The Missing Emphasis in SBC Life: Local Associations

Throughout the vast majority of my pastoral ministry, if I were to think about SBC life, I would first think about the local church and then the national entities. I’d think about the Annual Meeting, the notable pastors, the entity heads, denominational strategies, the Cooperative Program, Lottie, Annie, and all of this work that we do together. I’d consider the state conventions too, especially my own, and then I’d think about my local association, primarily quarterly when we’d have our executive meeting, which was always over lunch. I participated, but I didn’t put a huge amount of effort into it. When I thought about the SBC I thought small (local church) and big (national entity) and not too much in between.

State Conventions have gotten a lot of attention over the past decade since the Great Commission Resurgence called for more Cooperative Program money to go the national entities like the IMB, NAMB, and our seminaries to train future pastors and leaders. So, many state conventions down-sized. That is good and I supported that, but I also support state conventions and think that they often do great work. I think there should be a middle ground there. Through Disaster Relief, church planting, children’s homes, colleges, and all kinds of other ministries, our state conventions play a prominent role in SBC life.

With 5 entity head positions open and SBC President JD Greear rightly calling for a day of prayer and fasting on Monday, October 8th for these search committees, we are also right to be paying attention to what is happening at top level leadership in the SBC. It is really important and I don’t want to take anything away from that.

But, with all that said and with a need before us of church planting, church revitalization, church health, discipleship, evangelism, local missions strategy, cooperation, and so much more that the local church cannot do by itself, have we missed the greatest tool before us that Baptists have devised to accomplish these things? Historically, before we ever had national entities or state conventions, we had local Baptist associations. Beyond the local church itself, the association is the fundamental organizational grouping of cooperative Baptist life. Yet, we often neglect it.

Do you ever hear a young minister aspiring to be a Director of Missions? Perhaps, but often not. If you step back from it, it seems like it would be an incredible job – to direct missional effectiveness for a network of churches across a region. The Montgomery (AL) Baptist Association where I live and serve has an incredible DOM in Neal Hughes. He is a former Montgomery pastor and NAMB VP who came back to Montgomery to lead our association in planting churches, reaching the lost, being healthy, making disciples, and addressing areas of great need and division in our city with a gospel witness. He is doing a great job and lives and works as a local missionary every day. If every association had a Neal Hughes as DOM, the SBC would be in a very different position, I think. (As a disclaimer, I’m on staff with Neal as a Missional Strategist for the MBA, so he’s my boss, but I’d say this even if he wasn’t.)

The truth is, though, I’ve met quite a few DOMs who share Neal’s heart for evangelism, church planting, church health, church revitalization, and global missions. I’ve met DOMs across the South who are really laying their lives down to do great Kingdom work. But, I’ve also met a lot of pastors who tell me that their association is basically not functioning. I’ve met DOMs who are past what we would consider retirement age, and while their hearts are good and their love for the Lord is genuine, their energy is declining. They need help, encouragement, and support. They can’t do all that is required by themselves and they need people to hold up their arms. And, unfortunately, there are other associations where there is division, lack of vision, and no energy at all. It becomes a monthly minister’s lunch with whoever shows up. That is a shame.

What if we refocused our energy, effort, resources, and some of our most gifted leaders on local association leadership? The Bible Belt is rapidly dissipating and the South has become a mission field. Did you know that the South grew by 21 million people between 2000 and 2015? At the same time, between 2000 and 2017, Southern Baptists have lost 1 million people. We are going backwards while our primary region is exploding in growth. The South is by far the largest region of the country and would encompass the 12th largest nation in the world and the world’s 3rd largest economy by itself. And, immigrants from all over the world have flocked to the South over the past two decades.

