with the Convention” has never demanded a 10%, 5%, or any percent church support of the CP.

Consider what a difference it might make in our convention if, when we asked about the cooperative investment of a church, we meant more than, “What percentage of your budget do you give through the Cooperative Program?”

Indeed. No one who has spent years involved in the SBC and who has listened and observed carefully can have escaped what Hildreth describes as,

“…the Cooperative Program discussed as if it were a denominational tax or membership dues.” 

He goes on to write that,

[The Cooperative Program] was never designed to be that, and these ideas reflect a rather unfortunate misunderstanding. The attitude creates bitterness and an sense of entitlement, and might tempt some to look for ways to avoid giving altogether.

I like his clear, strong, positive statement that,

Rather than taking a dim, perhaps even begrudging, attitude toward our Cooperative Program, let’s advocate for it as a positive means of advancing God’s Kingdom.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Ignorance abounds in our Grand Old Convention on the subject of cooperation and the Cooperative Program. This book would clear up a lot of the confusion and ignorance.