NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Chuck Kelley’s New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary chapel sermon on “the Baptist blues” was not an attack against anyone in the Southern Baptist Convention, he told Baptist Press today (Aug. 29), but an attempt to foster unity by getting “conversation on the table.”
“If people are unaware of the simmering divisions in our convention, we’re never going to be able to fix them,” Kelley, New Orleans Seminary’s president, said in an interview. “The reality is they are there. I think not talking” through “our feelings about the convention has made some of the divisions deeper.”
Kelley’s Aug. 21 chapel sermon has garnered nearly 3,700 views on New Orleans Seminary’s YouTube channel and has been the subject of blogs and social media posts. In the sermon, Kelley read an extended entry from his journal on the SBC, recounting circumstances that have led “so many people” to ask, “What in the world is going on with the Southern Baptist Convention?” and state to Kelley, “I don’t even recognize the Southern Baptist Convention anymore.”
Kelley’s message noted “a confluence of unprecedented circumstances” that have given rise to “the Baptist blues” among some Southern Baptists. Among them:
— “At a crucial time” for the International Mission Board following a reduction of 1,132 missionaries and stateside staff in 2016, the board’s “future is unclear” with the announced departure of President David Platt — “not a position that fuels the passion that has always drawn and held Southern Baptists together.”
— Amid a 17-year decline in baptisms, the SBC “finally approved an evangelistic task force” in 2017 “to make recommendations on how to approach this dilemma…. Many Southern Baptists wondered what was wrong with the soul of the convention if we went that long with that kind of decline without responding with major initiatives to reach more people for Christ.”
— For most of the past decade, declines in church membership, worship attendance and small group attendance have evidenced churches’ “struggling on an unprecedented scale.”
— Within the past six months, employees at four SBC entities have resigned “due to moral indiscretions.”
— The #MeToo movement’s “focus on sexual abuse became a dominant national conversation. And … it became a dominant conversation in the SBC as well, leading to the biggest mess the SBC has seen in a very long time: the internal controversy at Southwestern Seminary. How big a mess was it? It included the executive committee of an entity overturning a decision by the SBC-elected full board of that entity just days after that board met. It resulted in retirement of one of the most influential leaders in the history of the SBC” — a reference to former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Kelley’s brother-in-law.
— “The increasing tensions over the advance of Calvinism in the SBC bubbled over a bit in the SBC presidential election at that Dallas convention. Although neither nominee for the presidency promoted the election as such, the election became in the eyes of many a choice between younger Reformed leadership or older traditional Baptist leadership.” In the June election, North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear defeated former Southwestern Seminary President Ken Hemphill.
That confluence of circumstances led “many people” to say, “I don’t know if I want to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention as it is shaping up right now,” Kelley said in the sermon. He countered such negativity by stating, “There has never been a more important time for us to come together as the body of Christ, working on the Great Commission together.”
Reflecting back on the sermon, Kelley said he “might change a thing or two about the way [he] said” some things. But he stands by the main emphases of the message.
In general terms, “traditionalists” are the Southern Baptists expressing concern with the convention’s direction, and “the growing Reformed group” is “very excited and pleased with what’s happening in the SBC,” Kelley said, adding those labels are “simplistic” and “there are not hard lines” to delineate the groups.
Everyone in the “Reformed” coalition does not hold Reformed theology to the same degree, he said, and traditionalists support many facets of Reformed theology, Kelley said. Additionally, some concerned Southern Baptists don’t fit in either group. But it is difficult to find another concise way to describe the division, he said.
Positive and negative feedback on the sermon was expected and “is a very accurate reflection of where the SBC is today,” Kelley said. “The thing that probably surprised me and disappointed me the most is people who said they had no idea anybody was concerned about the state of the SBC.”
Kelley underscored the need for Southern Baptists to reemphasize missions and the Great Commission so other conversations of lesser importance within the convention don’t take precedence.
The complete sermon can be viewed at www.nobts.edu/chapel/default.html.