Almost half of all first generation immigrant growth in the United States the past 2 decades occurred in the US South, where we have the vast majority of SBC churches. While there has been significant reaction against that politically and culturally, have we considered that God might sovereignly be at work here? In Montgomery, for example, the IMB visited us a few years back and told us that we had an Unreached, Unengaged People Group (UUPG) living in Central Alabama – the Mixtec People from Southern Mexico. They came to us by the thousands over the past 20-30 years. The Montgomery Baptist Association adopted that people group missionally (I have been closely involved in this work over the past 4 years) and we have now planted a Mixtec church in our city with a pastor, baptisms, new believers, and disciples being made. The IMB no longer calls the Mixtec “unengaged,” in part, because of the work our local association is doing.

In the midst of this incredible era of opportunity, how much more could local associations LEAD out in church planting, missional strategy, engaging immigrant and refugee people groups with the gospel, love, and good deeds, and in church revitalization? While I’m happy for the work our national entities and state conventions do, it is sometimes easy to fly at the 30,000 foot level. But, we already have local associations all over the country who are doing great work on the ground and could be doing so much more if they had the resources and focus that some of our other levels of cooperation have had. And, we have many associations that desperately need to be revived and refocused.

Could it be that associational cooperation on the local level is the missing emphasis that could help revitalize older churches, reach the lost (including immigrant groups), develop new leadership, be the ground floor for racial reconciliation, plant new churches, and be a spring board to reach the nations in North America and around the world? There is always competition for dollars and when you have state conventions and national entities constantly needing funds, I know it is hard to stretch offerings. But, what if we saw a strong association as the FIRST thing that our local church focused on instead of what is often an afterthought?

At the MBA we always talk about “doing more with less.” There is no area of SBC life that I’ve seen a dollar go further than in the incredible work of the Montgomery Baptist Association. I know that this is the case elsewhere as well. As both a pastor for many years and now a staff member at our association, I’ve seen it from both sides. And, while I know that associations across the SBC are not all that they should be, what if they were strengthened and became local missions agencies with the purpose of helping the local church reach their region for Christ?

What are some of your ideas? I’d love to see the mission work and church strengthening of the local association grow into one of the strongest aspects of SBC life. How much healthier would we be if this focus was strengthened? How much more leadership could be developed? How could we better reach areas that still have strong churches but are quickly seeing the overall churched population dwindle?

I think there is a lot of good work being done here and a lot of potential for even more. I’ve talked with others about this who agree. I’d love to see a renewal of strong associational life in the SBC that helps bring local churches together to reach their region and grow stronger together. It can be done. What is stopping us?

 

Women and Seminary: Should You Go?

When I graduated high school I had one primary goal and that was to play softball. The education part would follow, but my dream was to play college ball. At the end of my senior year I signed to play college at a small Division III school, but by the end of my first semester I knew that God was calling me into “ministry.” As a  young woman who grew up in an SBC church I thought that meant I either went to Africa for missions or I would teach children. Since I wasn’t too fond of children I figured Africa was my next step.

I enrolled at Criswell College not knowing anything other than I wanted to study the Bible.  Greek, Systematic Theology, and how do you even say the word hermeneutic much less what it is… I was stepping into a whole new, predominately male, world with more questions than answers, but I knew this was a step I needed and desired. Now 10 years later I’m in the middle of my first semester at Southeastern Seminary and there is a whole new level of excitement and expectancy as I’m back to quizzes, reading page upon page, and cramming for midterms in the middle of 4th grade math homework and cooking dinner.

A couple weeks ago I sat across a young woman I have the privilege of discipling. She shared her thoughts on her place in the church, what ministry looks like, and wanting to go to school, but also not knowing where you start, or if it was even worth the investment of money and time in the long run. It was a flashback to my 20 year old self sitting across from my pastor, and I looked at her with the biggest smile and said, “YES. GO!”

Maybe you are like my friend…… wading through what it looks like to be a woman in the SBC and not knowing your path or next steps and you feel this tug to enroll. I would think there is some interest since you are reading this post, so if I can let me encourage you a couple things:

Women Need Theology Too
My husband jokes that he and I have the same undergrad degree its just that I have a little honors sticker on mine. When I enrolled at Criswell I went in with the mindset of wanting the same training any pastor would get to teach the Word, so that I could do the same thing to a group of teenage girls or women.

