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Kelley says current generation is SBC’s hinge for decline or growth

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“This is the hinge moment” if change is going to occur in the Southern Baptist Convention to break the historical statistical pattern for denominations, Chuck Kelley told students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Jan. 29.
Speaking on the eve of the seminary’s annual week-long campus revival emphasis, the seminary president said the SBC is in “a very predictable sociological pattern of growth, plateau and decline.”
“This pattern has been repeated again and again and again in the life of American denominations,” said Kelley, a leading denominational researcher on church growth statistics prior to his election as seminary president in February 1996. From 1993-96, he was director of Southern Baptists’ first Center for Evangelism and Church Growth, located on the NOBTS campus.
“There has never been a denomination in the history of the United States that has survived the growth experienced by the Southern Baptist Convention and been able to grow again,” Kelley said, emphasizing the SBC is on the brink of joining the ranks of those fatal statistics if something doesn’t change.
“I look at where we’ve been the past 40 years and see nearly 20 percent of all SBC churches baptized zero in 1996, and that percent has been growing each year.
“Then I look at the history of our annual church growth rate and see that it is now at .488 percent.”
Southern Baptists are “fitting quite neatly the sociological pattern of the life expectancy of denominations,” he said.
But while there is despair on the one hand, “there is hope on the other hand, for with every fiber of my being I know God is not bound by sociological patterns.”
“I know what is predicted, but I also know what is possible. I know what God can do with his people today,” Kelley said.
“This is the hinge moment and you are the hinge generation. You are the key to the future of this denomination,” Kelley told the seminarians, noting over the next 20 to 30 years the course will be set for the SBC as a denomination.
But just as the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah had “nothing to gain and everything to risk” when he took personal responsibility to restore the ancient devastated and desolate city of Jerusalem, “I know God can change things around for our denomination, and I know God will do it through the lives of ordinary people,” Kelley said.
There was just a little handful of lowly people left in the city of Jerusalem when Nehemiah asked one day how things were in his motherland, “just a handful of people who weren’t valuable enough to be taken into exile and not important enough to kill.”
Year after year had gone by with no evidence of progress, no revival, but when Nehemiah learned the statistics, “something remarkable happened,” Kelley said:
— even though Jerusalem was not technically his city since he had been born during the captivity of the Jews by the Persian Empire;
— even though it was not his sin that caused the city’s destruction;
— even though “no one ever would know if Nehemiah had heard the report and simply said, “Too bad;”
“Yet he accepted the whole situation as his problem.
“He wept and mourned. He confessed his sin in solidarity with their sin, and that overturned the whole situation,” as Nehemiah recognized an opportunity to make a difference, to be an instrument for revival.
“When you look at the Southern Baptist Convention, is it your problem, or is it just denominational controversy?” Kelley asked.
“Is it your problem, or is it those hard-headed churches that keep running off preachers?
“Is it your problem, or is it someone else’s problem?
The Southern Baptist Convention will never change its course and avoid that statistical denominational decline “unless we each look deeply into our hearts to see if God has some unfinished business for us and we own it as our problem,” Kelley said.
As the seminary was about to enter the week of revival emphasis during the first week of February, Kelley challenged the seminary family to remember “you never come into the presence of God without the possibility of God doing something great.”

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  • Debbie Moore