ATLANTA (BP)–“If the church does not learn to deal with the poor, we simply can never fulfill the Great Commission,” New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley said.
Kelley, in an interview with the Southern Baptist TEXAN after Hurricane Katrina, said he hopes the storm and its aftermath will give rise to “a New Testament model of both proclamation and ministry” within the local church simultaneously.
“The disconnect has been in place quite a long time,” he said, referring to a tendency of Southern Baptist churches to emphasize one or the other of those two priorities.
All urban areas have a large population of poor people, he noted. “The consequences are going to manifest themselves,” he warned. “It may not always be a hurricane, but it is a time bomb waiting to happen.”
As people see the generosity that Kelley said characterizes Americans in times of crisis, they “look past skin color, socio-economic class and see the needs” of individuals. “You can’t do that in the church without a pastor first teaching his people from the Bible that this is a biblical model of what a church is. The mission God has given us includes sharing of the Gospel and also the doing of ministry. It has to be taught from the pulpit,” he said.
Furthermore, Kelley said, “The volume of the Baptist witness in New Orleans can increase dramatically” through the rebuilding effort of the seminary and the city. In the past, he said, Southern Baptists had never been a player, but merely a “whisper in the noise that was New Orleans.” Now, Baptist groups cycling through the city to rebuild will help people realize, “We’re not going to leave New Orleans.”
Through a well-established program known as Mission Lab, churches have brought mission groups for a weeklong experience of ministry to the New Orleans area. The seminary provides housing, meals and ministry opportunities at an affordable cost. Typically, more than 2,500 high school students have participated annually in mission projects among the homeless, alcoholics and impoverished citizens across New Orleans. College students fill in during spring and fall breaks. More recently, senior adults also have become involved.
“They have a wonderful week and God uses them. Then as they’re riding on the bus back to the church, everyone begins talking about how great it was and they wonder if their own city has anything like this. They ask, ‘If we did it in New Orleans, why can’t we do it in our city?’” From grandparents sitting on sidewalks alongside “gutter punks” to those who admit to having never touched the skin of a black person, Kelley said they are sharing their faith, anxious to return for another week of ministry the next year.
“We’re not a church and we can’t go out and reach, baptize and disciple people, but we can be the facilitators for the church and take some of our expertise to help where churches need help. We can provide the context for them that is relatively safe and let people find out some things about themselves they didn’t know,” Kelley said, referring to the need for experience in ministering among the poor.
“There is a way for Southern Baptists to start making some of those adjustments and it’s encouraged me as churches have reached out to people in the storm, taking them into their homes, their shelters, enrolling them in school and getting them clothes. They’ve had contact with them and are finding it’s not that hard.”
Kelley recognizes Southern Baptists have “a huge, long way to go” as they tackle a problem that began with “some bad exegesis.” He spoke of the belief that because deacons were designated to minister by serving others, pastors should simply do the preaching while the members do ministry.
“We forget that Stephen was one of those doing ministry and he was martyred for speaking of his faith. Philip was a deacon and he became an evangelist. We separated the two functions,” Kelley said, noting that “evangelism became proclamation and ministry became missions” as practice in the former SBC Home Mission Board during an earlier era. As Southern Baptists rediscover the biblical pattern of joining evangelism to missions, they will be a part of changing lives among the urban poor, he said.
“Instead of changing our whole ministry philosophy, we need to take some small bites,” Kelley said, suggesting involvement in disaster relief. “There’s this enormous release of energy and a freshness of vision” without “changing or compromising our evangelical witness.”
By indicating its interest in continuing to hold classes and remain in New Orleans, Kelley said, “People remember things like that. The new New Orleans is going to be much more open to a Baptist witness than ever before,” Kelley predicted.
“We want to raise up a generation of leaders who are sensitive to those kinds of issues and see the city as a great big opportunity, not as this terribly intimidating, nightmarish scary entity.”
Describing plans to resume fall classes Oct. 3, Kelley said, “God’s been preparing us for years for this. We just didn’t know it. No other seminary faculty is as prepared to do as much non-traditional stuff as we’re ready to do to keep this on track.” Because the New Orleans-based seminary had long ago installed technological resources for distance learning via the Internet and video conferencing, offering classes to displaced students taught by scattered faculty is more easily accomplished.
With the students, staff, faculty and even the president finding themselves in the same circumstance of having lost homes, possessions and life as they knew it, Kelley expects they will demonstrate how to come out of a tragedy with the right kind of spirit. Their perseverance in spite of the difficulties will provide an example for those ministering in years to come, he said.
“Helping churches learn to grow again is extremely difficult to do. There is no way to change the corporate culture of a church without controversy –— sometimes bitter, dangerous controversy. The next generation [of ministers] has to be willing to enter into that process and not leave after 18 months, but go all the way through it,” he added.
“If students watch how we [as faculty and staff] handle this, see our response to the horrible human tragedy and not back down or walk away, but buckle down and stay focused, not distracted by side issues, then that’s a lesson they will learn better perhaps by what we say in the classroom.”