So much of women’s ministry and teaching in the past has been marked by weak topical teaching. We have created a culture that gives quick fixes and popcorn Bible study as the standard for our women in their Spiritual growth and then wonder why they and us feel shallow and lacking. Good theology brings about solid moms, bosses, wives, and caretakers.

One of the biggest things I see in the women I lead and interact with today is the inability of our women to be able to take on the hard things in life because they haven’t been equipped to study, apply, and live out the Word of God when life gets messy. With the access of tons of blogs and podcasts, they are more willing to commit an hour to listening, instead of 30 minutes to studying. We need women’s voices who have done the hard work of training study to then equip others with solid meat and not infant milk. Their roots are dry and shallow and when the cares of this world come along we have a huge group of women falling away.

We Need One Another

First Sisters……There is so much beauty in watching other women who have the same heartbeat for the church and the Gospel and watching God grow them right before your eyes. In my Old Testament class, I have a classmate who is serving overseas in an unreached people group sharing the Gospel of Jesus. There is another sister who is the children’s minister at her church, and several other women who are single moms and studying to know the Bible more. Each of their stories, their life stages, you see God’s work goes far beyond you. As I have gotten to know other women in my studies it has helped me fight that lie “you don’t belong here” and instead become more passionate about my small role on this huge planet. It reaffirms that God still calls, uses, and sends women for His Gospel both here and abroad. There is a common bond that provides both encouragement and perseverance to keep going.

And Our Brothers……As a woman surrounded by men I definitely had my times of feeling out of place, but as I look back on my early years of ministry I can fully say I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my brothers beside me. I learned a lot from them about ministry and the burdens they carry as Pastors. We shared mutual stories of calling, balancing family, and ministry demands and they taught me a thing or two about Calvinism and Arminianism in their coffee shop debates before I had any idea what these “isms” were. One brother helped me get my first staff position on a church because he saw and affirmed God’s call on my life. We sat in Chapel together soaking up the Word, we walked the streets of Downtown Dallas giving food and water and sharing the Gospel with the homeless men and women of our city, and we prayed for one another in losses and victories. From the very beginning, God set the mandate that we are better together, in our uniqueness and in our similarities. Why would this be any different than in our seminaries as well?

Wide Open Opportunities

I believe in the last ten years, and even in the last year with all the conversations happening around women in Ministry, more and more opportunities are opening for us to take part in.

Because of the sacrificial giving of Southern Baptist all across the country, we are able to attend school at our 6 seminaries for a fraction of the price. My school, Southeastern Seminary, has a special initiative to help bring women and other minorities into their school through the Kingdom Diversity Scholarships that are available for us. Our seminaries are working hard at their Online and Degree Programs in order to help make education more available to the working woman, stay at home mom, and retired widow. With emphasis in theology, missions, women’s studies, counseling, and education you can study and receive a solid Biblical education on top of your desired field. The opportunities are endless! From certificates to full degrees to free courses you can take just to get your feet wet, there is so much available to you as a Southern Baptist Woman.

I want to end with saying that Seminary isn’t for everyone, nor is it the only marker for a solid study. Thanks to the internet we have so many sources at our fingertips that can help grow us both intellectually and spiritually. My favorite Bible Teacher, Jen Wilkin, is a self-taught gal, but her self-study is evident in her content and push for Biblical literacy.

Whether you step into formal education or not,  more than anything I hope you hear today that women are still called for Gospel ministry, your gifts are needed in the local church, and as a follower of Jesus you have the privilege of getting to contribute to the body of Christ both with your mind, hearts, and soul. Keep doing the hard work. Keep praying and asking God where can I serve you best and be willing to sacrifice where He leads.

It’s a great time to be a woman in the SBC, I hope to have you in class with me someday. I’m saving a seat for you!

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.

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.