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New Orleans Seminary’s 80th year will focus on healthy churches

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s President Chuck Kelley formally began the institution’s 80th academic year Sept. 4 with a convocation service during the morning chapel hour.
Held every year on the first Thursday in September, the convocation featured first the traditional signing by new professors and administrators of the seminary’s Articles of Religious Belief and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement, then a prayer of dedication with the entire faculty joining the president at the front of the chapel.
This year’s keynote address was delivered by Ken Hemphill, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
Addressing Kelley’s theme for the year, “Growing Healthy Churches,” Hemphill described what a healthy church looks like, giving five characteristics he noticed first during his nearly 25 years as a minister in several churches, some of which experienced tremendous growth during his tenure, then as director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth from 1992 until 1994, when he became president of the largest of the six Southern Baptist seminaries.
“Our mission at this seminary,” Kelley said, “is to equip leaders to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments through the local church and its ministries.”
Believing the health of a seminary is determined by the health of the churches its graduates lead, Kelley has fixed healthy churches as the target for all NOBTS efforts, with specific focus this academic year on “growing healthy churches.” In his address, Hemphill said a healthy church has “an absolute awareness of supernatural empowerment.”
Just as unconfessed sin in a person’s life and doing the work of the ministry through the power of the flesh leave obvious signs, Hemphill said, “there always will be evidence when God’s hand is on someone,” such as when some type of intangible wall of separation is broken down or when no explanation is apparent “for something big happening.”
Unfortunately, many churches “have lost that sense that God is sufficient to do what he wants to do,” Hemphill said.
“The heart of our problem is we’d rather have a practical solution, some secular marketing strategy, than a supernatural intervention,” he said, referring to statistics revealing 69.4 percent of all SBC churches and 85 percent of all churches in the United States are plateaued or declining.
“We must remember how it worked with the Antioch church (described in the New Testament Book of Acts): It was the Lord who added to their numbers daily.”
Second, a healthy church is “marked by prayer and praise,” Hemphill said.
If Christians could learn again, as did the early church in Antioch, how to participate genuinely in prayer and praise, “we’d have earthquakes in our churches,” Hemphill said, for “as the Lord Jesus Christ is exalted, people will be drawn to him.”
Ultimately, he said, “our dependence on God is prioritized by prayer and praise.”
Third, a healthy church “models Christian community.”
Many churches are not growing “because they are dysfunctional. … They have a we/they mentality,” such as when a pastor says, “I can’t get those people to do anything.”
Referring to his time as pastor of First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., Hemphill said average Sunday school attendance grew from 380 to 2,100 in about eight years, with total church membership growing to 6,000. Despite the huge and fairly rapid growth, Hemphill maintained a sense of community by organizing care groups through Sunday school classes.
One nurse, working with a mother whose premature twins died soon after birth, talked to Hemphill about the attention given to the family both by the mother’s Sunday school teacher and by the class members, and said, “I’ve never seen a community like yours.”
“Fellowship is never a factor of numerical size,” Hemphill said, refuting claims by some ministers and church members that large churches cannot provide a sense of community.
“Fellowship is diluted only by sin,” he said, “not size.”
Fourth, a healthy church has visionary leadership that is passionate, an idea he has researched since he wrote “The Antioch Effect,” one of several popular books he has produced in the past 10 years concerning church growth.
Hemphill said he has one thing he would change about the book now: He would rewrite the chapter on vision.
“Vision does not ignite the church,” he said he has discovered.
“What ignites a church is passion.”
Hemphill said he has seen “one thing in common” with any successful organization: “The leaders were absolutely passionate about their cause, with a passion that was palpable.”
Speaking personally and tearfully as a warning to others, Hemphill said he realized one day several years ago “I had lost my passion for the lost while training others to have it.
“If you (as a minister) don’t have that passion, you’ll never pastor a church that has a passion for the lost.”
Fifth, a healthy church is “committed to the Great Commission.”
“I don’t believe church growth itself is a good goal,” Hemphill said, because its motive always will be suspect. The Great Commission, on the other hand, is always both the perfect motive and goal because “the Word of God has the power; you and I don’t.”
“If we don’t recapture a heart for the Great Commission,” he said, “much of what we do will be dissipated.”
The convocation service began with the seminary’s five new faculty members and two new administrators signing their names to both the seminary’s Articles of Religious Belief and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement.
The seminary’s 10 articles were written primarily by the school’s first president, Byron Hoover DeMent, in 1918, and currently have been signed by more than 200 men and women, all of whom first were approved by seminary trustees to serve on the NOBTS faculty or administration.
New Orleans Seminary was the first of the six SBC seminaries to have its professors also sign their names to the Baptist Faith and Message, a 17-point SBC statement to “set forth certain teachings which we believe.” NOBTS trustees voted on March 7, 1979, before it was an issue within the convention, to have new faculty members subscribe to both documents. The Baptist Faith and Message was originally adopted by the SBC in 1925, then clarified in 1963.
“Our seminary exists in a covenant relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention,” Kelley said.
“The Southern Baptist Convention gave us life in 1917 and since that time has had a strong, deep commitment to support us.
“In return, the Southern Baptist Convention has asked us to make a commitment: to be predictable about who we are theologically” as the seminary prepares men and women for the ministry.
When joining the faculty or the seminary’s administrative team and signing their names to the Articles of Religious Belief and the Baptist Faith and Message, Kelley said, “these men and women are saying, ‘I covenant to be this type of teacher and this is what I will do when I minister.'”
For the sake of the students, Kelley pointed out both the Articles of Religious Belief and the Baptist Faith and Message are featured prominently at the front of each annual edition of the seminary catalog, “predicting for you what you will learn in this school.”

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  • Debbie Moore